Restaurant review: Helen's Asian Kitchen

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive
Stir Fried Cauliflower with Hot Peppers

Inside Helen's Asian Kitchen, rather than a host, I was greeted by an old sofa for sale. Scanning the foyer facing the mirror-lined dining room in the former strip-club space, I noticed other purchasables such as groceries, cooking gear and electronics. Finally, a server materialized.

That experience isn't uncharacteristic at Helen's, where eccentricity and frustrating service are to be expected. Here's what else you can expect: some of the best Chinese food in the area.

Once seated in the expansive main room with souvenir-shop-quality Chinese lanterns, an elaborate wooden skylight structure, and a baby grand piano extemporaneously played sometimes while an aria is sung - you read that correctly - you'll be given two menus.

Unless you want the kind of routine American-Chinese fare available at countless and less interesting restaurants, opt for the large, brown Chinese menu. And opt for a cuisine-appropriate beer - such as Tsingtao or Heineken (both are $3.50) - while perusing this more authentic food document that, although short on descriptions, is long on helpful color photographs.

Helen's dumplings ($8.50) are a great place to start - they're handmade and taste like it. As with most items here, they arrive in built-to-share portions.

Embracing a simple ground meat and scallion nugget, the pork dumplings might showcase Helen's fresh, supple wrappers best. Although less tender, Xiaolongbao are more rare: dumplings filled with a pork-and-shrimp mixture bedewed by a little chicken soup.

Peel-and-eat shrimp are taken to another level with a huge platter of uncommonly sweet and hefty Salt-and-Pepper Shrimp ($16) presented with intact shells and heads. Dredged in flour and wok-cooked with garlic, jalapenos and scallion, the oil-slicked shellfish taste a bit like fried chicken.

Sichuan offerings form the heart - and my favorite parts - of the Chinese menu. The potent flavors of that Chinese province are on display in the Hot-and-Sour Rice Noodles ($6). Playing stupendously long, slippery noodles off crackly toasted soybeans and offsetting chili oil with vinegar, it's a garlicky, fiery and delightfully jarring bowl of pasta.

Prefer a low-carb preparation with similar flavors? The gargantuan Pickled Beans with Minced Pork ($13) features nubs of vinegary green beans, sweet onion, dried chilies and ground meat given a smoky, high-heat stir-fry. The result flaunts that garlicky, tangy, spicy, oily and salty combination that Sichuan food fanatics find irresistible.

I enjoy pairing this with another vinegary-but-not-spicy Sichuan dish also rare in Columbus called Chili and Sour Potatoes ($9). Made with shredded spuds relieved of starchiness by a pre-soaking and cooked to al dente in a quick stir-fry with garlic, bell peppers and a little jalapeno, it's like the Sichuan answer to warm potato salad.

For a no-holds-barred Sichuan barrage, pick the addictive Chicken with Hot Chile Peppers ($11). This delicious firestorm detonates crisply seared diced poultry and sesame seeds with the cuisine's famous flavor arsenal: chilies, chili oil, garlic, soy sauce and tongue-tingling and citrusy Sichuan peppercorns.

For a vegetable-starring approximation of that entree - and tableside special effects - get the deservedly popular Stir-fried Cauliflower with Hot Pepper ($13). Served gurgling in a metal bowl atop a portable heat source, cauliflower and leeks slowly soften as their flavor grows in an intense, chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn bath.

I also sampled the chili-less Beef with Chinese Broccoli ($12, with succulent meat, ginger and a salty soy-based sauce) - not because I ordered it, but because after being presented with several wrong dishes and after several long waits, one of my exasperated tablemates said, "We'll take it." This happened after a server spilled my beer, shrugged and walked away - then charged me full price.

Bottom line: Along with confused service, Helen's offers excellent Chinese food.

Helen's Asian Kitchen

1070 E. Dublin Granville Rd., North Side