Soul survivor: She's back, dishing out down-home meals in her own restaurant

Ms. Helen's Soul Food Restaurant once felt like home, right down to the white curtains, the giant lampshades, the Mason-jar drinking glasses and the old TV blaring in the corner.

And, of course, there was the affable, earthy Ms. Helen, aka Helen Coleman, serving up her signature fried pork chops, oxtails, collard greens and butter-slathered corncakes.

Today the restaurant, located on 23rd Avenue at East Union Street, sits dark and lifeless. The building was condemned and fenced off two years ago after suffering damage in the Nisqually earthquake. The lime-green walls and a few lampshades litter the darkened space. The orange Ms. Helen's sign still hangs out front, a reminder of better days.

Coleman, a neighborhood beacon who'd welcomed everyone from B.B. King and Ernestine Anderson to former Sonic Gary Payton and old friend Joe Carter of the Toronto Bluejays into her dining room, kept a low profile after the closure.

But now the woman people still refer to as Ms. Helen is running her own kitchen again.

Coleman and business partner Darnell Parker recently took over the nearby Deano's Cafe and Lounge at 20th Avenue and East Madison Street. They have big plans to spruce up the spot and help turn around a section of East Madison that's due for earthshaking changes of a different sort. While loiterers create a frustrating spectacle on some street corners, new apartments and businesses are springing up, in striking contrast, on others.

The city wants this area to transform into a vibrant urban village, with lots of pedestrians, restaurants and shops, similar to Madison Valley to the east, First Hill to the west and the 23rd and Jackson corridor farther south.

Nonchalant as ever, the raspy-voiced Coleman talks as if her own life hasn't changed much, even as she joins in the evolution of her new neighborhood.

"This is where I am today, doing the same thing," she says without a touch of nostalgia.

Parker, a tall dapper man dressed all in black, walks over to do the boasting for her.

"Ain't no mystery," he bellows, every bit the showman of the pair. "Tell 'em the food's even better than before. If you're looking for soul food, we ain't gonna be rude."

Since Coleman can't return to her former location, she says she's trying to rebuild her following at Deano's.

The homey touches abound here, too. Potted plants line the food counter where long-simmering collard greens give off a pork-infused steam. About a half-dozen booths are decorated with laminated place mats that feature a map of the solar system.

Just like at the old spot, a TV plays constantly in the background. And Coleman is there by 10:30 a.m. each day, baking yams and stewing greens.

Ms. Helen's Soul Food Restaurant opened in 1987. And Coleman, when pressed, admits she misses the place that was at 1133 23rd Ave.

"I know it very well," she mused. "I did all of the decorating. That was my little spot."

"I used to feed Ken Griffey Jr.," she recalled. "All he wanted was pork chops and macaroni and cheese. He didn't eat vegetables."

She described in vivid detail the morning the earthquake struck, placing her livelihood on hiatus: "I had just finished making dinner, and I was talking to my insurance man, the building started shaking," Coleman said. "We didn't know what to do. Then the next week it rained, and when it started raining, water was just pouring in, in buckets."

The quake

The already aged, sagging brick building, which included several storefronts, was damaged beyond repair. Looters stole some of her restaurant equipment and furnishings.

"You don't know what God has in store for you," Coleman reasoned. "I used to ask why. But it's none of my business. I'm just supposed to get up and keep on moving."

Coleman stopped working for a while, then took a job in the kitchen of the Silver Fork Restaurant in the Rainier Valley. People wondered what happened to her.

As Coleman talked one afternoon, two well-dressed women enter the cafe.

"We're glad you're back, Ms. Helen," one of them told her.

Coleman is clearly delighted to have admirers after such a long absence.

Now at the age where one can justifiably refuse to give her age, Coleman said she thought about retiring. But what for?

Cooking, a skill she learned from the grandmother who raised her in Oklahoma City and Los Angeles, has been her way of connecting with the world.

"That was my little fantasy," Coleman said, reflecting on her childhood. "As a little kid, I wanted to be in the restaurant business."

The food

Coleman goes back to the kitchen and in a minute, she presents one of her saucer-shaped cornbread cakes, with about a tablespoon of butter spread on top. It's light and crispy, heavy and succulent, all at the same time.

"Everybody tries to make this cornbread, but theirs is either too flat or ... " she said, before stopping herself. She is proud but values humility.

Coleman goes back to the kitchen and this time returns with some of her soft, ultra-sweet candied yams, a feature of any respectable Southern platter. She says all of her food is cooked from scratch. No store-bought mixes, no canned vegetables. The baked yams have the buttery, sugary goodness of a home-cooked dish.

Coleman won't say what she puts in them, though. "I got a little secret," she teases.

Even before Coleman opened Ms. Helen's Soul Food Restaurant in 1987, she was making a name for herself in Seattle's Central Area.

At her previous eatery along East Union, where Thompson's Point of View restaurant now stands, patrons came from all around to sample Coleman's Mount St. Helen's Burger, a reference to the woman as much as the mountain.

The burger came with a beef patty topped by hot links, two strips of bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese, onion and one egg, sunny side up, Coleman said, emphasizing that final component.

"That's what made it a Mount St. Helen's Burger," she explained with a throaty chuckle. "It erupted."

The future

Coleman hopes her connection with the neighborhood — and former customers longing for her food — will serve her well as she regroups. She's no stranger to uphill battles. In 1983, Coleman had to file for bankruptcy protection and shut down her East Union place after 13 years.

And she has no illusions about the challenges that await her on the sidewalks outside Deano's, where unsavory characters hang out day and night.

"I'm here to change it," insisted Coleman, who first worked at Deano's after shutting down her eatery in 1983.

"I was sent here for a reason," Coleman explained. "I really feel that. We're going to bring this place up to par, clean it up, give it a face-lift, inside and out. It doesn't take a whole lot. You just have to start somewhere, and it'll catch on. It's good to have a place that makes you feel better, just by being there."

City planners and developers are also betting on this strip of East Madison. Safeway is excavating a large plot at East Madison and 22nd and plans to build a supermarket there by late summer, 2004. The aging property next to Deano's is slated for major redevelopment too: Early plans call for a new six-story building with ground-floor retail, 312 underground parking spaces and 187 residential units.

It remains to be seen whether the minority small business owners who've called this diverse neighborhood home for years can fit, or even afford to co-exist, with the new, improved East Madison developers have in store.

But Coleman, armed with secret recipes and name recognition, is going to try.

"That's my goal," Coleman said determinedly, "to get people back to this neighborhood — eating soul food."

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or