CHICKEN AND MAMBO
“Y’all know any ‘capes?” Two older dudes in burnt orange and rust-colored XXL t-shirts had just asked. I was returning to my friends milling nearby.
I had just ordered my chicken and mambo (pronounced “mumbo”) from the woman behind the bulletproof glass. And paid for it by slipping my bills through an envelope-sized window.
This was the commencement of my first “chicken n’ mumbo” experience in DC.
Well, according to Rand McNally, I was in Forestville. A few blocks from my friend, Marccus’s home. And I should mention that Marccus not only introduced me to mambo sauce but eventually my future wife like 10 years later. So he’s family now.
That night it was just a late-night snack run for fast food that paired well with 40s and good conversation.
And according to Marccus, yes, there was better mambo somewhat nearby, but it was after 10pm, and the better the mambo usually meant, the rougher the neighborhood. Why risk it and waste gas when Marlboro Pike chicken and mambo wasn’t that bad?
Marlboro Pike runs perpendicular with Pennsylvania Ave. from the Maryland state line to the beltway. And yes, it’s that Pennsylvania Ave., the same one the President lives on in DC.
Really, if I had run out into the street clutching my chicken and mambo and asked someone where I was, and if I didn’t get a smartass answer, I would probably get a catchall, “DC” or “close to DC.” If not, I would undoubtedly get a “PG” or “PG County.”
Prince George’s County blends into the District’s eastern neighborhoods through shared histories, family, and work. So much so that “Ward 9” (DC) has been bandied about to describe the area. Like Puerto Rice, Yonkers, Philadelphia, et al. being defined as the “6th Burrough” of NYC.
TAKEOUT AND HIDE
The rectangular waiting room was bright and flickery. There was no furniture, no counter, nothing but four walls.
On one end was the entrance, on the other a goldfish bowl view of the kitchen. The kitchen, being separated by the waiting room with floor-to-ceiling bullet-resistant plastic.
The floor’s cream-colored tiles were splotched with stains of every imaginable hue.
If you wanted to sit, well, you didn’t. I mean, you could sit cross-legged on the floor and dab at duck sauce-colored clotted splotches with your pinky like some crazy person.
We leaned against the wall.
After the two dudes had approached with what I just notched as a bizarre question, Marccus’ friend pulled out a razor and placed it next to him on an adjacent ledge.
It was a record scratch moment; the temperature of the room had changed. And I was immediately confused.
A conversation commenced that seemed to stroll atop a fence bordering genial and dangerous. Overall, it was vapid.
And I sensed that everyone knew the conversation was just meant to fill the air to either feel out an escalation or allow for an exit ramp where we all just walked out.
Fortunately, our food wound up being the exit ramp. It slid out through a chute of the rectangular plexiglass with a woosh.
We grabbed the chicken and mambo and bounced.
The two dudes weren’t completely done with us; they got ahead of us into their car and tried to block us into the tiny four-car parking area.
There was some cursing; I think I offered an unproductive “go! go!” Marccus did a few parallel parking maneuvers and finally navigated us out onto Marlboro Pike, where we disappeared into the traffic.
So, the Mid-Atlantic region is the only place I have ever lived where a county means shit to anyone outside of notaries, PTA boards, and kids listening to radio closings on a snowy morning.
In the Mid-Atlantic, everyone knows which goddamn county they live in. Probably because several in the area are among the most moneyed in the United States, and it’s either a place to avoid over the steep home prices or brag about over the well-funded schools.
Prince George’s County, Maryland, isn’t in the same tier of wealthiest counties as her neighbors, but she does pretty well; she is home to some of the wealthiest African American communities in the nation. And PG is one of the few Counties in the United States with an African American majority.
As such, it’s a place rich in county love. I found that no matter where you were, District Heights, Largo, Bladensburg, wherever. You were in “PG.”
Maybe not so much in the Laurel area. Laurel resides on the line of seemingly every county in the state of Maryland. So there might be some Laurellians yelling, “Garret County, where you at!!” at a DJ Kool show. BTW I have no idea what you call multiple Laurel, MD residents. I typed Laurellians, and spellcheck was like to hell with that (let me know in the comments).
As it was explained to me, PG witnessed multiple exoduses. And when the dust settled, Prince George’s county was “transformed [from] a formerly white-majority county with a bitter history of racial segregation into a new emblem of rising black prosperity and political power.”
PG County has been described as “a beacon for middle-class African Americans who want to live around other blacks.”
PG COUNTY STAY
And PG County was precisely where I landed in 1997. The trip would have me crashing on Marccus’ floor for several days. College-era visits to friends usually meant lodging on a carpet.
