Smile Politely

Mama Meta’s Canteen shows off Congolese-inspired comfort food

Champaign’s new restaurant Mama Meta’s Canteen serves African-inspired, American-infused food made with high quality ingredients sourced from Central Illinois farmers. Opened by Lauren Mulowayi, this Black-owned, family-run business is named after the chef’s mother-in-law Annie Meta who taught her how to cook Congolese cuisine. Mulowayi’s husband was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and together, the couple settled in Champaign-Urbana with his family. The cooking lessons Lauren Mulowayi received from Mama Meta sparked her passion for cooking Central African dishes.

Mama Meta’s Canteen operates as a ghost kitchen. What does that mean? A ghost kitchen is a restaurant that operates as to-go only. Mama Meta’s Canteen has limited hours and days of service (at this time), so it’s best to plan out when you want to eat rather than a spontaneous visit. This week, the canteen is open Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

I wanted to taste some Congolese cuisine, so I ordered some dishes from the new restaurant. I ordered my food through the restaurant’s online order form which had descriptions of each dish.

When it was time to pick up my order, I drove to Mama Meta’s Canteen. Watch this video of how to get there because it really did help me find the restaurant easily.

The exterior of Mama Meta's Canteen is a three story brick building with gray-green metal double doors on the ground floor. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The canteen is located by The Refinery, and there are two reserved parking spots for Mama Meta’s Canteen customers right in front of the takeout door.

On a gray background, a yellow sign for Mama Meta's Canteen reads

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

I called the number when I arrived, and shortly after, a masked and gloved staff person brought my food out. Then, I took my food home and laid out the lunch.

On a white table, the author's lunch order is spread out in cardboard rectangle boxes and circular plastic containers. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

When I started opening the containers, the aroma of garlic, steak, and some savory smells I couldn’t place filled my kitchen. 

On a white table, the author's lunch is uncovered revealing various African dishes. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

I began with the samosas from the extras part of the menu, and I ate them an appetizer.

In a small cardboard box, there are three triangular samosas with a side cup of red chili sauce. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

When I opened the box, I saw how beautifully golden brown the pastries were. Mama Meta’s Canteen’s order of samosas ($7) came with three triangular samosas and a choice of sauce. The made-from-scratch fried pastry was stuffed with seasoned onions, peppers, and beef. The samosas were clearly hand-made, and the way the pastry was folded over created cracks, creases, and flaky bits that had a crisp texture, and the crunchy exterior went so well with the soft middle of meat and onions. The ground beef tasted buttery, no doubt from the pastry. The beef had a fantastic char apperance and taste that I really enjoyed. 

I dipped these in the sweet chili sauce, and it was yummy. I was impressed by the sweet-and-spicy heat in the dipping sauce; the sticky sauce started with sweetness and had a great spicy finish.

On a white table, a small cup of spicy mayo is uncovered. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

I also ordered the spicy mayo for an additional $0.50 because I love a good housemade sauce. The creamy dip was good, too; it had a peppery heat that went super well with the samosa — and everything else I ordered. I put this spicy mayo on veggies, chicken, and the beef bowl.

In a cardboard box, there are three fufu balls and a big portion of rustic chicken with a light white sauce on it. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

For my entree, I ordered the poulet mayo ($12.99) which was listed on the website as “a favorite of the people.” It was a creamy dish of chicken and veggies that I am now totally obsessed with. The oven-roasted chicken was shredded into boneless bites; some chicken were skinless, some had skin on — and there were even pieces of just chicken skin. The rustic cuts of chicken had a developed smoky flavor and a wonderfully tender texture. The creamy sauce was made out of mayonnaise, and I was here for it. If there is one thing Midwest cuisine and this Congolese dish have in common, it’s a healthy dose of mayo. I seriously loved this dish; if you like mayonnaise and you like roasted chicken, you will, too. 

