There almost were Buffalo wings on the Hamilton’s menu; the namesake founding father was from New York, after all.
But during its opening week, restaurant executive Tom Meyer watched hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon rapping his song “Mambo Sauce” in the Hamilton’s music hall:
“We order chicken with the mambo sauce / fries with the mambo sauce / They never use enough, I got a side of it.”
That’s when Meyer realized Buffalo wings had a homegrown alternative, even though he had never tried the tangy, spicy, gooey, sweet condiment that is the heart and soul of D.C. carryout restaurants and a neighborhood fixture.
At Bacon’s recommendation, Meyer hopped into a cab to get wings and fries at Yum’s II, a Chinese food counter at 14th and P streets NW with light-up menu boards and no seating.
Smitten with the sauce, Meyer worked with his chefs to develop a version for the Hamilton’s menu.
That’s how a lowly carryout combo meal that usually costs less than $5 was elevated to an $11 appetizer on the same menu with yellowtail carpaccio and Cape Cod day boat scallops.
And so it goes at other upscale-casual restaurants across the Washington area, where you now can order mumbo sauce, also called mambo sauce, as a dip for frites served alongside mussels, or on chicken washed down with a punch of lavender-rosemary vodka, rhubarb syrup and lemon. The collision of culinary worlds was inevitable, now that some of those same carryout restaurants share their gentrified blocks with purveyors of craft beers and $23 pizzas made with house-milled flour.
Is the upscaling of mumbo sauce a punch in the stomach or a palate-pleasing ode to the District’s history? It depends how long you’ve lived here.
“The first time I ordered mumbo sauce at the Hamilton, I thought it was a nice nod to D.C.’s indigenous culture,” said Natalie Hopkinson in an e-mail. She is an author who has written about gentrification and culture in the District. “Given the ambiance of the restaurant, it did feel a bit out of place, though, which is I guess as good as any metaphor for change in D.C.”
The sauce’s origin, much like the recipe itself, is murky. But in this region, it appeared at African American-owned wing shops before being picked up by Chinese-owned carryouts. Each shop has its own recipe; some are spicier, some sweeter.
Chef Rahman “Rock” Harper, an Alexandria native and a winner of the “Hell’s Kitchen” reality television show, added it to the menu at his newly opened restaurant, Fat Shorty’s, as a tribute to his childhood. The trendy Clarendon spot offers the sauce as condiment for its sausages and fries.
“Chefs that try to do plays on mumbo sauce, I appreciate it, because it pays homage to a part of D.C. that may become invisible,” Harper said. He serves about five gallons of it a week; much of it goes to patrons who are trying it for the first time.
He tells them the sauce is “a D.C. original condiment born in carryouts. It’s sweet and spicy, tangy ketchup.”
But there is a delicate boundary-stepping between old D.C. and new. It teeters between tribute and swaggerjacking, a term used to describe the appropriation of minority culture for commercial gain.
Folks on Twitter and Facebook cried swaggerjacking in January when a doughnut shop was named after legendary graffiti artist Cool Disco Dan. (It was renamed Zeke’s D.C. Donutz and recently closed due to an unrelated lawsuit.) The social-media crowd was more divided over the Corcoran’s “Pump Me Up,” a tribute to the art and music of the District in the 1980s and ’90s, for which the museum’s gift shop sold bottles of Capital City Mumbo Sauce. An art show hosted by the gallery Contemporary Wing was named after the sauce, as well.
At GBD, the chicken-and-doughnuts restaurant in Dupont Circle, the mumbo sauce is made of ketchup, sugar, Spanish paprika, Frank’s Red Hot, Tabasco sauce and distilled white vinegar. Chef Kyle Bailey was inspired to put it on the menu by the staff at another of his restaurants, Birch & Barley. That restaurant is a few blocks from Yum’s II, and Bailey’s staff would head there for late-night meals after their shifts.
Arsha Jones, who bottles and sells Capital City Mumbo Sauce with her husband, Charles, said she thinks higher-end restaurants discovering the sauce can only be a good thing, because it preserves a part of D.C. culture and, of course, bolsters the two-year-old business.
“As long as respect is given to this as a homegrown sauce, I don’t mind,” said Jones, who sells the sauce at Ben’s Next Door and Union Market. “There are people who will always go to the neighborhood carryouts to eat their mumbo sauce. There are people who will never go to a local carryout to get their mumbo sauce.
“I think it allows a wider margin of people to get to try this product.”
On a recent evening at the Georgia Avenue Jerry’s near Howard University Hospital, customers scratched their heads at the idea of sit-down restaurants carrying mumbo. “Why go to a fancy restaurant?” asked D.C. native Terry Moore. “You can get a cup of it for 30 cents.” Ernest Dupree, a chef for the BET cable network, said he has tried to re-create the sauce for his 8-year-old but doesn’t appreciate trendier restaurants hopping on board.
“That’s not cool,” he said. “They’re trying to copy it, and that’s not good.”
Sarah Godfrey, a freelance writer who has delved into the history of carryouts, said sauce devotees who are loyal to Yum’s II should not be upset that trendier restaurants are serving mumbo sauce because Chinese carryouts appropriated it from black-owned carryouts, which started serving it in the ’60s. The first Yum’s opened at 14th and P NW in 1987, before anyone imagined alfresco eggs Benedict in Logan Circle.
“It’s cool that more people know about it. Are they really experiencing it if they’re going to an upscale restaurant to get it? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t know,” said Godfrey, who also has written for The Washington Post. “I don’t even think the way I experienced it was the authentic real deal, so it’s hard for me to turn around and tell someone that where they’re eating it is not the real deal, either.”
Christylez Bacon orders the wings he inspired every time he goes to the Hamilton. “Some people might be purists, but I think it’s pretty dope,” said. “And at least going to the Hamilton, I know I won’t be getting any MSG.”
Jones is trying to upgrade the sauce by concocting an all-natural, gluten-free version that will, of course, “be marketed to Whole Foods and the high-end specialty shops.”
A new version of mumbo sauce? Shaquita Parker, who first tasted the sauce at a Chinese carryout down the street from her alma mater, Douglas Junior High, laughed. “Oh, that’s gonna be hilarious,” she said. “I will try that.”
But “if it doesn’t taste like carryout,” she said, “it’s not the real thing.”