The people who live in and around the District know the difference between Washington, the seat of the U.S. government, and Washington, a city of contradictions and bleak disparities that, despite it all, has more heart and soul than America will ever know. Duke Ellington. Shirley Horn, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Fugazi, Minor Threat, Chuck Brown, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Billy Taylor. I have listened to these artists, and others nurtured in the broken diamond of Washington, countless times in the weeks since my house became my office and my adopted city became a stranger to me, experienced only through brief trips into town for touchless takeout orders.
This is what weeks of self-isolation will do to you: It will make you nostalgic for a place that’s still your home. I think this explains my sudden, and unexpected, craving for wings and mumbo sauce. Even though the sauce has roots in Chicago, where Select Brands owns the “MUMBO” trademark, if you want to experience Washington — its highs, its low, its poverty, its gentrification, its beauty, its decay — all you need to do is visit the city’s many carryouts, so many of which trade in the classic combo.
To Alan Zhang’s best recollection, his grandfather opened Wings & More Wings (1839 Benning Rd. NE; 202-397-7062) in the early 1970s in the Northeast neighborhood now known as Carver-Langston, which abuts the gentrified H Street corridor but still feels a million miles from it. Wings & More Wings apparently began life as a pool hall, though Zhang says it morphed into a carryout within a few years. Zhang is pretty sure the place sold soul food, including mumbo sauce, from the start. Zhang’s father incorporated Chinese dishes into the menu after he assumed control of the business in the late 1970s, and Zhang added his own touches when he became a third-generation proprietor in the late 1990s.
Zhang makes about five gallons of mumbo sauce every morning, to his own particular specs, and almost every day, he sells four to five gallons of it. Those who have stood in front of the bulletproof glass, reviewing the glowing menu overhead, know why the sauce flows so freely at Wings & More Wings. It doesn’t baby talk patrons with a fluorescent goop that goes down like cherry syrup. This mumbo sauce wants you to feel the heat. Zhang injects his condiment with Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce, for a mid-grade burn that’s buffered with not just sweetness but also with the acidity of vinegar and lemon juice. The latter provides a tropical brightness missing from standard-issue mumbo sauces.
Zhang has a clear grasp of trade secrets. He says he has shared his mumbo sauce recipe with only one other person on Earth. “My wife knows,” he says. This piece of information rattles me perhaps more than it should, certainly more than it rattles Zhang. One horrible accident, my own inner Eeyore suggests, and Washington could lose not only a true craftsman of mumbo sauce, but also the very sauce he created. Let’s hope Zhang has the recipe tucked away in a safe somewhere. I really don’t want to imagine eating the fried rice at Wings & More Wings — studded with chopped onions seared and flavored in a seasoned wok — without it.
What I like about Zhang’s sauce is that it splits the difference between two other favorites in the District. The Yum’s II carryout near Logan Circle (1413 14th St. NW; 202-232-5608) has been part of the landscape since 1988, when the neighborhood was a destination for illicit sex, not a three-course meal with craft cocktails. Yum’s sells whole wings, these Z-shaped beauties with drumette, flat and tip all attached. The wings crackle under tooth, even when slathered with mumbo sauce, which has a vinegar tang and barely a trace of heat. This is mumbo sauce applied as a finishing touch of acid.
Hong Kong Delite (3123 Martin Luther King Jr Ave. SE; 202-562-7047) occupies a small squat building in the Congress Heights neighborhood, sandwiched between a tax service and My 3 Sons Unisex barber shop. The mumbo sauce here is a shade of red not found in nature: It’s so electric it looks like it might be plugged into a socket somewhere. The color is telling. Hong Kong Delite’s mumbo sauce dispenses with niceties. It’s pure fire.
As I sit in the car, biting into HKD’s whole wings, savoring their crunch and heat, I notice a gorgeous mural painted on the side of a nearby house. It features a portrait and quote from Dorothy I. Height, a name that I, with great embarrassment, do not recognize. I Google her and discover that Height was an activist fighting for equal rights for African Americans and women, two battles that continue to this day. Some wise soul in Southeast clearly wants to keep Height’s memory alive for generations to come.
The mural makes me think of a conversation I recently had with Alfred “Black Boo” Duncan, lead vocalist for Mambo Sauce, the go-go band named for the condiment so identified with District carryouts. (You say “mambo,” I say “mumbo,” let’s call each other for lunch.) Mambo Sauce, the band, hasn’t performed in quite a while, Duncan says, and he fears that mumbo sauce, the condiment, isn’t doing much better in his hometown. He knows all about the changing demographics of Washington and the changing tastes of its newer residents. Duncan himself has recently adopted a plant-based diet, though his favorite sauce still has a place in it.
“Mumbo sauce, go-go, all of that is Black culture here. That’s what we grew up in. That’s what we raise our kids in. That’s just where we come from. We just didn’t imagine that D.C. would no longer look like D.C. in years to come,” Duncan tells me.
“Now, more than ever, I see how important it is and how important it is to hold onto these things that are just so Black D.C., so Chocolate City,” he adds. “I think it could fade away if we don’t preserve it.”
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