[UPDATE June 2018: After a year’s hiatus, Helen has resumed ownership! The restaurant space has also been updated. So, no more mirrored glass walls.]
Ah, Helen’s. If you’re at all familiar with Columbus’ ethnic eateries, hopefully you’ve been to Helen’s at least once. It tops our list of favorite Chinese restaurants, but also our list of current cravings. The typical answer nowadays to “What are you in the mood for?” is “Helen’s!”
Part of what makes Helen’s so delightful – aside from the food and the hospitality – is the location. It has that hidden-in-plain-sight quality to it. The building is sandwiched at the intersection of I-71 and Route 161, behind a Waffle House and in front of a Super 8.
Also of note: the building used to be a strip club. Hence the wall-to-wall mirrors. Don’t let that creep you out, though.
For those of you on the less adventurous side (or if you’re visiting with more cautious eaters), Helen’s nails the Americanized standards, too, like crab rangoon and orange chicken.
And I think their General Tso’s is pretty top-notch. Nice little kick.
And the lo mein.
But you should be turning your attention to the authentic Chinese menu. You might need some help deciphering it. The online menu (if you call for carryout) is difficult to navigate. And usually you’ll find multiple menus at the restaurant, some in English, some in Chinese, some repeating the same items. I’ve also found two different websites for the restaurant.
Maybe it’s best to start with basics, or to go with someone who’s been previously, or to just ask Helen herself. We focus on the menu sections under Helen’s specialties or the authentic Chinese menu. Regardless, you need to order yourself some dumplings. We’ve had a lot of dumplings there, and they’ve all be great, particularly the xiaolong bun.
Helen herself occasionally teaches classes around the city, so keep an eye out for opportunities to learn directly from her.
On our last visit we tried a sliced pork and pan-fried noodle dish that was fantastic.
One of our favorite menu items, though, is the stir-fried cauliflower with hot peppers. Just writing the phrase “stir-fried cauliflower” has me drooling. (Which is embarrassing, because I’m writing this in a coffee shop.) The dish is served in a small metal wok with a Sterno underneath. The oil quietly bubbles in the center. You’ll need to give it a good stir once in a while, to coat the ingredients and spread out the heat.
The dish – which is vegetarian, by the way – consists of big cauliflower chunks, peppers, garlic cloves, green onion, and more. Most notable are the Szechuan peppercorns, those little husks that – especially when opened up in the hot oil – provide a fragrant, floral, slightly spicy, mouth-numbing richness to the dish. It’s honestly become a drug of choice for us. This dish alone is reason to visit Helen’s.
All told, you can order quite the spread at Helen’s. We’ve taken friends and family members there repeatedly, which is one of the biggest signs we love a place: we want more people to know and love it.
We can attest, too, that Helen’s travels well. They don’t have delivery, but they do offer carryout. Helen will probably offer you a two-liter of some obscure soda when you come to pick it up.
We visit Helen’s pretty regularly throughout the year, but it’s also become our traditional dinner stop on Christmas Day. Like many days, Hele’s husband Paul (edit: who passed away in 2017) plays the piano and sings Italian opera, but on Christmas we’ve heard him sing Christmas carols in Chinese, too. Two years ago, we arrived to find him singing carols while, coincidentally, the TVs behind him showed the final scene from A Christmas Story, when Ralphie’s family visits the Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day. The charm is indicative of why we love Helen’s so much.