Helen Coleman is a master cook. She can stew oxtails so lovingly, the memory of them will make your eyes moist. And memories are all you may have had of Coleman’s cooking lately. Her main kitchen, Ms. Helen’s Soul Food Restaurant on 23rd and Union, closed after the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, due to building damage. Since then, she has cooked at the Silver Fork, Deano’s, and then Club Chocolate City, which the cops shut down on March 1 because of the sketchy sidewalk crowd it attracted.
But a recent posting on the Miller Park Neighborhood Association’s blog indicated that Ms. Helen had surfaced again. It showed a photo of a sign on Chocolate City’s window directing her fans to Rose Petals Restaurant, on the southern end of Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
I could have used more than a sign. Rose Petals doesn’t have a Web site or a phone listing, and the number I saw on a couple of online yellow-pages sites now belongs to a woman who’d rather not be bothered. And the pylons and backhoes crowding MLK make navigation treacherous. I had an address in hand, yet it took three U-turns before my friend and I figured out which driveway to turn into. If it weren’t for a couple of cars in the restaurant’s parking lot and a lighted “Open” sign in the window, we would have thought the brown building—about halfway between Othello and Henderson streets, on the right as you drive south—was condemned.
To say that Rose Petals has seen better days would be an understatement. The sign out front is barely fastened into its frame, the window to the far left paneled over in plywood. Inside, a hundred kaleidoscopically metallic party decorations dangling from the ceiling can’t quite distract your eye from the dinginess of the aqua-and-white walls and stuffing-exposed chairs. The tables are covered with tablecloths, many visibly haunted by the ghosts of meals past.
Walking in, it appeared that my friend and I had come late to a party at the bar. A couple of women who’d started drinking long before happy hour were using the Internet jukebox as a karaoke machine, singing along with all of 1973’s R&B hits. We stood there for a couple of minutes before a young woman looked up from her plate and smiled our way. “Ms. Helen’s in the kitchen,” she said. “Just go up to the window and ring the bell.”
Through the kitchen window we could see Ms. Helen back at the ovens, frying up cornbread. As the chef delivered the bread to a table, she noticed us and nodded. “My menu’s on the whiteboard,” she said. “You have to get your drinks at the bar.” The board listed a dozen items, no sides, no prices.
We ordered oxtails and pork chops, picking two sides for each entrée from the list she rattled off, and parked ourselves at a booth. I walked over to the bar to pay the bartender for a bottle of MGD (the bar and Ms. Helen are apparently running separate businesses). My friend went to the bathroom and came back older and wiser. There was no way, I thought, I could write about this meal.
Then Ms. Helen delivered some of the best soul food I’ve ever tasted.
It started with her griddle-fried corn cakes, inch-think and saucer-sized, browned on both sides and slathered in margarine. She didn’t add in leavening and a bucket of sugar to pretend the cornbread was cake: It was dense, moist, and grain-heavy, and waiting for it to cool would be as worthwhile as setting a bouquet of roses on a hot stove.
I slurped up greens stewed so long I almost swore they were pork-flavored satin, and devoured tender red beans seasoned with golf-ball-sized hunks of fatback. Ms. Helen’s mustard-yellow, creamy potato-egg salad was the kind in which the potatoes fell apart as she whipped them together with a pound of mayonnaise, with just a little vegetal crunch here and there to keep my attention. Awesome.
Deep-fried pork chops are usually so dry that you have to smother them in gravy or at least dip them in your grape Kool-Aid to get them down. Ms. Helen’s, though, which took a while to come out because she didn’t start making them until the order came in, were just a touch pink in the center, juicy as they wanted to be, with a golden, frilly battered crust. But the reason I decided that Ms. Helen was a saint among cooks was her braised oxtails, sauced in their reduced braising liquid. All I had to do with the thick, bone-centered rounds of meat was push my knife across the exterior to scrape off any remaining fat, and then with a fork slip each chunk, exponentially beefy, out from its bony nook.
You can’t always count on transcendence. I can’t say that Ms. Helen’s short ribs, which I sampled on my second visit, were as amazing as the oxtail: The sauce was a little sweet, or maybe it was the sugar-soaked yams pressing up against them. Her braised cabbage was a little underseasoned.
But the cornbread and greens were as good as ever, and this time I got to taste her loamy, minerally black-eyed peas. Ms. Helen’s chicken and dumplings tasted like a luxury, the stewed chicken silky and soft, the stock rich not just with butter (well, margarine) but time. Had the chef not recommended her shrimp creole, I wouldn’t have ordered it; I’ve been served bay shrimp in a weak tomato sauce too many times. But though she also ladled her stew over soggy white rice, the chunky mix of shrimp, spicy sausage, chicken wings, celery, okra, onions, and peppers tasted much like a jambalaya. It was subtler and more refined than I expected.
Helen Coleman’s food isn’t the kind of cooking that you can do in your head, mixing and matching fascinating new ingredients. It’s the kind that takes years to write into your fingers and then incredible focus to do right, year after year. Ms. Helen deserves a restaurant of her own. The least you can do is search her out.