Arts & Culture

Liberian restaurant cooks up authentic, affordable cuisine

Constantly changing menu features signature yeast donuts, meat-heavy mix of flavors

By
Features Editor
Thursday, November 20, 2014

“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

This is the inevitable conclusion of the diner leaving Decontee’s African Restaurant. The unassuming, no-frills Liberian kitchen in Elmwood serves up heaping plates of authentically crafted cuisine.

Decontee’s is not the place to take parents when they cruise into town. It’s not the place to invite a significant other for a romantic candlelit evening — in fact, your libido may take a temporary backseat to the digestive process. But for adventurous, hungry college kids who are often reluctant to spend more than $10, Decontee’s is definitely worth the plunge off College Hill.

Easily accessible by bus, the tiny and sincere restaurant at 711 Broad St. sits next to an Asian food counter and a laundromat. The jarring color palette of the restaurant’s front room — four vividly painted orange walls — is quickly mediated by the warm welcome from a staff member.

The rotating menu features daily staples like fried chicken and plantain, as well as alternating specials. But it’s better not to get your heart set on any one menu item beforehand — choices become limited as menu items sell out over the course of the day, even though the kitchen cooks up large pots of rice to keep up with the demand of the dinner hour.

Looking back through a wall of interior windows into the kitchen reveals pyramids of carefully stacked calla rolls — Liberian yeast donuts — and large pots of steaming sauces.

An order of calla comes with three of the tasty rolls and costs only one dollar. The sweet and spongy dough balls are sure to quell the appetite while waiting for the main course.

On a recent visit, Solomon, a friendly server, brought out a bowl of pepper sauce to accompany the rolls. The spicy heat of the red sauce makes the perfect counterpoint to the subtle sweetness of the calla dough.

An informative accompaniment was the story Solomon told about calla back in his home country of Liberia. Many children in Liberia walk huge distances from home to school to the farm, Solomon said, comparing the distance to walking from Broad Street to College Hill to Pawtucket and back again over the course of a single day. For Liberian children setting out for the day, the dense, yeast-based calla dough expands in the stomach and keeps the appetite at bay.

“As a child, you have one, maybe three calla rolls, and you are good for the day,” Solomon said.

Though it was only 7:30 p.m., most of Decontee’s offerings had sold out. Only two evening specials remained — spinach sauce and cassava leaf sauce, each served alongside a heaping mountain of white rice. Solomon brought out samples of each sauce, reinforcing the restaurant’s transparent and genuine demeanor.

The deep green cassava leaf sauce resembles Indian saag. The dish’s flavor, meaty and rich, packs a punch and is punctuated by large chunks of  what the server described as chicken, pork and beef. Though we found boned chicken and pork blanketed in the deep green sauce, beef was nowhere to be found.

The overwhelming saltiness of the dish had our entire table gasping for fluids. But rich and buttery pork flavors infused the lower registers of the sauce — a result of hours of simmering in the kitchen’s metal pots. More tantalizing meaty flavors competed for attention through the salt’s overbearing presence.

The darker spinach leaf sauce was milder in flavor but otherwise presented a nearly identical dish. The slight tang of the cassava leaf was missed in its leafy green cousin.

If one is willing to chew through unnervingly unidentifiable meats and to overlook the dominating saltiness of the sauces, the decadent underlayer of flavor satisfies a surprising amount.

The rice was a standard affair. What it lacked in personality, it made up for in sheer quantity — even small combination platters furnished immense portions.

Priced at $7.50, one such entree is bound to fill you to the brim and leave you with leftovers for a solid second meal the next day.

But this low pricing comes with some caveats. Vegetarians take heed — the staff offers to remove the meat from the sauce but does not prepare a separate meat-free recipe. A fellow diner, a vegetarian, was put off by the intense meaty flavor of the sauce. Meanwhile, the sweet, bubble gum flavor of the Vimto soda bordered a bit too closely on that of cough syrup and was out of sync with the savory palate of our main plates.

Vegetarians or those looking to impress a hot date might do well to find an alternative venue to this small orange kitchen. But for the hungry, thrifty and bold, Decontee’s is the perfect place to pass an evening with friends. The unique rotating menu is bound to yield a satisfied diner, while the warm and approachable staff are sure to draw you back again and again.

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