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Da Flava Unit opens first brick-and-mortar location in Iowa City
Food truck, stand owners move into next phase of growth
IOWA CITY — A couple who started running a food stand in 2010 and a food truck in 2020 have moved into their next phase with a brick-and-mortar location at the Iowa City Marketplace.
Da Flava Unit’s new “Xpress” location, opened by owners Tony and Zee Brown in December, gives diners a taste of street food indoors, four days a week.
The permanent location is a realization of a long-term plan that started with Zee’s Jerk Pit stand at the 2010 Iowa City Jazz Festival. After a pause from the food stand, the couple started Da Flava Unit’s food truck in North Liberty in 2020. Since then, they’ve built on the food truck’s momentum — something they’ve staked their careers on after repositioning with the pandemic.
“Our passion has always been cooking,” Zee said.
Tony and Zee, 53 and 43, respectively, were always the appointed cooks for large family reunion. Tony holds a culinary experience from the ’80s, and both have decades of practical experience cooking for their 10 children together.
But it wasn’t until years of working in customer service, health care transportation, insurance and more, that the couple realized how short life is to live out that passion. When the pandemic hit, they needed to make a change to remain self-sufficient.
Tony, a kidney transplant recipient at high risk for COVID-19 complications, couldn’t risk a lot of public interaction early in the pandemic. As a medical transportation driver, the pivot helped the Browns keep their family safe while following their dream.
“I knew there was something me and my husband had to do, more than just raise our kids,” Zee said. “I knew we had some type of gift we could give back. We love feeding people.”
If you go
What: Da Flava Unit Xpress
Address: Iowa City Marketplace, 1608 Sycamore St., Iowa City
Hours: 4 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 4 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday, Monday and Wednesday
Phone: (319) 423-1930
Website: daflavaunit.com or facebook.com/daflavaunit1/
Details: Street food, fusions, jerk chicken and soulful classics served on a regularly rotating menu with new dishes introduced each week, at modest prices.
With inspiration from their upbringings in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, both bring a unique flare to traditional street food.
But more than that, the theme in food and aesthetics allows the Chicago transplants to be themselves in Iowa, where their genre of street food hasn’t been served as much as in other large cities.
“Anywhere in the world, street food is the best food,” Zee said. “I could create a menu and business plan for a nice chop house or nice sit-down fancy, restaurant, but that ain’t me.”
With parents from Belize, Tony brings a niche Caribbean accent to his flavors. Jerk chicken is marinated for 24 hours in a proprietary blend of spices and herbs, and the palate of Belize comes through in other dishes like chicken stew.
For Zee, who was raised vegetarian by “Black, Jewish hippies,” it means giving the veggies a spotlight with flavorful vegetarian options to mirror the meats.
From soy protein tacos and cabbage substitutes to seitan kebabs, she knows how to make vegetarian options that won’t make meat-eaters miss any flavors.
With no sodium or preservatives, all of their scratch-made menu is made with a healthy foundation at an accessible price point — $3 for tacos and about $16 for a plate of jerk chicken with two sides.
From Caribbean Sundays to Remix Saturdays, every day brings new flavors and options on an ever-rotating menu of fresh selections. New street foods are introduced on Flava Fridays, and Thursdays are reserved for tacos.
Customers come back for their tacos, macaroni and cheese, rice and beans, Iowa chops, ribs and rib tips, alongside a variety of fusions like Super Bowls (ramen-inspired Vietnamese pho) and birria tacos. For barbecue entrees, a variety of scratch-made sauces area on standby to complement the smoked flavor.
“Food is quality to me. Everybody should have good, healthy food that’s homemade,” Zee said. “I want Iowa to be part of this.”
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