First impressions: It would be easy to walk right by Helen's. Clad in brown siding with a simple "Helen's" stenciled on the street-side window, this South Side soul food diner doesn't holler for attention. Inside the unusually heavy front door (beware if you have a stroller or a wheelchair), the place is colorful, friendly and authentically retro. The booths are red vinyl, the wallpaper is shiny silver and the hanging lamps are rainbow-colored. At one end of the diner is a jukebox and a small TV. Choose a booth or a seat at the U-shaped counter, turn your coffee cup over if you want hot coffee and start perusing the extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu.
On the plate: Helen's is famous for two reasons. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, used to eat here (though he did not, as rumor has it, order the turkey leg and eggs, a.k.a. "legs n' eggs," confirms owner Helen Nixon). And this tiny diner is the source of those ubiquitous, monstrous barbecue turkey legs you see people gnawing on at Taste of Chicago. Helen's menu goes far beyond turkey legs, though, serving up generous portions of soul food favorites like fried catfish fillet, ham hocks, chopped steak sandwiches, black-eyed peas, candied yams, greens and macaroni and cheese.At your service: Service was friendly and efficient. Our waitress refilled our coffee and water constantly and joked with us. Our food arrived hot and quick.
Second helpings: Helen's serves some of the best soul food around. Most everything we tried was delicious. The famous turkey leg ($5) was tender and packed with flavor with dark meat literally falling off the bone. It was also, as expected, absurdly large. Two could easily fill up on the leg. We ordered it with two eggs ($1.60) scrambled just right: Not too runny, not too dry. The juicy and not-a-whit greasy fried catfish fillet (with two sides) earned raves. The macaroni and cheese packed a cheesy punch. We also adored the smoky, soupy black-eyed peas and the addictive ham-infused greens.
Take a pass: We ordered two sandwiches; both were disappointing. The chopped steak sandwich (with fries and coleslaw) had an unpleasant off-taste and the "T-L-T" (with fries and coleslaw) -- turkey bacon, lettuce and tomato -- was ho-hum.
Thirst quenchers: Coffee, tea and the usual suspects. Rich and not at all bitter, the local Stewart's brand coffee, we thought, was unusually good.
Extras: If you fall in love with Helen's cooking, you can hire her diner to cater your party.
Price range: Side dishes: $1.20-$2; sandwiches: $2.25-$5.80; entrees: $$5.35-$9.65; and drinks, $1-$1.05.
1732 E. 79th St.
Hours: 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.-Tues., midnight-4 p.m. Wed.-Sat.
Credit cards: Cash only
Noise: Conversation friendly
Hit the beach: Jump in your car and head east to Rainbow Beach and Park, home to basketball, tennis and handball courts, three baseball diamonds, two playgrounds, a community garden and an incredible view of the Chicago skyline. A great place to sit and digest the turkey. Rainbow Park and Beach, 3111 E. 77th St.; 312-745-1479, www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.
Tee off: Bring your golf clubs and hit the greens at Jackson Park, the site of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The historic park's 600 acres includes a tree-dotted, public 18-hole golf course. Book a tee time online. Jackson Park, 63rd Street and Lake Shore Drive; 773-667-0524, www.cpdgolf.com.
Ratings key: 4 forks, don't miss it; 3 forks, one of the best; 2 forks, very good; 1 fork, good
Reviews are based on anonymous visits by Tribune staff members; meals are paid for by the Tribune.
Keywords: RESTAURANT; REVIEW