This being decades before a Zoom call would be possible (AT&T did try, unsuccessfully, to interest us in video calling over two scores prior), it meant that if you wanted to build with long-distance friends, you got in a car and drove for hours and hours.
Which I did; a jaunt from Vermont to Maryland. Fortunately, I had some banger new mixtapes.
This is how Biggie’s “Hypnotize” and Chicken and Mambo became so inextricably linked for me. “Hypnotize” was spanking new, and new hip-hop could hit that much harder if you weren’t constantly surrounded by it.
Matriculating in 90s era, Vermont meant that hip-hop fans, like me, were in a bit of a Hip Hop desert.
There were, unsurprisingly, no hip-hop radio stations in central Vermont. And on a college budget, we couldn’t just buy all of the new albums. We had to do our research (The Source, Vibe, XXL) and buy strategically.
It created a sorta’ Hockey goal effect. Whereas Hockey, a sport of immense anticipation that can unexpectedly erupt in tremendous excitement and joy from goals scored.
The same rapture was delivered after picking up a dope tape. And bonus points were in order if you picked up something everyone else was sleeping on. Heltah Skeltah’s first album or PA’s unexpected opus; comes to mind.
However, we weren’t completely submerged in a rap diving bell. We lived within reach of the hip-hop tentacles reaching out from NYC. New York was, seemingly, in her golden age of hip-hop mixtapes. And the proliferation of these coveted cassettes moved fast from NYC to Albany to Springfield to Hartford et al.
You could find the mixtapes in the boutiques where you bought your Phat Farm or Fubu. Sometimes you would stop at 7-11 for a Mountain Dew and see a shallow wicker basket lined with mixtapes next to the register.
“Yo’d you pick up the new Air Alert? I’ll swap you the new Clue for it.” Were utterances after pleasantries upon returning from holiday breaks.
“Hypnotize” wound up on almost every other mixtape I bought that year. It was on the seminal 5 Deadly Venoms of Brooklyn; it was “raptured” on Kool Kirk’s Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems (blended with “Rapture’s Delight” instrumental).
You couldn’t miss “Hypnotize” on mixtapes in 1997, and why would you want to? It was unlike anything any of us had heard.
I had no idea he was basically rhyming every word on that track, but the piece’s flow was unmistakably frictionless, like water. It was amazing.
I couldn’t rewind fast enough on my Walkman Sports as I followed 95 south.
Likewise, this trip was to be my first Chicken and Mambo Sauce experience. Remember, pronounced “Mumbo.”
Chicken and mambo can be partnered with rice or fries. The dish’s success not only relies on taste but is heavily influenced by gravity and time. The longer you wait, the more time for the mambo to integrate with everything below it.
So, picture an 8 x 7 foam container loaded with fries. And on top several chicken wings sopping with the mambo sauce, dripping, and mingling with the cadre of fried potato below.
Based on lack of information, I was always under the impression that the Chinese takeout spots in the area decided to just combine duck sauce and ketchup and create a sensation.
I asked Marccus like, what’s the deal with this stuff? And he never gave me a satisfactory enough backstory. In Marccus’ defense, he wasn’t suddenly agog by it the way I was. We had more important things to chat about during my short visits. Girls, music, life, et al.
Twenty-five years later, when I picked his brain on mambo for my blog. He believed his first mambo experience occurred during High School when he ventured to New China on Southern Ave SE. The sauce was bright red and sweet.
And why mambo got so big? In his estimation, carryouts are a staple for predominantly black parts of the city. When mambo became an option, it was life-altering, at least for him.
MUMBO BEGAN IN CHICAGO?
So anyway, Chicago says Mumbo began in Chicago and even won a trademark battle for the name “Mumbo.”
The challenge was sparked by Arsha Jones, “owner of Capital City Mumbo Sauce…to have the Chicago-based Select Brands’ trademark registration [of “mumbo”] voided.”
Capital City’s contention was that “mumbo” should be “considered a generic term, like aspirin” due to its popularity in the DC area.
One DC mambo sauce entrepreneur (Andy Factory) is seemingly willing to hand over the “u,” reasoning that Chicago’s mumbo “is more of a BBQ sauce” and that “Mambo with an ‘a’ usually reflects the traditional mambo sauce style created in the DC carry-outs.” And poignantly, that mambo sauce is “one of the pre-gentrified artifacts of the city.”
Some DC area residents swear their grandparents were eating chicken and mumbo at black-owned restaurants since the 1950s.
