Last October, while naming Crush one of the “Ten Best Restaurants of 2009,” Seattle Metropolitan Magazine marveled at the audacity of opening a fine dining restaurant “at the gritty inner-city corner of 23rd and Madison.” Statements like this make my blood boil.
There’s almost nothing I despise more than when writers use words like “gritty,” “inner-city,” and “urban” as a euphemism for “black.” (The use of the word “funky” to describe any restaurant that’s on Capitol Hill or frequented by people under 35 is up there, too.) But what really made me angry about this particular example of polite white code is that it simply isn’t true anymore. If it was, maybe I’d actually be able to eat great, affordable soul food more often.
The sad truth (easily discerned were someone to, say, stick her head out of the posh environment of Crush and look just one block west to the massive Summit at Madison Park apartment complex, which includes a Safeway and a Starbucks) is that the corner of 23rd and Madison—the whole Central District, for that matter—isn’t nearly as “gritty” as it used to be.
White people now make up the majority of CD residents, and the number of black-owned businesses and restaurants has plummeted over the years. You need only look to the disappearance of Ms. Helen Coleman, Seattle’s master cook of soul food, to see just how much things have changed. It is now impossible to have a plate of Ms. Helen’s oxtails in this city and that, Seattle, is a tragedy.
Ms. Helen’s first restaurant was at 23rd and Union, in the space now occupied by Thompson’s Point of View (which serves good catfish and hushpuppies, but has unreliable daytime hours despite claiming to be open at 11 a.m. each day). In 1987 she opened Ms. Helen’s Soul Food Restaurant across the street, where she served up her made-from-scratch food until the 2001 earthquake, when the building was nearly destroyed. It was subsequently condemned and eventually torn down. After a brief stint cooking at the Silver Fork (whose two eggs, sausage patty, and butter-drenched grits make up the best breakfast in Seattle), Ms. Helen started cooking her food again at Deano’s Café & Lounge, on the left side of the building also occupied by Deano’s Grocery, on the corner of 20th and Madison.
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It was here in 2003 that I first found Ms. Helen’s food, the gold standard for all the soul food I’ll ever have in my life. Fried pork chops, sheathed in a generously salted and peppered crackly crust, remained juicy and ever-so-slightly-pink in the middle. Corn cakes, savory golden pancakes with a delightful cornmeal crunch, had a startlingly fluffy texture, and black-eyed peas were minerally, firm and satisfying to the teeth. But all that paled in comparison to Ms. Helen’s oxtails, braised for an eternity so that the meat was meltingly tender and barely clinging to the bone, then served in a satiny sauce of their own braising liquid—a rich, flavorful, and straightforward brown gravy.
Those oxtails are the epitome of what I think of as soul food—not just Southern food, which includes both barbecue and Cajun/Creole food—but soul food, a cuisine whose culinary roots are firmly rooted in slavery. Slaves were fed very cheaply, so they made do with what they had: turnip tops and wild thick greens, discarded cuts of meat like pigs’ ears, oxtail and chitterlings, which all require heart, time and careful, loving cooking to become delicious.
Deano’s was demolished in 2006, to make room for a condo and mixed-use retail structure that has yet to be built. Meanwhile, nothing has taken the place of Ms. Helen’s food except an empty lot.
In 2007, news of Ms. Helen’s return spread throughout the city. Unable to find a kitchen of her own in the Central District, Ms. Helen was cooking at Rose Petals Restaurant (6901 Martin Luther King Way S) in the Rainier Valley. I’m ashamed to say that I never made it down there until last weekend, when I showed up for Easter dinner. I was devastated to learn that Ms. Helen is no longer there. After forty years of cooking, Ms. Helen has retired.
The woman who has taken her place ("I'm Ms. Helen's backbone"), herself an affable force of nature single-handedly running the show, is still serving up some good food, no doubt with skills she learned straight from Ms. Helen. But the oxtails are gone from the menu, replaced by three different kinds of hamburgers. Fried pork chops ($10 for an order of two, along with a choice of two sides) have got the same crunch (this time, with a spicier touch of paprika and cayenne in the crust), though they’re not nearly as moist in the center.
Fried chicken wings ($10) are plump and juicy and beautifully brown-skinned, with plenty of tiny bones to make you work for that meat. But the sides are disappointing: no collard greens on the days we visited, oily mac and cheese, one-note, slightly mushy black-eyed peas, and limp frozen corn and okra. Thank god the corncakes are as good as ever, slightly sweet and toasty, slathered with almost a palm-full of margarine.
A welcome treat came later in the evening while The Legend Band played its set of jazz and r&b, and an older gentleman came around and placed a green construction paper sign reading “Hog Head Cheese” on the table. This homemade head cheese ($3 for a slice and a few Saltines) was sit-up-straight-in-your-chair spicy and damn good.
The next day, still searching for soul food, I pieced together lunch in the Central District. I drove past the Twilight Exit (former site of the excellent JoAnna’s Soul Food Café, R.I.P.) and picked up tart collard greens with bacon and red beans humming with clove and pepper from Catfish Corner, and finally a spicy chicken thigh from Ezell’s. The elements were great, but it left me a little sad, longing for a casual place where you could drop in and have these things—and some oxtails, too—in one spot.
At Rose Petals, I was told that while Ms. Helen now lives in a retirement home, she occasionally comes out and cooks for events. I would throw a party just to have her food again.
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