If there’s anything that comes to mind when you ask a local about D.C. barbecue, it’s the smoky, fruity sauce that goes with everything from chicken wings to crab rangoon: mumbo sauce.
If you ask any foodie to list the most popular barbecue regions of the United States, the DMV area isn’t often the first to come to mind. Because the city is so close to the South, D.C. barbecue is more often influenced by other regions than it is an innovator of the slow-cooking style. Despite this, there’s one regional flair to barbecue that experts agree is unique to D.C.: mumbo sauce.
Mumbo (or sometimes spelled mambo) sauce is a tangy marriage between a sweet, smoky barbecue sauce and a Chinese-style plum sauce. Thick and sweet, fruity and a bit smoky, mumbo sauce has become a staple condiment in D.C. barbecue and fast-food joints. Thicker versions are used as dipping sauces for french fries, fried shrimp, egg rolls, and other greasy foods to contrast the starches and proteins. Thinner variations of mumbo sauce are treated as glazes for chicken wings, barbecued ribs, and rotisserie chickens. While nitpicky food historians (and the courts
) may believe that the fruity glaze was born in Chicago, D.C. barbecue has popularized mumbo sauce to the degree that locals wouldn’t believe it comes from anywhere else. (In fact, there's been at least one art exhibit
named after the sauce in D.C. – ever put on a mumbo sauce art exhibit, Chicago?) Chicken and seafood joints offer mumbo sauce just as readily as they do tartar sauce; it’s even found mixed into D.C. eaters’ takeout containers of white rice. Meat, however, is the true vessel for mumbo sauce – not only for taste, but for a functional reason.
Restaurants in D.C. that focus on quick turnover are often heavily reliant on fryers for multiple reasons: food not only comes out of a fryer quickly, but it comes out so hot that it has to spend a few minutes cooling to a temperature that’s safe to put in human mouths. Many fast-food customers in D.C. are looking to take their food elsewhere; since their meals remain at a higher temperature for longer, these takeout customers end up with a more satisfying experience.
The problem with serving fried chicken wings is that, when dressed in a properly-made sauce like Buffalo sauce, they will usually end up with soggy, rubbery skin instead of crisp, juice-sealing skin. Ingredients in the sauce like butter will enter the fried chicken skin more quickly than a thicker, sugar-based glaze. This is where mumbo sauce becomes the primary savior of D.C. barbecue: the thick, sugary barbecue sauce soaks into fried chicken wings so slowly that the wings would long be cold before they lost their crunch. While there are plenty of DMV barbecue joints and other restaurants serving mumbo sauce (some even sell the stuff by the bottle!), for the most authentic D.C. fried chicken and mumbo sauce experience, try a local Chinese fast-food chain like Yum’s Carryout
. As Modele Oyewole explains
on Complex’s roundup of D.C. barbecue and mumbo sauce, “America may run on Dunkin’, but the heart of Washington, D.C., beats to Chinese carryouts.” Yum’s has been a staple in the D.C. takeout market for years, due both to their abundance of locations and consistency of quality, and their mumbo sauce is among the best available in the city – especially at the late hours they’re open.
Mumbo sauce has become a surprising addition to grocery stores in the DMV area over the past few years. Developed by Arsha and Charles Jones
in their home in Annapolis, MD, Capital City Mambo Sauce has grown to take the title of “The Official Wing Sauce of Washington, D.C.” Offering both a mild version and a “sweet hot” version, Capital City sells their mumbo sauce in stores across the city, as well as on their website
. Where’s your favorite mumbo sauce in D.C.? Have you been able to find it outside the DMV region? Let us know in the comments below!