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Mambo Or Mumbo, Learning The Secret Behind D.C.’s Special Sauce

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Two customers at Smokey's in Petworth, which they insist has the city's best mumbo sauce.
WAMU/Emily Berman
Two customers at Smokey's in Petworth, which they insist has the city's best mumbo sauce.

Mumbo — or mambo sauce, depending on who you ask — is one of D.C.’s quintessential street foods. Both names mean the same thing: It’s a reddish, barbecue-ish, ketchup-ish, tangy sauce layered on just about anything, but especially fried chicken.

David Gay is a regular at Smokey’s, a carry-out restaurant in Petworth. He gets his styrofoam container of wings, studies the terrain carefully, and applies the sauce with a focus he deems “Mumbo Science.”

Gay’s friend, Willie Antrum Junior, has also been coming here for fried wings and Mumbo sauce for nearly 20 years. But if you ask him to describe the flavor, he’s stumped. “Nobody knows what's in it," he says. “It’s not barbecue sauce, it don’t taste like ketchup... it's a combination of something.”

The woman behind this sweet, tangy, and evidently addictive flavor is Angela Lee. She’s owned Smokey’s for 20 years, and worked here for 10 years before that. She’s been in charge of making the mumbo sauce since she took over. Not even her waitresses exactly what she puts in it.

To make the sauce Lee mixes sugar (the amount is a secret), vinegar (the type and amount are also a secret), and a black sauce (not soy sauce) and a few spices (again, another secret) into a vat of store-bought barbecue sauce. Smokey’s serves three to four gallons of the stuff a day. And though it’s popular here and at many other carry-outs in the city, turns out, it’s roots aren’t in D.C. at all.

Doreen Thompson, a culinary historian, grew up three blocks away from Chicago's Argia B's barbecue restaurant. Thompson recalls seeing the big sign for the rib joint on Chicago’s Southside, and its signature mumbo sauce.

Angela Lee owns Smokey's in Petworth.

It was invented around 1950 by an African American restaurateur named Argia B. Collins Sr. At a time when there were few products made by African Americans on grocery store shelves, he got it into several stores around the city.

Thompson says she would get into knock-down, drag-out arguments about mumbo sauce’s history. "A friend would say, 'I remember it was 1970 something... and I would say, 'This is 1950 something! And they would get kind of quiet," she recalls.

Mumbo sauce is definitely from Chicago, and Argia B’s family is protecting the name. They’ve gone after a company formerly known as Capital City Mumbo Sauce for infringing on their trademark, and won. The sauce you find in D.C. is not quite as dark, not quite as thick as Argia B’s mumbo sauce. "I think what we’ve got caught up in is somebody liked the name. Mambo doesn't have that same ring as mumbo," she says.

Back at Smokey’s, the pressure cooker is frying up some wings for Ernest Graves, who lives nearby.

"I always think about mumbo sauce all the time," he says. Not the orange and clumpy stuff of other carry-outs, he adds, but the smooth secret recipe at Smokey’s. Some days he comes for breakfast and lunch. He plans his weeks around getting his fix.

"On the weekends, on Sunday, they’re not open on Sunday. If i don’t get it on Saturday, I'll be in trouble," he says.

Graves’ order is ready, and he heads over to the mumbo sauce station to load up.

Though it may not have originated here, Washington’s mumbo tradition runs deep. Graves, for one, doesn’t care where it came from. Chicago, the moon, wherever. For him — and perhaps a whole lot of Washingtonians — it’s the sauce that makes living in this city so sweet.

Music: "Mambo Sauce" by Christylez Bacon from Advanced Artistry

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