Mumbo sauce: The flavor of Washington ‘that isn’t the president and the politics’

Arsha Jones was glad the windows in her husband’s truck were tinted. Six months pregnant and craving a taste from her District upbringing, she looked at the container in her lap, considered the 30-minute-plus drive home and decided she couldn’t wait. Eating with her hands and looking, in her words, “like a barbarian,” she swept crunchy chicken wings into pools of reddish-orange goo.

The mumbo sauce tasted just as she remembered.

“I was immediately taken back to when I used to eat this food every day,” Jones, who lives in Annapolis. “Before responsibility. Before bills, kids, marriage and being grown-up.”

The Italians may have their marinara and the French their bearnaise, but for many D.C. natives, the sauce that captures the flavor of home is called mumbo. Few can tell you how it’s made or where it originated, but they know this: If you grew up in one of the mostly African American areas of the city, you’ve likely known the taste your entire life. If you didn’t, you probably have no idea what it is.

“It’s definitely a part of the subculture,” Jones, 34, says. “It’s the D.C. that isn’t the president and the politics.”

It’s the Washington that exists in hole-in-the-wall joints owned by Chinese and Korean immigrants who long ago learned how to cater to a mostly African American clientele, down to a condiment. It’s the Washington that if you didn’t know where to look, you might never see.

The allure of mumbo sauce (also known as mambo sauce) is not just its flavor, which falls somewhere between barbecue and sweet-and-sour sauce. It’s the sense of identity it carries. It tells of roots in a city where many people just blow through. Among the African Americans who live in the District, more than 60 percent were born here, according to census estimates. Among whites, that figure is less than 15 percent.

In its own way, mumbo sauce has traditionally distinguished the two. But that could change. As the city continues its march toward gentrification and neighborhoods shift, long-standing carryouts are increasingly finding themselves next to businesses that cater to a more upscale customer. This provides an opening for the sauce to cross over. It heightens the chance that Jones and other mumbo devotees will find themselves ordering alongside new converts.

Jones, in fact, came up with her own recipe after that craving earlier this year and now sells it online. In just the few months it has been available, orders have come in from Florida, North Carolina and Missouri.

“Nowhere else in the world can this tasty and unique sauce be found,” the Web site entices.

No mumbo, no business

Debate remains about where mumbo sauce was born — some believe in the District, others link it to a barbecue sauce in Chicago — but there’s no question that it has been adopted and customized to become Washington’s own. Visit five District carryouts and you will find five versions of the sauce, each likely made on-site. Some will appear brick red, others neon orange. Some will taste sweeter. Some tangier. Some spicier.

Each will have its fans.

“Here’s another mumbo sauce monster now,” Eun Joo “Angela” Lee, 53, says, smiling at a man who has just walked into Smokey’s, a carryout in the Petworth neighborhood.

“The mumbo sauce here is the best in the city,” Kobie Green, 38, says, pouring it onto potato wedges. “If you had a contest, I guarantee Ms. Lee would win.”

Green is one of several regulars who for years have tried to persuade Lee to put the sauce on the market. As it is, she makes about 15 gallons a week, which she pours into empty syrup bottles that sit within arm’s reach of customers. She has also sold it by the gallon to people holding family gatherings, sending holiday gifts or shipping off college students.

“No mumbo sauce, no business,” Lee says, estimating that 99 percent of the orders she takes call for it.

Lee, who has owned Smokey’s for about two decades, says she never planned on this life. She was a high school music teacher in South Korea before coming to the United States with her husband in the early 1980s. After she arrived, her older sister sold her the restaurant, which back then wasn’t next to a dry cleaner boasting “100% organic cleaning.”

“I cried almost every day,” Lee recalls. “I’m like, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”

But over the years, she says, she has gotten to know her customers. Unlike many other carryouts in the city, there is no bulletproof glass in front of the register, and stools invite customers to sit. “Now,” Lee says, “we’re like a family.”

Everyone knows its name

“Ma, can I have a toothpick?” asks Darius Curtis, 24, whose relatives have brought him to Smokey’s since he was a child. He arrived on a recent day with only half of his hair pulled neatly into braids because he sneaked out of a nearby barbershop mid-appointment to get a single chicken wing, which he then smothered in sauce.

“I love it,” he says.

Down on 14th Street NW, the scene is less familial at Yum’s, but the demand remains. Irene Chin stands behind a thick glass near the register, flipping through the day’s orders. On almost every ticket are the letters MS.

“Mumbo sauce, mumbo sauce, mumbo sauce,” Chin says. “On everything, mumbo sauce.”

That two words could capture a sense of place is what led the band Mambo Sauce to choose it as its name.

Lead vocalist Alfred “Black Boo” Duncan says the band was without a name for about two years when its seven members locked themselves in a room, determined to find one.

They wanted something that said “D.C.” without literally saying it.

“Someone threw out ‘Chicken Wings and Mambo Sauce,’ and we laughed at first,” Duncan says. “And then we thought about Mambo sauce, and that’s one thing you can only get in D.C.”

They also liked that, similar to their music, there is no single recipe. The band is known for go-go music but also incorporates sounds from hip-hop, soul and other genres.

“That’s the same thing with mambo sauce,” Duncan says. “No one really knows what’s in it. They just know it’s good.” (The title of the band’s most recent album? “The Recipe.”)

Kitchen connoisseur

After finishing off four chicken wings in her husband’s Ford Expedition, Arsha Jones says, she realized she was raising three — soon to be four — suburban boys who would probably never know a taste she associated with so many memories and missed when she left for college. So the Web designer did what a 1950s-era mother might: She experimented until she came up with a recipe.

“Initially, it was just something for the family to do,” Jones says, standing in her Annapolis kitchen. Pictures of her four boys, who range from 4 weeks old to 9 years old, cover the fridge along with Spider-Man stickers and alphabet magnets. “Then it got to the point where they were requesting it every week, and I thought, ‘If they really like it, I wonder if we could sell it?’ ”

In May, she and her husband, Charles Jones, 38, launched Capital City Mumbo Sauce, which they run from their home. Already they’ve received requests for cases and have garnered repeat customers. They’ve also seen the sauce used on dishes other than fried carryout staples, including pork loin and shrimp. Neither plans to quit their day jobs anytime soon, but they see great possibilities. Maybe mumbo sauce in grocery aisles in Bethesda.

“We’re hoping to move it along to a point where it’s not only accepted by a subculture,” she says, “but where everyone wants to try it.”

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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