From mambo sauce to half smokes, D.C. culture shines through its staple foods

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By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor
mgreen@afro.com

People from all over the globe influence the nation’s capital’s culinary scene, but don’t get it twisted, there are staple foods particular to Washington, D.C.  

“D.C. is a southern melting pot, like the perfect buffet, you can get a little bit of everything right out of your front door, from Ben’s Chili Bowls half smokes and chili, to Horace and Dickies two piece fish on wheat bread, or Tony’s wedge cut potatoes and the perfect cup of coffee from Culture Coffee Too with a shot of Sankofa Gin, you can get anything you want in the DMV,” Chef Furard Tate told the AFRO.

However, while D.C. might be the country’s capital city, there are flavors and foods that are unique to the place that was formerly called, “Chocolate City,” and people travel from all over the world to enjoy these culinary delights.

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First and foremost, is mambo sauce (also known as mumbo sauce), made popular by local carryouts.  Mambo sauce is a sweet, tangy, barbeque-esque thick sauce that is perfectly paired with carryout specials such as fried chicken wings and French fries. But mambo stretches beyond fried foods, this reporter loves when a little mambo sauce gets on white rice, veggies and other offerings at carryouts or cooking at home as well.  

There’s really no flavor like mambo Sauce, but perhaps the closest way to describe it is similar to sweet and sour sauce with a little more of a kick, thickness and a lot more love. When I was in college, I got an immediately rude awakening when I was only a quick four-hour drive from the District, but a far cry away from a carry out that fed my mambo sauce craving.

Charles and Arsha Jones are a husband and wife duo that started the brand Capital City Mambo Sauce and recently collaborated with local Papa John’s. (Courtesy Photo)

Black entrepreneurs including Arsha and the late Charles Jones, owners of Capital City Mambo Sauce and the Burton brothers, founders of Uncle Dell’s Mambo Sauce, have found ways to please mambo sauce lovers who want the delicacy all the time, at home or no longer have access to the flavors outside of the D.M.V.  

Native Washingtonian, Arsha Jones told the AFRO in March 2019 that Capital City Mambo Sauce was a way of truly showcasing D.C. culture.

“It’s a sense of pride and it comes from the fact that outsiders tend to have this one perception of what Washington, D.C. is. They think it’s politics, and government and White House and whatever goes on down there, but there is a huge community of people in Washington, D.C. who were born and raised here, and we have slangs, dialects, style, music, dances and food,” Arsha Jones, a native Washingtonian, told the AFRO. “And while other urban cities, like New York and Philadelphia, all have certain food that is associated with their community, mambo sauce is relatively underground, but it’s something that makes us feel like home, so it’s important that our food product, a product of Washington, D.C., is put on a platform where it can be respected the same way a Chicago deep dish pizza can be respected, or the same way a New York slice of pizza or New York bagel can be respected,” she added.

There have been arguments that mambo sauce is actually influenced by Chicago’s mild sauce, but as this reporter currently writes from Chi Town, I can guarantee there’s no comparison.  Further, when D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser admitted her own apathy for the indigenous sauce in November 2018, D.C., residents were outraged, wanting to revoke the Mayor’s native Washingtonian card.  

Mambo sauce is so D.C.,  that a Go-Go band, the musical style indigenous to the nation’s capital, is named in honor of the sweet and tangy sauce. The Mambo Sauce band actually has a song called, “Welcome to D.C.,” which also happens to be the theme song of the Washington Wizards.  But mambo sauce belongs to D.C. far more than in name. The sweet, sour and spiciness of mambo sauce is a reflection of D.C.’s complicated, yet delightful culture.

Half smokes are also true to D.C. culture.  As Chef Tate mentioned, the famous Black-owned Ben’s Chili Bowl half smoke and chili have become part of the District’s fabric.  Presidents, politicians and celebrities from all over the country and world make it a point to stop by the Black-owned establishment’s flagship location along the U-Street corridor and get a taste of the famous half smokes, often topped with chili.  The Ben’s half smoke can also be found at Nationals Stadium, Washington National Airport (DCA) and in another historically Black, but gentrifying area like U Street, the H Street Corridor in Northeast.

While Ben’s Chili Bowl founders Ben and Viriginia Ali popularized the half smoke in D.C., when they opened more than 50 years ago,  it’s become a D.C. staple, so much so, a young Washingtonian opened a restaurant in homage to the District’s dish called, HalfSmoke.

“I grew up in D.C. and the Washington area has a lot of underappreciated flavor profiles, whether it be the half smoke sausage… old bay spices and crab cakes…and mambo sauce,” Andre McCain, founder of HalfSmoke D.C., a Black owned restaurant in Shaw, told the AFRO in 2017. The food offered at HalfSmoke, “starts with the sausages, which we consider to be the star of the show,” McCain said.  McCain has added a few different ausage options including the traditional half beef, half pork “Half smoke”, “Italian Pork”, “Grilled Chicken”, “Bratwurst”, “Lamb Merguez”, and “Vegan Falafel”.

Beyond half smokes and mambo sauce, this reporter would be remiss in not mentioning that D.C. is full of seafood snobs, with Maryland as a neighbor.  From old bay seasoning, to lump crab cakes or crabs, to fried oysters and whiting, D.C. has its own take on seafood that is influenced, but a bit different than that in Maryland.  Part of the D.C. experience is heading to the Wharf for fresh seafood, or going to, as Chef Tate mentioned, the famous Horace and Dickies, for fried whiting accompanied with a piece of bread.  This reporter will let Maryland have its seafood shine, but just know D.C. does seafood right as well.

In general, D.C. has become a food city.  One can get the best Salvadoran pupusas, Italian pastas and delicious Mediterranean cuisine all on the same street.

“The DMV has become a foodie’s paradise from fine dining at any local restaurant or hotel, to being the perfect place to start your own business, from catering to a food truck.  If you are serious about the food business, D.C. has a place for you to start and grow your business,” Tate told the AFRO.  As more chefs make the D.M.V. their home, they bring their own flavors and textures, which expands the food palates.  You have to stay sharp with your training and skills if you want to remain on top in D.M.V.”

Notwithstanding the cornucopia of foods offered in the District, D.C. food staples are still ever present and chefs who come to the area honor the local flavors with their special twists.

“I am very impressed with a lot of our young professional chefs in the D.M.V., not only do they come from different parts of the world, they come with diverse culinary training, which provides their customers with not only a taste of D.C., but also a food and flavor that comes from their hometown.”