Seattle’s soul food queen cooks again: Ms. Helen may return

Only when she heard Richard Pryor laugh, did Jesdarnel Henton realized who he was. She more easily identified other celebrities who came through for her mother’s cooking, like Muhammad Ali. But the most recognizable things at Helen Coleman’s Seattle restaurants were the oxtails, greens, and Ms. Helen herself, greeting customers with a gentle “Hey, baby.” Now, the queen of soul food in Seattle and legendary cook looks for one last chance to serve sweet potato pie to her community, as her daughter works to continue the family’s culinary legacy.

From 1970, when Coleman first moved from Los Angeles to Seattle and opened up Helen’s Diner on Union just south of 23rd, through the last pork chops handed out from the kitchen of Rose Petals Restaurant on Rainier, four decades later, Coleman’s food won hearts and gathered neighbors. Her daughter, who started cooking at her mom’s restaurants 50 years ago – known to customers as “Squirt” –  kept the business alive as a caterer, but now sees an opportunity to bring it back to a wider audience. “I figure I got a least a good 10 years left in me to get this done,” says Henton. “Then I can leave it to the rest of the family to carry on.”

Henton had been in Los Angeles when her mom last cooked in a restaurant, but she came back in a hurry when she saw a 2015 story in the Seattle Weekly about Rose Petals reopening in White Center with Ms. Helen in the kitchen – something she knew to be untrue. Henton called the restaurant and asked to speak with Coleman, listening as the proprietor called out for her – while Henton sat, looking at her mother across the living room. When the restaurateur said that she must have stepped out, Henton said, “Ma’am, this is Squirt, this is her daughter,” and then heard a click of the other end hanging up the phone.

“That’s when I started copyrighting stuff and registering our name,” says Henton, who now owns the rights to Helen’s Diner, Helen’s Soul Food, Helen Coleman, and, finally, Helen’s Soul Bistro, the name of her upcoming venture. Currently, Henton is establishing an LLC and hoping to start producing a packaged cornbread mix in the next few months, then open Ms. Helen’s Soul Bistro somewhere in the Central District by the spring.

Henton joined her mother at Helen’s Diner in 1971, a year after it opened, and a few years before Ebony Magazine called it “The principal Seattle motherlode of soul food.” The doors opened at 7 a.m. to feed workers, and if she sold out of her fried fish or peach cobbler by 6 p.m., she’d close up shop.

“All the pastors would come to Helen’s every day. All the contractors, and we had Black doctors and lawyers, and Mayor Norm Rice,” remembers Henton. The president of Liberty Bank, the first Black-owned bank in the region, which was right next door, was among Helen’s fans, and together with the rest of the community helped her to secure an adjacent space to expand the diner in 1975. “We opened up the bigger place and had live music,” says Henton. “Everybody who was anybody came to Helen’s Diner on Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Honey, it was popping. We had the big, big, stuff going on.”

In a 2019 documentary about the neighborhood, “On the Brink,” Coleman said, “If anybody in Seattle didn’t come to Helen’s Diner, they missed a whole lot of fun and good food.” Henton took on the media role, cooking gumbo on local morning shows, and the catering arm, letting Ms. Helen rule the restaurant kitchen.

But the mother-daughter duo started to burn out in the early ‘80s, and Coleman declared bankruptcy in 1983. They bounced around the neighborhood, running the kitchen at Deano’s, a club owned by their friend Dean Falls, before opening Ms. Helen’s Soul Food on 23rd in 1987, just around the corner from the original diner. There, they made food for B.B. King, Ernestine Anderson, and Gary Payton. Ms. Helen baked peach cobbler for Ken Griffey Jr. and that was where Richard Pryor declared that it couldn’t be a soul food restaurant because there were no flies.

“The walls are covered with pictures and hangings of fish and flowers, lace and cooking implements. Water arrives in old jelly jars. Conversation pours down in torrents,” wrote the Seattle Times in 1991. “The constant talk is accompanied by the throaty singing of owner and cook Helen Coleman as she darts among huge, fragrant vats of food in a kitchen that teems with activity.”

Helen Coleman works with a pan of smothered steak for a Deano’s Bar & Grill customer. 

Grant M. Haller/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

In 2001, the bustle and black-eyed-peas came to a grinding halt when the Nisqually earthquake damaged the building beyond repair and ended Ms. Helen’s three-decade run at the intersection of 23rd and Union. Henton ended up taking a job in catering at Microsoft before moving to LA to help care for family there. Ms. Helen headed back into the kitchen at Deano’s. Then, in 2003, she and a partner took it over to run as Club Chocolate City until the city shut it down in early 2007. At that point, she began her final stint before retirement, at Rose Petals on Rainier. Seattle Weekly food writer Jonathan Kauffman described her cooking at the low-slung dive bar as “The best soul food I’ve ever tasted,” the greens as “pork-flavored satin,” the dumplings as tasting “like a luxury.”

Though Coleman came to Seattle from LA, her skills at the stove came from her grandmother, who learned in Oklahoma City. “I don’t cook out of any can,” she told the SeattlePI in 1999. “I don’t cook anything frozen.” Ms. Helen’s reputation came from the crisp-coated catfish, hearty mac and cheese, flavorful greens, and, more than anything, her oxtails. “She can stew oxtails so lovingly, the memory of them will make your eyes moist,” Kauffman wrote in 2007, calling them “Exponentially beefy.”

But there is hope for those who still cry over the beauty of Ms. Helen’s meat: Coleman will be 86 on her next birthday, but, per Henton, is doing well and staying safe through the pandemic while Henton works on plans for Ms. Helen’s Soul Food Bistro. “My focus is to really keep this business in the Central Area,” says Henton, who already has a few potential places on the table and is trying to drum up the necessary funding. “I understand everything’s gotta change,” says Henton. “Historically speaking, I know why it has done what it’s done, but that doesn’t mean that this is still not our neighborhood.”

Henton envisions the new place as mostly grab-and-go, with a little bit of seating for those that want to stick around. She promises liver and onions, pork chops – smothered or fried – neck bones, dressing, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, greens, green beans, gumbo, shrimp creole, fried fish, chicken wings, baked turkey wings, sweet potato pie, peach cobbler, and of course, that cornbread. She plans to expand on her mother’s repertoire with some heart-healthier options, soulful salads and homemade soups, and hopes to open by next spring, “At least I’m gonna stick me a sign up someplace in some window,” she laughs, promising that everyone will know when it happens. “Mom taught me a long time ago,” says Henton, “When you open up, make sure you have some smells in the neighborhood that draws everybody.”

With Ms. Helen’s Soul Bistro, Henton hopes to create something for her family can carry on in the future – Henton’s adult daughter will be involved in the business, on the customer service side. “She can cook,” Henton says, “But that’s just not her passion.” Her sister-in-law is on board, too, in a behind-the-scenes business role. And then there’s her mom. “Her knowledge is worth its weight in gold,” says Henton. “She’s still with me and I can still go and sit and talk with her.”

The biggest problem with her mom, Henton explains, is that she’s been used to doing all these things herself, and now has trouble keeping her still. But after five decades by her mom’s side in the kitchen, Henton knows what she’s doing and can keep the traditions alive. Except for maybe the oxtails: “Can’t nobody do it like her,” says Henton. “I’m close, but mom does a special something-something.”

Thankfully for excited customers, Ms. Helen can’t wait to get back into the kitchen. “You just take care of yourself and hold on,” Henton told her mom. “Then we gonna let you back in there and you can put stuff in the pot.”

Trisha Anderson

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