Helen’s is a popular Hong Kong-based lounge chain with over a hundred locations across China and Hong Kong. Its Asian locations combine extravagant decor with creative cocktails and Cantonese pub snacks.
I visited the first Helen’s location in the US, which opened in New York in September.
It was like dining in a creepy crypt, and only kind of in a good way. Helen’s American menu is generic, while its decor and drink names go overboard with outdated Orientalist themes.
Going abroad is never easy, but it can be rewarding.
US chains like McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut have had branches all around the world for decades and have integrated into their new cultures in unexpected and sometimes marvellous ways. Pizza Hut is a sit-down fine-dining establishment in China. KFC has become a Christmas tradition in Japan.
So it only makes sense that international chains coming to the US might have the same chance to build something new and exciting in a foreign land.
But only in the past few years have international chains, like Jollibee and Bonchon started coming to the US. These chains have carved out a place in the American pantheon of chain restaurants by bringing their signature foods and styles to the table, with minor adaptations to appeal to American diners.
So I was excited when I heard that Helen’s was opening its first US location in New York. Helen’s is a bar and lounge chain from Hong Kong with over a hundred locations across China and Hong Kong.
I went to the new Helen’s location in Manhattan expecting a similar experience, but what I got was an eerie Orientalist fantasy with one foot in the grave.
I walked past the unassuming entrance before I retraced my steps and forced myself to take a closer look. At first glance, I thought Helen’s was closed.
Finally, I saw the arrow pointing down a flight of stairs. Although the Hong Kong location I’d seen on TripAdvisor had a typical restaurant entrance with a sign, this location went full-on New York with a hidden entrance.
Speakeasy-style establishments are all the rage right now, and whoever opened this location of Helen’s knew that. I was still unsure I was in the right place until I opened the door.
The door opened into a dark stairwell that I almost tumbled down. There were multicoloured Moroccan-style lamps hanging from the ceiling and a mural relief of Chinese warriors on the wall behind.
I went at 4:30 pm, so I wasn’t surprised that the place was completely empty. However, the staff seemed surprised to see me. It took me a couple of minutes to find someone to seat me.
‘That’s weird,” one of the staff told me when he saw me taking photos. “The last guy who came in here was also a photographer.”
It was easy to see why people would want to take photos here. The decor was just as extravagant as I’d expected.
Since the staff seemed less than bothered, I took a couple of minutes to explore the place.
The decor reminded me of old Chinese mansions I had visited, but also of Buddhist temples and, oddly, the Terracotta army tomb.
This elaborate wood carving is the twin of a wood carving I saw in photos for the Hong Kong location of Helen’s.
I had also seen these exact wall decorations in TripAdvisor photos for the Hong Kong location.
Their contemporary style contrasted with some of the hyper-traditional decor …
… like this warlike statue of a woman.
There were also elements that made Helen’s feel crypt-like, like the grated skylights that were the only source of natural light.
Some of the stone wall carvings looked straight out of an “Indiana Jones” movie. And like any rational human, I love me some whip-wielding Harrison Ford.
But Indiana Jones is built on some pretty outdated Orientalist logic. And there were a couple of things about Helen’s decor that raised my eyebrows.
It seems to take the “Mysterious East” trope a little too seriously.
Naturally, I had to see if the food reflected the environment. I was pretty excited to try some of the snacks I’d seen on TripAdvisor. I expected Hong Kong-style food: Chinese meets British meets other Pacific influences.
The drinks had names like “Pearls of the Orient” and “China Doll,” and the food available was pretty generic pan-Asian. Nothing about it was distinctly Hong Kong.
In order to avoid having to say “Pearls of the Orient,” I ordered a lychee martini — not exactly an original concoction.
It was a caustic mix of bottom-shelf vodka and lychee puree from concentrate. I like my drinks strong, but I couldn’t get through half of this one. It was distractingly bitter.
Even the lychee seemed to be pulled from a can. I should have taken this as a warning.
Alas, I had ordered takoyaki (fried octopus dough balls) and chashu bao (BBQ pork bun sandwiches) to nibble on.
The takoyaki looked really appetizing when they arrived. They were lathered in Japanese mayo and takoyaki sauce and were dusted with lemongrass and bonito flakes.
My server advised me to wait a few minutes before starting in on them, as they were very, very hot. The bonito flakes on top were very, very fragrant.
After a few minutes, I went for my first ball. But a poke of the pick revealed that it was squishy and soft. Takoyaki is supposed to be crispy on the outside.
My first bite into these mushy spheres was one of the most disappointing first bites I’ve had in a while. There were real chunks of octopus, which was nice, but there was zero crisp on the outside.
The flavours were all there, but I just couldn’t get over the texture. I asked my server about these, and she told me that they were frozen takoyaki that had been reheated in an air fryer.
The chashu bao looked absolutely gorgeous. They were steamed buns filled with pork belly, pickles, green onions, and hoisin sauce.
This style of bao is more Taiwanese than Cantonese, but I love them, so I couldn’t resist.
A good steamed bun should be fluffy and soft, like a carby cloud. But these buns were flat and stiff. My server informed me that they had come from a refrigerator.
Like the takoyaki, all the flavours of a bao were there. They just weren’t good flavours. The pork was dry, tough, and bland. The pickled vegetables were fine, but that’s because they required no preparation.
The dipping sauce, oddly enough, was not hoisin sauce, although that’s what was already on the bun. It was astringent and didn’t go with the other flavours.
In the end, I polished off most of the takoyaki and two of the chashu bao. I was full but unsatisfied. The Helen’s US website promises an “elevated” experience, but I found myself craving the down-to-earth pub food that I’d seen on TripAdvisor.
The menu and decor of this Helen’s lacked the casual charm of the Helen’s I’d seen in photos. This location had erased much of what made Helen’s so appealing and replaced its charm with an outdated Orientalist aesthetic that Americans may have wanted a decade ago.
But the most successful Asian chains planting US roots — Din Tai Fung, Little Sheep Hot Pot, and Ippudo Ramen — do well because they offer an experience that is true to their home cultures, not a watered-down version that condescends to an audience of American diners who are more culturally literate and culinarily adventurous than ever before.
Sure, you can line your walls with wood carvings and giant Buddha statues. But if the food and drink consist of air-fried frozen takoyaki and the drinks have more exciting names than flavours, people won’t buy what you’re selling.
Helen’s stripped its concept to something that’s pedestrian and unexciting despite all the bells and whistles. It missed a golden opportunity to bring a uniquely Hong Kong experience to America, but that’s OK. Someone else will do it.