A History of DC’s Official Condiment — the One Chicago Tried to Steal
It’s not ketchup, it’s not duck sauce, and it is absolutely not barbecue sauce
Philly has its cheesesteaks.
Chicago has its deep dish pizza.
New York has its bagels.
And DC has its chicken wings — and mambo sauce.
Some say the soul of DC is go-go music and mambo sauce. Others say, if you don’t know what mambo sauce is, you live in Washington…but you don’t live in DC. I may have grown up in Manhattan, but I’ve been in DC for three decades. I have a bottle of mambo sauce in the fridge and a back-up supply in the cabinet.Like go-go music, DC’s official sound, and the District’s official cocktail, the gin rickey, mambo sauce is the taste of DC.
WHAT IS IT?
Mambo sauce, also spelled “mumbo sauce,” is a sweet and savory dipping sauce. While the taste and color may vary, mambo is not ketchup, and it’s not the sauce that comes with Chinese takeout — aka duck sauce. And it’s definitely not barbecue sauce. It does have a tomato base, though, and with a little touch of vinegar and a blend of spices, it goes really well with fried and salty food. For those who love a finger-licking experience, you can get your mambo sauce poured right onto your wings; for those averse to a messy meal, you can get it on the side. A lot of mambo-sauce lovers are traditionalists and only eat it with wings; others use it on everything from egg rolls to fried seafood, pulled pork to ribs. I use it in my homemade meatloaf.
Drive past any wings carry-out place in DC, and you’re bound to see people standing out front with mambo-sauced faces and fingers. Most carry-outs have nowhere to sit, so styrofoam containers rest atop cars or any other flat-topped surface. While you can get wings at some white-cloth DC restaurants, like the Hamilton, if you want the true experience, you should take the take-out route.
While mambo is DC — ask anyone, they’ll tell you — a few years back, a judge didn’t see it that way. About a decade ago, the term “mumbo sauce” was upheld as a trademark of a barbecue company in Chicago; Select Brands had trademarked the term in 1958. Arsha Jones, founder of Capital City Mambo Sauce, filed a petition to cancel the trademark, pointing out that the Chicago recipe is different from DC’s and that “mumbo sauce” is a term for a carryout sauce, not one particular recipe. The judge disagreed. But that didn’t stop Jones from building a mambo empire.
“I grew up in Northwest Washington, DC right off of Georgia Avenue. And it was always a thrill and excitement for me to be able to go to the corner store with my own money,” says Jones, who remembers being as young as 10 and walking down the block by herself for a snack. “And one of my favorite things to get was wings and mambo and fries. Or sometimes — now this is a cheat code — when you really didn’t have any money, you could just buy fries because they would give you a lot of fries for, like, a dollar. Then you would get mambo on top, and that killed the hunger. I’m not saying it was healthy,” she says, laughing. “But it got me by.”
After moving with her family to the suburbs, pregnant with their fourth child and craving a meal from her favorite wing joint now more than 30 minutes away, Jones started making her own mambo sauce. “Then one day, I said, ‘You know what, there may be other people out there like me, who’ve moved away from the city and no longer can get access to this product anymore.’ And I said, ‘I’m going to see if people are out there willing to purchase it.’ I had a long-time career as a web designer and graphic designer, so I put up a website. I was specifically marketing to people who had moved out of state to North Carolina down to Georgia, Florida, California, Texas. What I didn’t realize was that I had a huge market here in the DC metropolitan area, too.” By 2012, a butcher at Eastern Market was selling her sauce. “He said ‘yes’ immediately. That was the first person that gave our products a try. And people ran there. They couldn’t stop and we just kind of grew, just like that.” Last year, Capital City celebrated its 10-year anniversary.
No matter how you spell it (mambo or mumbo) and no matter how you eat it (wings-only or on everything) — and despite what that judge says — mambo is the taste of DC.
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