(by Corbo Eng)
Do I wish it were different? As odd as it may sound, the answer is, “no.” These things are what they are. When the cards were dealt, DC got what it got; and, who’s to complain, really? Sure, Baltimore has its crab cakes, Philly, its cheesesteaks, and New York, its pizza; but, DC has its mumbo sauce. It’s a less tangible thing—not like what other towns can boast. One isn’t hit with a big dose of proteins or carbs, for example. Nothing like that. Mumbo sauce is, after all, a sauce. It’s the little sauce that could—an unpretentious condiment that is DC’s signature food.
It might sound crazy that this is so; but, anybody who’s from here or has ventured past the city’s trendiest neighborhoods to eat at the Chinese carryout joints that fill the city’s nooks and crannies knows just how popular mumbo sauce really is. No carryout shop is without it. And, really, it’s only when that layer of vaunted restaurants and hipster eateries is peeled back that one truly understands how ubiquitous Chinese carryout shops are in DC—and, as a corollary, how ubiquitous and integral mumbo sauce is in DC’s food scene when that scene is considered in full.
In the populist food culture that permeates DC’s neighborhoods—and, even, the immediate suburbs of Maryland and Virginia where Chinese carryout shops duly hold sway as well—homely foods like fried chicken wings are a staple; and, they are invariably served with mumbo sauce. Thin and vaguely viscous, mumbo sauce is a characteristically sweet, sometimes tangy, sometimes sour, sometimes spicy sauce that can be red, scarlet, amber, or any hue in between.
Mumbo sauce is offered in those clear plastic condiment cups that come with a snap-on lid; or, it can be simply slathered or drizzled directly onto the fried wings themselves (as well as the French fries or fried rice that frequently accompanies them). It’s a rite of passage that becomes habit and that’s as commonplace as ketchup or barbecue sauce in most other circles. In fact, mumbo sauce, as it is employed in DC’s carryout shops, is a stand-in for those other condiments. And, frankly, that’s ironic given that mumbo sauce, despite its many variations, is almost always made with ketchup as its base component—with barbecue sauce being a frequent partner in crime as well.
A survey of DC’s mumbo sauces makes this readily apparent. For instance, at Danny’s, a local carryout chain with outposts in both DC and Maryland, the mumbo sauce is as such. At the Temple Hills location in Prince George’s County, I ordered six wings and fries with mumbo sauce on top (and a side of it for good measure). Here, the sauce has a pronounced ketchup-like taste. It’s essentially a barely transformed version of it with some extra vinegar boosting its force and a touch of hot sauce mixed in for some very faint heat. The mumbo sauce at Yum’s II, a popular Chinese carryout in the heart of DC’s 14th Street corridor, is similar. It’s very much like ketchup but with bolstered notes of vinegar; and, like Danny’s, the mumbo sauce is basically the same unmistakably characteristic reddish color of ketchup. On the surface, the two aforementioned iterations and ketchup are virtually indistinguishable.
Henry’s Soul Café, a soul food joint and chicken wing purveyor—one, unlike most in DC that is actually African-American owned—follows in this vein of offering mumbo sauce with a pronounced base. However, unlike Danny’s and Yum’s, the base isn’t ketchup but, rather, barbecue sauce instead. The base flavor is, clearly, barbecue sauce—what kind, however, is hard to tell. But, it’s obviously the foundation—with ketchup and vinegar added in to assuage the primary flavor a bit. It’s good, more or less tangy, complements the fried wings well, and really demonstrates just how varied mumbo sauce can be as different versions of it promote and elevate either ketchup or barbecue sauce as the main constituent.
That said, mumbo sauce can deviate markedly from its base ketchup and barbecue sauce and taste mostly sweet—leaning in a direction that makes it less acidic and balanced and, in my mind, less appealing. Such versions are quite prevalent and are commonplace at Chinese carryouts throughout the city. For example, Howard China, a longstanding Chinese carryout on Georgia Ave. near Howard University, boasts a mumbo sauce that is primarily sweet in flavor. Its color is a bit less red, and it teeters on the edge of being cloying. It’s much sweeter than the mumbo sauce found at Danny’s or Yum’s. The sweetness, in fact, is interrupted only by a faint sour component—a mild vinegar. In fact, the mumbo sauce, in its execution, could even be deemed “fruity” (as if some kind of fruit juice or purée were part of the equation).