And at least one DC luminary, the current mayor, claimed she hadn’t heard of the stuff until she “was a full-grown woman.” She went on to say she wished “people would stop suggesting that it is quintessential DC.”
Which went just about as well as you might expect (especially considering she seemingly lauded Mambo years before). Bowser hadn’t been this villainous since she was encouraged by her namesake and scourge of the Mushroom Kingdom to help defeat Mario.
CHICKEN AND MAMBO GETS ITS MOMENT
It’s wild that now mambo appears to finally be having its moment. For years I would search out the sauce online to mixed results. These days you can rock mambo-inspired sneakers.
Mambo sauce was an example of pre-web, mouth-to-mouth virality. And like any good element of viral commodity, the secret was probably received like a high-value transactional exchange.
I couldn’t find shit on the mystery sauce in the days of Netscape or Internet Explorer. What the hell was it?
Could it be that today’s millennial hipsters spilled the beans to a broader audience? Did the pandemic spur along the legend because we had gorged too much on pizza early on and craved something different?
Mambo’s murky history has begun to dissolve, thankfully due to the topic being explored by more media sources.
And having a popular local band named after the sauce probably helped further.
WHY CHICKEN AND MAMBO IS PERFECT FOR DC
Like mambo, the DC area is hard to fully grasp culturally, especially for culturally naïve out-of-towners such as myself.
Even if you put aside the international mixing that occurs here, which would be a blog post all its own, you have a vibrant culture with its own vernacular and its own soundtrack.
Go-go is, literally by law, the music of DC. “A rhythmic mix of percussion and beats from funk, salsa, soul, gospel, blues, and Latin music,” and the reverberations of Go-go can be felt just as firmly into PG County… And that’s about it. You won’t hear much Go-go in Arlington, Montgomery County, Prince Charles, etc.
For me, it’s the percussion from abstract and unexpected places that gives Go-go its “umph.” Buckets, steel drums, et al. give the whole sound an air of imperfectly perfect. Go-go sounds outside, sweaty, echoing off nearby structures; it sounds live, even through headphones. And it can go on for an eternity, i.e., repetitive, don’t @ me, I’m an out of towner.
Similarly, there is an abstraction to the vernacular. A sort’ve half-urban half-countrified dialect perfectly fit to this city that sits on the precipice of the South and ends the megalopolis chain that starts in Boston and moves south.
Once after an argument with Marccus’ roommate at our Vermont college, he was like, “damn, you carried that dude.” And I was like, “carried him where?”
“Carry” would mean you just clowned or disrespected someone. Marccus could have thrown “”bama” at the end of the sentence, which would have been totally appropriate. The dude was a ‘bama.
A ‘Bama, by the way, would be anyone from the dipshit that cut you off on the beltway to a dude in the late 90s still wearing Starter jackets when everyone knew Starter Jackets hadn’t been cool for like 5000 years. This may be a bad example now that Starter is kinda’ back.
If you were excited for your new pair of Wu-Wear jeans or Space Jam Jordans, you would be “ciced” for them, pronounced like “slice” minus the “L” and with a “D” finishing off.
When I moved to the area from Philadelphia in 2008, I was on a quest to discover DC’s signature food after realizing that it wasn’t overwhelmingly chicken and mambo the way the Cheesesteak was Philadelphia’s thing.
I worked near Georgetown, and most folks didn’t know what the hell chicken and mambo was. Maybe I was just asking the wrong people?
DC can appear strange to newbs and outsiders; a pulsating city life happens in pockets between stodgy swathes of federal agencies and obelisks.
It is a land of global authority; a collection of international embassies dot the map from Tenleytown to the Capitol.
Young folks frolic between the times they aren’t sleeping in their expensive downtown apartments. There are beautiful neighborhoods with high-priced homes.
And lots of really short buildings. No building can be higher than 130 feet tall (160 for portions of Pennsylvania Avenue) by federal law.
And then there is the pene-exclave of sorts of Southeast, which is cut out by the Anacostia. Which has historically housed a predominantly African American population.
Home prices drop dramatically after crossing the 11th Street Bridge. But that seems to be changing as housing prices inflate as wealthier folks move in, making life in the Southeast more financially challenging for the working-class families who have lived here for generations.
Washington DC, an international city, cycles through leadership from all over our country and the world. And as with other global cities, you have a diverse gastronomical menu to choose from.
Halal, Korean BBQ, Ethiopian offerings, Central American chicken joints, and more are easy to find. One Good Friday, I had a Salvadorian Fish Cake Soup in Columbia Heights (Fish Cake Soup is apparently the Salvadorian thing to eat during Holy Week).
