At Mango Mike's, "We try to Caribbeanize everything we do," says owner "Mango" Mike Anderson. The drink menu at the sunny tropical-theme restaurant is a case in point. "We were going to do a pina colada, and someone said, 'It's got to be in a neat glass,' " Anderson recalls.
In a moment of inspiration, someone else suggested using the husk of a fresh coconut, and the staff became obsessed with the idea. Two big obstacles had to be overcome: First they had to open the coconut while leaving the shell intact to serve as a vessel. Then they had to figure out how to keep the coconut upright and sitting on the table. The second problem was easily solved, thanks to short bamboo rings that support the coconut like a tee. But getting inside the coconut "took us a long time to figure out," Anderson laughs. His bartenders and cooks "tried using axes, and some guys wanted to use machetes." Then Anderson went to his local Sears and picked up a large drill press.
The result -- known alternately as the Coconut Colada or the Big Bamboo -- is one of the coolest cocktails in the Washington area. A smooth, rich version of the classic rum, pineapple and coconut libation, the drink receives added flavor from the fresh coconut meat and sweet milk and is served with a spear of pineapple, orange and cherries. Sitting on the large deck under a towering royal palm, sipping from the prickly husk, you can begin to imagine you're in the islands. No wonder Mango Mike's goes through about 150 of the six-inch coconuts a week.
The Coconut Colada is just one of the kitschy beverages offered. Patrons sitting next to the colorful oleander bushes outside or at the thatched-roof bar imbibe sweet, fruity rum drinks from large ceramic parrot glasses, tiki mugs and 64-ounce fishbowls or flaming volcanoes (the last is a giant volcano-shaped ceramic bowl with Bacardi 151 burning in the center. As it flames, brave customers use straws to sip from the bowl.) Even kids can get in on the act with a small plastic blowfish cup. And except for the volcano, the vessels are yours to keep.
"One good thing about a Caribbean restaurant: Anything goes," Anderson says with a grin. "The more colorful, the better. No one ever has a bad time in the islands."
Anderson, who also founded Alexandria's Shooter McGee's and owns Ramparts and Simply Fish, fell in love with the Caribbean on a trip there in the '70s. An avid windsurfer, he visits exotic locales such as Aruba and Margarita Island at least twice a year, bringing back new ideas for Mango Mike's. After a recent excursion to the Dominican Republic, Anderson decided he wants to build a hut of eucalyptus leaves and straw on the restaurant's wooden deck. "If they can stand up to hurricanes, they should stand up to winter in Alexandria," he says.
Adorned with three varieties of palm trees, tons of white sand, flowering oleander and hibiscus bushes and a newly constructed series of fountains and flowing waterfalls, Mango Mike's deck is one of the best happy hour escapes in the area. The sound of water and the rows of plants block out most of the noise coming from Duke Street's traffic, and classic reggae and ska tunes take care of the rest. Seating options include pastel-colored Adirondack chairs and long benches fashioned from Anderson's old windsurfing boards. Even better is a small motorboat that has been converted into a table. Anderson found it in Rehoboth, fixed it up and installed cup holders in the bow. On weekends, the hull is filled with ice for storing beers, and 13 people can sit on stools around the boat. Only the table next to the dining room's 600-gallon tropical fish tank is more popular.
Inside, the bar is decorated with surfboards, colorful bottles and murals showing windsurfing and tropical scenes, as well as 42,000 pounds of limestone coral rock and dozens of tropical plants. It can be noisy and crowded -- DJs spin salsa and merengue for a predominantly Latino crowd on Thursday night, and '70s, '80s and modern dance music Friday through Sunday. Sunday brunch features Trinidadian steel pan performer Michael George, who returns home every year to compete at the famous Carnival.
Mango Mike's isn't just a Margaritaville bar selling novelty drinks, though. The kitchen takes its food seriously, sending out crabmeat quesadillas, gumbo, conch fritters with mango chutney, and Caribbean CocoLocoNut Shrimp, which are beer-battered shrimp coated in bits of coconut, fried and served with peach salsa. The house specialty seems to be "jerk anything," as chicken, shrimp and pork chops all receive a healthy rubdown of allspice, cinnamon, ginger, onions and Scotch bonnet chilies. (If you're just going for a snack, the jerk chicken wings, which are rubbed both wet and dry, are excellent.)
One question remains to be answered: Why "Mango" Mike? No particular reason, but it's evocative of the Caribbean -- " 'mango' being a a tropical fruit," Anderson says. It's the inspiration behind the house cocktail, the Mangorita, a frozen margarita topped with fresh mango and lime juice. Would you expect anything else?
-- Fritz Hahn (Aug. 29, 2003)