116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — After selling food out of her own home, Wadeline “Wawa” Lafortune is living her dream by serving up a taste of the Caribbean at her own restaurant.
“It’s always been my dream,” she said in between helping customers getting an early dinner at Wawa Caribbean Restaurant, 4342 16th Ave. SW — many whose orders and preferences she already knew. The new restaurant is located in what used to be The Fish Store.
After pandemic delays and challenges getting the space she wanted, she opened with restaurant with her husband, Wilberson, on Jan. 31.
Where: 4342 16th Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
Phone: (319) 396-3568
Details: Available for dine-in and carryout.
“It was just amazing how the parking lot used to be full with people,” she said of the time she sold the food out of her home. “People would say ’you need to open a restaurant.’”
So with a base of hungry customers already built, she did.
But there’s a certain irony to the Haitian immigrant’s story. Though she serves a variety of Haitian foods, from goat and oxtail stew to legumes and fried plantains, she never cooked as a child in Haiti. At 13, her family moved to South Florida, where her self-taught passion flourished.
Other popular items on the menu include fried pork, jerk chicken and a savory legume stew with green papayas, ripe papayas, chayote, cabbage, spinach and eggplant.
“No one ever taught me how to cook,” she said. “My husband says it violates common sense. I think cooking is common sense. You mix stuff together, you blend it and it makes a meal.”
And after telling her husband for 13 years how much she wanted to open a restaurant, her common sense cooking is becoming evident to diners in Cedar Rapids, where the ins and outs of running a restaurant have clicked with her passions, even without formal restaurant training.
“When you love doing something and put all your passions to it ... it clicks,” she said. “It feels like you’ve been doing it for many years.”
With a variety of marinades she calls wet spices — in contrast to the dry spices she says Americans more commonly use — Lafortune, 33, has adapted her cooking style to suit American taste without losing the Caribbean flavor. Haitian cooking involves a more labor-intensive line of steps and methods to turn raw ingredients into a finished product, she said.
Taking care to moderate her spices, her approach makes the food palatable to both Americans looking for a tropical escape as well as Caribbean natives looking for a taste of home, she said. Lafortune takes particular pride in being able to deliver that feeling to Florida students in the area.
“I do most of the cooking because I’m very picky when it comes to food,” Lafortune said. “It has to be my own style.”
Lafortune’s family, with four children under age 12, moved to Cedar Rapids in 2017 from South Florida. With the help of Wilberson and some assistance from their children, Wawa said they want to put their all into getting this restaurant off the ground and to be a success.
“There’s just too much going on in Florida,” Lafortune said. “We wanted to start a whole new life.”
Wawa has an eye on future expansions with multiple locations, eventually. She said Iowa is a great place for Caribbean restaurants to get their start simply because there are fewer around.
In the meantime, their children are learning the ropes. Her 5-year-old already knows how to greet customers the way Wawa does: “Hello, my love.”
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