The Takeaway: CRANDIC award winner Tee’s Liberian Dish engages all the senses

Photos by Tiffani Green and Malcolm MacDougall, illustration by Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Best of the CRANDIC 2021 winner: Best African Cuisine

The first time I tried to order from Tee’s Liberian Dish, I couldn’t. The restaurant had had such a busy day that they’d sold out of everything and had to close up shop early. That alone hints at what you can expect from Tee’s. The first and thus far only African restaurant in Cedar Rapids has been very enthusiastically received.

Undeterred, I returned the next day to see what the buzz was all about. Like many people, my exposure to African food has been very limited. I combed through the extensive menu looking for keywords and settled on two things I vaguely recognized: fried tilapia, and fufu and soup.

Owner Teepeu Pewu, better known as Tee, warned me that the tilapia took awhile to make and wanted to know if I minded waiting for it. I didn’t, and settled in to watch the TV that hung on the wall behind the front counter (a clumsily censored and oddly mesmerizing version of Wolf of Wall Street was playing on MTV.)

Tee’s is a family owned and operated business, and I could hear family members chatting in the kitchen and see them coming and going from the building. I got to chat briefly with Tee herself and learn a bit about her. She had lived in Iowa for only six months when she launched her restaurant in August—an impressive feat for anyone, let alone someone who has moved halfway around the world.

I’ve scarcely spent time inside any business since the pandemic and something that struck me as I waited in the dining room at Tee’s Liberian Dish was that it felt comfortable and welcoming. The building previously housed Brewed Awakenings but has been transformed: one wall is painted a cheery lime green and the dining room is filled with chairs and tables that have placemats with inspirational quotes. It’s a space where anyone could feel at home.

Thirty minutes after ordering, the food came out of the kitchen and I saw why it took the time that it did. These were not the tilapia filets I was accustomed to but a whole fish nestled under a generous mound of veggies and plantains. The fufu was a pale loaf accompanied by a rich, meaty-looking stew.

The containers were heavy with food. Tee made sure they were securely packaged for my ride home and even offered to help me carry them to my car.

A test for any takeout meal is whether it is as appealing when you get home as it was when it was first packaged, and whether everything stays neatly inside the containers. These dishes passed on both counts, including the container of soup which was filled to the brim and didn’t spill a drop in transit. The food was even still warm after a 40-minute drive from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City.

For all my eagerness to try fufu, which is a starchy soft food made from powdered cassava and plantain, I quickly realized I didn’t actually know how to eat it. So I consulted the internet and learned that fufu is considered a “swallow food,” a food that is not meant to be chewed. It was compared to mashed potatoes in terms of how it’s eaten, although the textures are entirely dissimilar. You scoop a bit from the whole and it was suggested that you dip it in the soup, but I chose to place a bit in a bowl and pour soup over it. The fufu was mild in flavor and sort of spongy in texture and served as a counterpoint to the richness and meatiness of the stew which contained fish and chicken and was spicy and warming. Neither item would have quite worked on its own, but together they made a balanced, composed dish.

The tilapia was a real showstopper — nothing like the bland, mushy version I’ve always had in the past. Fried whole, peeling back the skin revealed flesh that was flaky, firm and moist and free of any of the greasiness one usually associates with fried food. It came with a medley of thinly sliced peppers, onions, cucumbers and fried plantains. The fish and veggies had such intense savoriness that it was almost its own separate texture. The flavor profile bears a passing resemblance to that of Cajun and creole cuisine but is also utterly its own thing. The plantains had a texture reminiscent of fried potatoes and a mild sweetness.

The food at Tee’s Liberian Dish engages all the senses with its rich textures, savory smells, vibrant colors and dishes that invite you to use your hands to pinch a bit of fufu from a loaf or scoop flaky fish from skin and bone. Visit Tee and her family and brighten this grey autumn with a plate full of color and warmth.

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“The Takeaway” is presented by CHOMP

Little Village Best of the CRANDIC is presented by City of Iowa City; the Food and Drink category is also presented by CHOMP.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 301.