Savoring the piquant—occasionally sweet—mystery of D.C.’s most enduring condiment
"When I was a kid? Every single day. Every. Single. Day. I’m not supposed to eat them any more. But today I couldn’t help myself. Or yesterday.”
Robert Davis was telling me how often he eats chicken wings with mambo sauce. Davis works out of the WMATA Northern Bus Division on 14th Street NW, and has driven part-time with Uber for the past two years. When I met him, he was sitting at the counter at Smokey’s, staring down at a basket of wings. Or what had once been wings. He had destroyed them, and was gazing upon the ruins with contentment, and a certain amount of pride.
The pride wasn’t just about knowing he’s still able to do right by a plate of wings. It’s also pride of place. Chicken wings are just chicken wings until you cover them with mambo sauce. And mambo sauce was created right here in D.C.
Well, possibly. More on that in a bit.
Almost all of the best known places to get wings with mambo sauce are located east of the Anacostia, and most aren’t restaurants with tables or counters as such. Instead they’re carry-out spots named Eddie’s or Danny’s or Andy’s, and they’re usually owned and operated by second- or third-generation Chinese or Korean immigrants. They have bulletproof glass, with small openings to speak through, pay through and, most importantly, receive your wings through. And they have posters listing the exact price you will pay for any given number of wings from one to twelve, which is helpful, since the last thing you want to do when dreaming of wings is math.
Perhaps more importantly, their menus are America writ large. You can get a certain version of Chinese food here, sure. And you can get wings. But you can also get hamburgers and fish filets and gyros. And half smokes and corndogs and 10 or 20 different kinds of sandwiches. You can get spare ribs and pizza and deep fried oysters. You can get fries and onion rings, milkshakes and apple pie. One place even had salad.
To be clear: I’m not saying that you can get all of these things if you visit enough of these places. I’m saying you can get all of these things at every single one of these places. It’s kind of miraculous.
And each of these carry-outs (pronounced “curry-outs,” by the way, unless you want people to know you’re not from around here) has its own take on the sauce. They all start from a common base that is a bit like duck sauce—a reduction of distilled white vinegar, sugar or honey, and ketchup or tomato paste. To that base (bought in gallon jugs from Restaurant Depot or made on-site) each chef adds the secret ingredients they believe make up D.C.’s best sauce. Sometimes it’s pineapple juice; sometimes it’s soy sauce. Hot sauce, paprika and powdered ginger are often added to give it a little kick. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.
The colors of the resulting sauces range from translucent neon orange to opaque reddish brown. Some are quite sweet and a bit one-note; others are complex and tangy, sweet, spicy and smoky all at once. One thing all the carry-out places have in common: they spell it “mambo” yet pronounce it mumbo.
This discrepancy can be explained by history, and, because this is America, by lawsuits. In the late 1940s, a Chicago-area restaurateur named Argia Collins developed a barbecue sauce known as “mumbo sauce”; a corporation called Select Brands owned by Collins’s daughter ended up with the rights, trademarking the name in 1999. (You can buy three varieties of their Mumbo Sauce in a jar, if you’re fancy.) If you use the name Mumbo Sauce to refer to anything else, you’ll be hearing from her lawyers, the way Capital City did when they began marketing D.C.’s first commercial wing sauce in 2011.
Our local version of mambo sauce showed up in the early 1960s, and appears most likely to have been produced as a duck sauce nod to American tastebuds. That said, there are claims that it existed at African-American owned wing joints before Chinese carry-outs became widespread. Goins Carry Out in Northwest and Wings-n-Things in Southeast are both named as possible birthplaces. And there are whispers of “mumble sauce” existing even earlier. But Chinese restaurants have been present in D.C. since the 1890s, their duck sauce served just as long.
These flavors run deep, and over time, run together.
Be that as it may, mambo sauce has been a D.C. standard for decades, a force for both debate and unity in many areas—though hardly all of them. If you rarely venture out of Northwest, you could live for years and never hear of mambo sauce, much less taste it. It has made inroads into popular culture, providing the name for certain beers from nearby breweries and a local go-go group, as well as a regional name check for any number of songs in other genres. And it is so beloved that D.C. natives who’ve long since moved away return from surprising distances to taste it once again.
“All he ever wanted was that mambo sauce.”
This was a sentence I overheard at Eddie Leonard’s, the original one, on Bladensburg Road in Northeast. I ended up talking for half an hour with Tameka Coles, the woman who’d said it. Coles was up from Charlotte, N.C., with her daughter Kyanna and her friend Amber, to visit family and eat wings. The “he” in her sentence was her husband. The two of them have been eating sauce on wings for thirty years.
And she doesn’t want to hear about Chicago. For her, D.C. is mambo sauce and mambo sauce is D.C. And fair enough. Because even if the roots of the city’s trademark sauce reach back to somewhere else—to Daejeon or Guangdong or, God forbid, the Windy City—that would still be a very D.C. situation. D.C. for the win! And the wings.
How This Story Was Reported
Number of Chicken Wings Consumed: 41
Number of Restaurants Visited: 9
Number of Said Restaurants Claiming to Have DC's Best Mambo Sauce: 9
Photos: Roy Kesey and Katie Bernarding
Roy Kesey is a novelist, translator, and free-lance journalist currently living in Potomac, Maryland.