CULTURALLY IMPORTANT HOT DOGS
With all that internationalism and diverse foodstuffs in mind, the actual signature dish comes out of leftfield. A hotdog, more specifically, the half-smoke.
When served correctly, the half-smoke, a name that belies the dish’s true nature, is a swollen sausage hiding in a bun hiding in a swamp of chili.
A lovable “half-hot dog, half-sausage” has been a DC area staple for almost 100 years. And is among the most culturally important descendants of a hot dog ever, thanks to Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Marten Luther King Jr. frequented Ben’s Chili Bowl, even stopping by after his famous “I have a dream” speech. And Ben’s Chili Bowl has been feeding civil-rights protestors for almost 60 years.
Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, President Obama have all been patrons. This is an important place with an ever-changing mural celebrating African American luminaries and a fantastic storefront color scheme.
As for the half-smoke itself, if you’re creating a mental image of other regional hot dog royalty such as New York’s dirty water dog, the fantastic Chicago-style dog (or red hot), or even your county fair’s corn dog… don’t.
When you’re handed a half-smoke, you probably won’t see anything you recognize. The plump sausage, mustard, bun, onions, and often the plate/ container will be drowned in a delightful meat mud.
As far as metropolitan meat signature-dishes go, the half-smoke is a winner. There’s a lot of meat; there are onions and mustard. I love it. And that’s your DC signature dish.
So, could mambo be a signature condiment? A mildly esoteric query; I got plenty of “huh?” when I broached that one to longtime residents.
What would even be a signature condiment? Aren’t the only condiments, ketchup and Mayo? It’s not like DC created ketchup (more on this later).
I doubt there are too many places that could stake a serious claim on a signature condiment.
You have my hometown, Baltimore, with its magical “Old Bay” powder that folks get completely irrational over. They shake the Cheetos colored powder on everything, crabs (of course), chocolate, pizza, beer, even cicadas.
Maple Syrup is so Vermont I wouldn’t be surprised if Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra did shots of it to get in character for their rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont.”
Sure, other States hammer taps into their trees to steal out that sweet tree blood. And Canada produces way more – but are you gonna go out of your way to buy something labeled “Maple Syrup from Canada?!” (It’s a joke Canada don’t hurt me).
Ranch dressing is uniquely American and such a force that it is practically the signature sauce of everywhere. People put that shit on pizza. “Forty percent of Americans named ranch as their favorite dressing” in a study with the closest competitor coming in at just 10%.
Three places seemingly have a claim based on where the inventor and plumber-cowboy, Kenneth Henson, lived. Born in Nebraska, Plumber/ sauce-maker in Alaska, and finally California. Where in California? Hidden Valley Ranch, duh.
If I were governor of any of these states, I would hang a sign at every border “Welcome to _____________ birthplace of ranch dressing.”
REGIONAL SAUCES OPINIONS THAT MAY SPARK THREATENING EMAILS
Buffalo, New York claims one of the greatest sauces of all time, the sauce that can make the wing of any animal instantly a “Buffalo Wing.” That is some goddamn power right there.
Although I feel like I should mention that Buffalo Wing fans often dunk their sauced wings in Ranch dressing before finally eating, just saying.
And by the way, I always thought the origin story for Buffalo sauce, like mambo, was up for debate. But the National Chicken Council says it was the Anchor Bar. Which, wait, weren’t other bars in Buffalo staking the same claim?
Or maybe the debate was the best chicken wing? I doubt the National Chicken Council would be willing to go there.
Similarly, I refuse to wade into BBQ sauce and its regionality as I don’t want any death threats.
While many places can’t claim a signature condiment, I feel like DC could have a legit competition on sauces and seasoning given her age and knack for welcoming a transient population.
There’s the previously mentioned Old Bay which certainly holds court in the DC area.
There’s also DC area ketchup.
JEFFERSON ERA CATSUP
Mary Randolph, an ancient condiment queen, and revolutionary-era celebrity chef, is from the area. And Mary Randolph created catsup (ketchup).
Okay, she didn’t invent ketchup; Euro-Ketchup appears to have originated from a British attempt to replicate Kê-tsiap, a dark fermented sauce found in Southeast Asia.
The Brits didn’t have the soybeans, typically found in Kê-tsiap, so they improvised with anchovies, walnuts, mushrooms, and oysters… Blimey, that’s minging.
Mary Randolph’s catsup was a very early incarnation of the Americanized Ketchup in your fridge right now (thanks to Henry Heinz).
