Sweet Mango: In Need of Dressing
By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Oct. 3, 2008
At first glance: I'm no business expert. I believe food is more important than ambiance. And I definitely prefer the loud, busy traffic of the city over the quiet streets of the suburbs. That said, it seems to me that Sweet Mango Cafe in Petworth is not making the most of what it's got.
And what it's got is substantial: great food, a corner location on New Hampshire and Georgia avenues right by the Metro, outdoor seating in the city, little nearby competition and a real Caribbean authenticity. (You can hear it in cashier Otonia Beckford's accent as she takes your order.)
I just want more.
I can't be the only one who has driven by Sweet Mango Cafe and been intrigued by the florescent "Open" sign in the window. It kind of looks like a hip club, dark and lively. And the outdoor seating upstairs screams "great place to hang out with friends." Yet, to enter the restaurant is a little disappointing. In actuality, it's little more than a cafeteria, with a tiled floor, green and yellow walls and a long counter where you order and wait for your food. A little makeover could really spruce up the place up -- a few booths, maybe carpet, lower lighting -- something that could entice you to stick around.
But in talking to Dale Agostini, Sweet Mango's co-owner and a native of Guyana, the appearance doesn't seem to be high on his list of priorities. "The basic concept of the restaurant is to serve fresh food everyday. To me that's our basic principle . . . . [Customers] know that what we do is fresh." And to that end, Sweet Mango succeeds.
At your service: There is none. Don't get me wrong, the employees (the cashier, the bartender upstairs) are all very friendly. But my friends and I wondered how much more it would cost Sweet Mango's for table service. And while it's at it, what about real plates and silverware? The plastic foam containers don't do the food justice.
We got our food and walked to the upstairs patio, where we were surprised to discover, as the sun went down, no lights. Not being able to see your bone-in chicken proved to be a little disconcerting. (Agostini said they plan to add outdoor lighting.)
But more unnerving than the darkness was the very loud drone of the kitchen fan blowing into the street below. What would it take, we wondered, to quiet that?
On the menu: The jerk chicken is delicious: perfectly cooked, dark and tender on the outside and moist on the inside. You have your choice of dark or white meat. I preferred the sandwich, which wasn't really a traditional sandwich at all, but rather chicken on the bone, with a slice of thick, almost scone-like, white bread, wrapped in tin-foil.
If you order the jerk chicken meals, be prepared to eat. All the meals come with vegetables (mostly cabbage) and rice and beans. I couldn't distinguish between the "medium" meal and the "large" one. They were equally huge. The chicken by itself is so good there's no need for the sauce, which sits in a big plastic bottle on the counter where you order. But if you prefer a little more flavor, it will add a sweet, tangy taste.
If you want something a little spicier, the brown stew offers chicken on the bone in a thick, very spicy brown sauce. The chicken has the taste and texture of having been cooked slowly all day. I dare you to finish it all.
If you must stray from the chicken, the curry goat is also good. It's similarly well cooked without too much curry but with a slightly tougher texture and gamier taste.
What to avoid: Meat is definitely their specialty. The tofu is chewy and overloaded with curry sauce.
Wet your whistle: Alcohol is not listed on the menu but can be ordered from the full bar upstairs. As for nonalcoholic beverages, Sweet Mango offers a variety of bottled juices, including ginger beer, lemonade, coconut water and Nantucket Nectars.
Bottom line: I like this place! I really do. With a little effort on the decor, the restaurant could really score big. But for the most part, this is a takeout place. Agostini says they aim to become a chain along the line of Pollo Campero, only more health conscious.