Across the city limits, in Maryland again—this time in Silver Spring—Wing Wah Carryout is known for its mumbo sauce: one that is similar to Howard China’s in that it’s more sweet than anything else. In fact, the sauce here is faintly “peachy” in taste with hints of neutered ketchup that’s been thinned and arrested by other ingredients. This sweetening effect, however, is most pronounced at Panda Café in Arlington, Virginia where the mumbo sauce that accompanied my order of wings tasted the most one note of any that I tried. It tasted sweet, of course; and, beyond that, there was seemingly nothing else. It was gloppy and, like the mumbo sauce at Wing Wah, a shade of neon red that reminded me of ketchup that had been mixed with something like corn syrup or agave nectar that could have given it its lightened and brightened overall appearance.
Of course, a mumbo sauce that is sweet and features less of a vinegary component is, consequently, less able to complement fried chicken wings—which, as a consequence of being fried—can be oily and in need of a bit of acid to subdue them. But, the best mumbo sauce acts as the perfect foil. It doesn’t favor any one individual flavor at the expense of others. One such mumbo sauce is found at Full Yum, a Chinese carryout just south of New York Ave. on North Capitol Street. Here, an order of chicken wings is graced with a sweet, sour, mildly spicy mumbo accompaniment that is balanced in its approach and that enhances the wings. My teeth and gums, afterwards, didn’t feel like they had been shot up with Novocain.
Such enhancement, to be sure, is most skillfully realized at Smokey’s in the 16th Street Heights neighborhood in DC. Aficionados of mumbo sauce—yes, they’re out there—will know this place well. Both Smokey’s and its owner, Eun Joo Angela Lee, were singled out in a Washington Post article in 2011 about mumbo sauce. Why all the fuss? I wondered too; but, upon visiting Smokey’s, ordering the wings, fries, and, yes, smothering everything in mumbo sauce and tasting the food, it’s clear that the sauce here is exceptional.
The sugar and vinegar complement one another perfectly; the result is something that’s just richly tangy in the best sense of the word—with barely perceptible notes of ketchup and barbecue sauce that are too well blended to disentangle. There’s just the right amount of faint sweetness to please the palate and just enough acid to cut through the oily residue of fried chicken wings without dominating them. Lee’s use of a secret ingredient—ginger powder—adds a bit of seductiveness too. The fact that the wings and fries—both ultra crispy—might, very well, be the best in the city doesn’t hurt either. A meal at Smokey’s can leave one proud to call mumbo sauce DC’s signature food.
Certainly, DC’s little sauce that could is a unique calling card—something simple and homespun (if not homegrown). Of course, some food historians may gripe about and debate the true origins of mumbo sauce—about how it actually originated in Chicago at a restaurant called Argia B.’s Bar-B-Q, which prominently sold something called “Mumbo Bar-B-Q Sauce” before mumbo sauce’s supposed origins in DC in the 1960s (after “Mumbo Sauce,” capitalized as a proper noun, first appeared in Chicago). But, in my estimation, it doesn’t really matter if the claim is true or not. It probably is. Even if mumbo sauce didn’t originate in DC, the fact of the matter is that it’s become part of the food culture here. In the end, what matters most is not where something’s from but where it takes root and grows.
And, in that regard—entrenched as it is in the everyday fabric of the city, in overlooked neighborhoods where tourists seldom, if ever, visit, embedded on the handwritten menuboards and folded takeout menus of easily dismissed Chinese carryout shops, and used as a condiment for cheap proletarian fried chicken wings—there is no humbler culinary ambassador for any city than mumbo sauce. For me, that’s appealing—because any worthy signature food item shouldn’t be the purview of high end restaurants or something, for example, that DC’s power brokers could have had a hand in shaping. Indeed, a signature food should be of the people, by the people, and for the people. In the case of mumbo sauce, it’s true. How appropriate is that for a city like Washington, DC?
Copyright 2014 (Corbo Eng). All rights reserved.
All photos by Corbo Eng.