And I bet your ketchup is 1/3 full and has not been sealed shut for months, thanks to the bottle finish and cap being splattered with coagulated tomato blood.
And I know what you’re thinking, Mary Randolph was a prominent Virginian rather than a true-blue Washingtonian. Her cooking opus was titled The Virginia Housewife. Which—all excellent points.
CAN CATSUP COMPETE?
I needed a sauce face-off. And it’s not like Randolph was a stranger to DC. She died in the District, and her cousin would be immortalized by the city.
Randolph was also the first to be buried in what would become Arlington National Cemetery and lived within the borders of present-day Washington Nationals fandom.
Did she die in the portion of DC that would become Alexandria County after retrocession (thus making her even more Virginian)? DC used to be a diamond-shaped district, after all.
Which is to say—I’m reaching here, but what the hell, let’s just continue.
The Virginia Housewife, which included Randolph’s catsup, was rated highly by founding father Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wrote that the book was “one of those which contribute most to the innocent enjoyments of mankind … a greater degree of merit few classes of books can claim.”
Doubtful, Jefferson would have been like, “yo, I made your Oyster Cream from page 144 and almost gagged on that shit.” Even though that is the only correct response to goddamn oyster ice cream.
Mary Randolph was indeed an accomplished woman, writer, etc., but she published an oyster ice cream recipe. Which would be enough to, finally, scratch “DQ” on her entry. And…
Her slaves made her catsup for her. Yikes… I think I’ve mentioned the land mines you face looking too far back into history.
And this sorta’ leads back to the retrocession of DC, which may have been largely due to the slave trade. And now I really want to know if Randolph lived on the Virginia side of the diamond.
SKETCH CONDIMENT HISTORY
Look up the history of anything, and there is a pratfall waiting. For instance, graham crackers were invented to stave off masturbation. No, they seriously were, seriously invented in all seriousness to stop folks from self-gratifying themselves.
Speaking of gross, no one had refrigerators over a hundred years ago, making meatloaf leftovers that much more lethal.
So how did butchers and such keep their meat fresh for customers in the first place? Butchers had to sell their rancid meat, right?
That’s why butchers furiously sprinkled seasoning all over their meats to still sell it past expiration, right? That would be a good enough origin story for condiments.
And condiments at home could be used by families looking to enjoy the rotten meat that would murder them with diarrhea.
I assumed all of the above was correct, yet condiments being invented to rescue shit meat under a cloud of seasonings is apparently a myth. Folks in olden times seemed to just like tasty food.
Other thinking posits that spicing foods may have protected early humans, that their seasonings were antimicrobial. Thus, ancient people “may have learned to love spicy food for evolutionary reasons.”
Either way, there’s evidence that spices were used in concert with food some 6000 years ago. I bet those cavemen bastards would have much rather had some mambo sauce on their sabretooth tiger leg or buffalo sauce on their pterodactyl wings.
I bet I even Ray-splained that unresearched theory of mine to unwitting acquaintances, that condiments were invented to make spoiled meat tasty. I really need to stop that.
MY CHICKEN AND MAMBO STORY
As we disappeared into the night on Marlboro Pike, me cradling takeout and questions. I wanted a breakdown. What exactly happened back there?
“Y’all know any ‘capes?” That slight, which was my assumption, seemed unremarkable. It wasn’t lobbed in with a flourish that would have followed a really get-your-goat insult.
The explanation was that” ‘Cape” is short for “caper” or activity or escapade, typically illicit.
The two dudes were ostensibly asking if we knew of some shit that could be gotten up to. And maybe they could be down? Essentially the dudes were trying to feel out whether we were marks.
In the neighborhoods I grew up in, a skirmish like this would have been handled in decibels far louder. Someone would get pushed and the combatants would face off in a staring contest threatening to murder each other well past the point others were breaking the whole thing up.
CHICKEN AND MAMBO DOESN’T CARE
So, I didn’t and still don’t fully understand life in PG County or nearby DC. I don’t fully grasp the customs, the slang, and the music that powers the area. And none of which require me to.
Mambo could give a shit what I think. Chicken and mambo doesn’t opine for my acceptance or attempts at defining it. I think its obvious I’m obsessed with it either way. It reminds me of 1997 and listening to “Hypnotize” on a mixtape that originated in NYC, hanging with great friends.
Mambo is a force, an electrically charged cultural and regional entity that deserves a spot on your plate. It is a regional sauce that can hold its own with the pantheon of sauce-gods. And its taste illustrates a place with rich history, music, slang, and the people that make this area so unique.
My advice would be to get obsessed with chicken and mambo too.