By Christina Autry
Helen Conway is the smiling face and driving force behind the Five Corners District’s only Jamaican restaurant: Helen’s Kitchen. Helen brings the rich flavors of the islands to the Five Corners District. “I try my best to get the real authentic Jamaican taste,” she says. Dishes like her popular oxtail, jerk chicken, garlic shrimp, and brown stew chicken even have customers who have traveled to Jamaica claiming that Helen’s food is even better than dishes they tasted there.
Walking into Helen’s Kitchen at lunch time, I took her recommendation and ordered the oxtail, which comes with plantain and rice. Sitting down at one of various tables in the small restaurant, I couldn’t help but notice Jamaican flags decorating the room, alongside a Bob Marley collage, and hundreds of pictures of satisfied customers inside Helen’s Kitchen.
As this was my first time eating oxtail, I was pleasantly surprised by how tender the meat was, which easily falls off the bone. The meat is smothered in a flavorful thick brown sauce that, as Helen describes, consists of a Jamaican blend of spices. Although she was hesitant to give up the secrets of her oxtail sauce recipe, she says it does contain Allspice, a plant with origins in Jamaica, which only became common in world cuisine after the Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean. Although Allspice is an important ingredient in her food, she mentions that “The curry chicken, brown stew chicken, the shrimp, all have their own seasoning, and their own unique taste.”
“In Jamaica I worked in restaurants for 10 years. That’s where I get my experience,” explains Helen. Cooking in a restaurant on the beach of Western Jamaica gave her exposure to the techniques, and ingredients used in popular dishes. Her experience at the seaside restaurant transferred to her current menu, featuring seafood specialties like the Jamaican national dish, Ackee and Saltfish.
“We didn’t have specific jobs, we learned to do everything. We were the cashiers, receptionists, waitresses, cooks, everything. So, when I come here, doing everything was so natural to me,” she says. Helen drops off her kids at school in the morning, purchases any needed ingredients for the day, and arrives at her restaurant to start preparing fresh meals for her 11:00 customers. “Once my customers are happy, I’m happy too,” she says. And that requires a good deal of preparation. Until her daughter finishes school in the afternoon, Helen singlehandedly greets customers, cooks their meals, serves and performs cashier duties, and keeps her “little piece of heaven” running.
“When I present the food to you, I want the food to be clean, and well-cooked. So, when I’m here, I don’t have time to play. This is my livelihood,” she remarks, as she describes the focus that it takes to create scratch-made meals every day, while keeping everything running. Helen doesn’t take shortcuts. “I don’t cook a lot of food and put it in the freezer. I watch the day, and see what food is going fast, and take it from there.”
Houston has been enjoying Helen’s cooking for the past 13 years, ever since she relocated here from Jamaica. After working in another Caribbean restaurant in which she met her husband, it was he who first encouraged her to make a business out of her cooking. He started getting lunch orders from his friends, and soon others began to call, asking for catering. “Business was becoming too big – I told my husband I needed to find a place where I can establish myself, and here I am today.” On April 15th, Helen’s Kitchen will be four years old.
“My favorite thing about running the restaurant is that I’m my own boss. And I get to interact with different types of people. I’m a people person, I like to laugh,” she reflects. But she didn’t always imagine herself operating her own restaurant, much less being the chef. She ironically mentions that when she was younger, she didn’t even enjoy cooking. Discovering her talent, through the support of her family and hungry locals has given her motivation, success, and dreams of even greater ambitions. She hopes that one day she can start a second restaurant or expand the current one into a larger building. But, as she says, she is patient. “I’m taking it day by day.”
After thoroughly enjoying the delicious oxtail, (and making a mental note to come back for more), I asked Helen what she would like for the Five Corners community to know about Helen’s Kitchen. She replied, “I want people to know that I’m a small business trying to grow. I’m very authentic, and my service is good. I make sure my food is always fresh and always clean. I appreciate every person who supports me, and I appreciate every customer that walks through the door. I love my restaurant, and I love my customers.” She may not divulge the secrets of her oxtail sauce recipe, but one of the ingredients, clearly, is love.
14608 S Post Oak Rd, Houston, TX 77045
Mon 11:00 am – 8:00 pm
Tue 11:00 am – 8:00 pm
Wed 11:00 am – 8:00 pm
Thu 11:00 am – 8:00 pm
Fri 10:00 am – 9:00 pm
Sat 10:00 am – 9:00 pm