The woman behind the cash register keeps staring out the window as she talks, avoiding all eye contact. Maybe she’s bored. Maybe she’s fascinated by the thunderstorm outside. Or maybe she’s just embarrassed by the number of dishes that I try to order—and that she can’t serve me because the Sweet Mango Café is out of them. The list borders on the absurd: fried plantains, the deep-fried Jamaican dumplings known as “festival,” salted codfish with callaloo leaves, even ackee and salt fish, the fruit-and-fish combo that’s considered Jamaica’s national dish.
The woman claims Sweet Mango had a run on these items over the weekend and hasn’t had time to restock. I’m skeptical; the restaurant is doing a swift business on a Monday in the middle of a storm that has radio hosts practically ordering us to shelter-in-place. Something packs them in here, but what?
It’s obviously not the service or the interior. The first floor of the multilevel space is spare, with counter seating around the front windows, a handful of wobbly two-top tables, and a clear view of the stainless-steel kitchen. The décor is islander standard-issue: photographs of mangos, a couple snaps of Bob Marley, a Jamaican flag, a handmade sign bragging about the joint’s jerk chicken technique—“We Jerk It, Not Bake It.”
So it must be the food. After my negotiations with the cashier, I settle on the steamed red snapper, which is apparently available. Minutes later, I’m summoned by a cook who says that they’re out of red snapper, too. He wonders if I’d like the escovitch kingfish instead. He says he can adjust the heat level to my taste, obviously pegging me as some pepper wuss.
While the cook’s heat-protection services are endearing, his escovitch kingfish ($7 small/$10 large) is not. Sitting atop a hill of brown rice, beans, and cabbage in a Styrofoam container, the pan-fried fish has a hardened exterior and a chewy interior—but still packs plenty of flavor thanks to a pungent red sauce mixed with strips of onions and bell peppers. The problem, I discover, is that Sweet Mango fries its fillet, then stores it in a stainless-steel warmer, which slowly transforms the flaky fish into the rubbery mass before me. The dish is not the reason people visit this place.
Then I notice my dining companion gnawing away on her jerk chicken (from $6.50 to $9.50, depending on size and choice of meat) and making happy sounds. She offers me a bite, and I suddenly get it. Moist, salty, smoky, and spicy, these skinless chicken parts deliver everything you want from a jerk dish. It’s clearly a square white container of red-tinted chicken pieces that, in large part, attracts the crowds.
Reginald George James started Sweet Mango in 1993 in a building he shared with a travel agency. In July 2002, James suffered a natural disaster far exceeding the storms that flooded the area last month; a fire ripped through the building, leaving his restaurant in tatters. It took two years, and a number of loans from friends, for the owner to rebuild Sweet Mango. James’ half-brother, George “Lenky” Beckford, has been his main cook from the beginning, and their partnership has earned them a solid following in a Petworth neighborhood still short on destination restaurants.
The 45-year-old James makes few pretenses about his operation. If you ask, he’ll readily admit that the marinade for his mouthwatering chicken comes from a bottle of Walkerswood Traditional Jamaican Jerk Seasoning; he’ll tell you the seasonings for his moist and meaty goat curry ($7 small/$9.50 large) also arrive pre-packaged; he’ll tell you that his flaky, spicy, and savory beef and chicken patties ($1.50 each) come from Royal Caribbean Bakery in New York. He and Beckford are not chefs, just family cooks from Manchester, Jamaica, with a nose for products that taste like home.
What James is truly proud of—recall the boastful “We Jerk It, Not Bake It”—is Sweet Mango’s jerk cooking technique. When he rebuilt the cafe, James, an amateur engineer, designed his own charcoal grill and metal meat coverings for slow-cooking his chickens, which he buys from a halal butcher. Not that jerk cooking is some cosmic mystery; it’s merely the slow, hot smoking of spiced meats in a confined space to trap moisture and flavor. It’s essentially barbecue, with a scotch-bonnet-and-allspice marinade replacing the dry rub and mop sauce.
At least that’s how Beckford, the pit master of Petworth, jerks his birds, closely monitoring the pieces of covered white and dark meat until their insides reach a rosy shade of pale. But James and Beckford would be the first to tell you that, as good as their jerk chicken is, it still doesn’t taste like the stuff down in Kingston. That’s because Jamaicans still follow some of the traditions laid down centuries ago by Maroons, the runaway slaves who are believed to have perfected the jerk technique in their mountain region. To this day, Jamaicans slow-cook their meats over wood from mango or pimento trees, which impart a flavor that James calls an “acquired taste.” Good luck finding pimento or mango wood at Sweet Mango or any other stateside Jamaican eatery.
Sweet Mango’s technique may not be historically accurate, but it’s still as close to the real thing as you’ll find in this area. A random sampling of six local Jamaican outlets found that only one other, the Jerk Pit in College Park, jerks its chickens on a partially covered charcoal grill. The rest do indeed bake their birds.
Sweet Mango Café, 3701 New Hampshire Ave. NW, (202) 726-2646.—Tim Carman
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