It came with a choice of side, and I chose fufu. Mama Meta’s Canteen’s fufu was made with semolina. Fufu is not meant to be eaten by itself but to be eaten with a flavorful dish or soup. I tore a little off the stretchy dough ball, made a small dent, and grabbed some chicken and peppers with it. On another bite, I made a small ball of fufu and dipped it in the sauce lingering at the bottom. The fufu itself was bland, but that was expected as fufu is a swallow food, or a food that is served hot, eaten by hand, and swallowed without chewing (but you can chew it if you want). The spongy fufu reminded me of the delicious bites I’ve had sopping up the broth of soup with the crust of bread; the fufu absorbed the flavors of nutmeg, bold garlic, and distinctive palm oil from this dish. With the starchy fufu and saucy chicken dish together, it was a complete meal. 

On a white table, there is a cardboard box with quinoa, beef, broccoli, chickpeas, and veggies topped with cilantro. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

I also ordered the beef bowl ($12.99) which had quinoa, marinated beef, broccoli, and chickpeas topped with cilantro. The toasted seasoned chickpeas on top were so good. There were lots of chopped beef, packing in a lot of protein. The bites of the beef had a peppery flavor was really good. The quinoa was cooked in a tomato base which gave a depth of flavor to the grain. The broccoli was steamed and plentiful throughout the dish, but unfortunately, the broccoli was a bit softer than my preference. I will say that the quinoa, thin bell pepper slices, onions, tomato chunks, and chickpeas were really tasty when eaten together. I think this dish was a healthful lunch option. 

The bowl is also available as a vegan bowl, and it includes everything but the beef. 

On a white table, there are two circular plastic containers. The one on the left is full of white rice, and the one one the right is full of pondu, stewed cassava leaves. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

I ordered a side of rice ($2.99), and I tried pondu ($6). Pondu is a leaf soup made from cooked, crushed cassava leaves. Mama Meta’s pondu was stewed with palm oil, smoked meat, and a wide range of veggies. The side dish had a big earthy taste, and the softened greens provided a texture contrast to the other foods. In this cassava leaf stew, there were teeny tiny beef shreds which were the same size as the chopped greens and provided a savory, meaty flavor which made the veggie side dish taste more dynamic. I scooped some pondu on my plate to enjoy, and I found that adding a bit of pondu to the other foods on my plate (chicken, fufu, beef, quinoa, rice, and plantains) was quite delicious.

On a white table, there are two black circular containers with plantains. On the left, there are three peeled boiled plantains, and on the right, there are many dark brown medallions of fried plantains. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

I also ordered boiled plantains ($3) and fried plantains ($6). I’ve had fried plantains before, but I’d never had boiled plantains before my visit to Mama Meta’s Canteen. The boiled plantains were peeled, boiled, and served alongside the meal as a starch. The online menu said to “mash with fingers to form a spoon to assist in scooping up every bit of stew.” The boiled plantains were unseasoned, so like the fufu, they could absorb the flavors of the dish and act as a tasty utensil. The stiff cylinders had the texture of a baked potato and did well to soak up the sauce in the pondu.

The fried plantains were delish. It was a huge portion that I made sure to finish because they were so very good. The sweet dessert had crisp edges around slightly, softened fruit. The plantains were sliced into medallion-sized bites, and the deep caramelized flavor plus mild banana sweetness make this a must order.

On a white table with a dark blue background, there is a plastic small cup, uncovered, holding bright red dried spice. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

I wanted to order the chicken wings and the pilli pilli, a super spicy African pepper oil sauce, but neither were available last week. I was able to order a side of dry pilli pilli ($0.75) which was a cup of a secret very hot pepper spice mix blend. I tried the tiniest amount, and my mouth was on fire! I will need to find a way to cook with this, but I absolutely loved that I could buy such a unique mix spice — and for less than a dollar.

Because the kitchen has a very small staff, what is available on the menu changes slightly from week to week. It looks like the chicken wings and the spicy sauce are both available to order this week, and based on how tasty dishes I had were, I assume these two will be tasty as well. 

If you’re looking for an opportunity to try some food you may have never tried before, Mama Meta’s Canteen is serving up lots of good African-inspired dishes with different flavors and tastes. Try the starches to soak up the sauce, and eat with your fingers. I think it’s pretty amazing to be able to enjoy Congolese cuisine right here in Champaign. 

Mama Meta’s Canteen operates on a limited schedule, so be sure to follow the restaurant on Facebook for the most up-to-date information. Put your order in online here.

Mama Meta’s Canteen
2302 W John St
W+Th+Su 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Top image by Alyssa Buckley.

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