When people think of food in D.C., they typically don’t think of Caribbean cuisine — Ethiopian and American, perhaps, but definitely not Jamaican. I myself am Jamaican, and grew up with a patty shop around the corner and hardo bread always within reach. Looking for a little bit of home in D.C., I craved the taste of jerk chicken and callaloo, which led me on a search for authentic Jamaican cuisine. This quest of mine led me to some questionable areas. (Translation: There are certain parts of southeast Washington that I would rather forget.) But my patience and persistence (and the aid of a nice Caribbean cabbie) led me to Sweet Mango Cafe.
When it comes to Jamaican restaurants, I admit that I turn into a form of Tom Colicchio from “Top Chef,” meaning I become a bit of a snob, daring the restaurant to impress me. But here were the meat and potatoes I grew up eating. One of the District’s go-to restaurants for Afro-Caribbean cuisine for years, Sweet Mango Cafe, like any good Jamaican restaurant, has that unmistakable thing that is vital to an authentic Jamaican dining experience: vibes. Vibes, in the island sense of the word, are that sweet yet subtle signal that tells you that you’re getting the real deal. The vibes first hit me when I exited the metro at the Georgia Ave-Pentworth stop. Emerging from the bowels of the D.C. underbelly to the familiar fragrance of “jerk” on the grill, I opened the door to Sweet Mango Cafe as if to confirm the vibes that I sensed to be true. And, sure enough, my ears heard the Jamaican patois and the clinking of long-necked, glass Jamaican soda bottles, and suddenly I felt at home.
Even though I laud Sweet Mango Cafe on its traditional Jamaican recipes, do keep in mind that it is no Michelin Star winner or a place where a dinner jacket is a necessity. The reason why I recommend Sweet Mango Cafe is that, like the country from which its dishes hail, while it may be rough around the edges at times, it always has heart and soul at its core. It’s a laid-back spot where you can get that no-worries feeling as soon as you bite into a warm, delicious beef patty. Sample from the wide range of what Sweet Mango Cafe has to offer. Jerk chicken, Jamaican curried shrimp and, for those of you who are the adventurous type, Oxtail, braised meat that has been softened to perfection in coconut milk and paired with rice and Gungu peas.
Bob Marley once said, “One good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain.” And like Jamaican music, Jamaican food is similarly a comfort to those in need of comforting. If you’re looking for a place to get away, a place with good food and a come-as-you-are mentality, then you won’t find a better spot than Sweet Mango Cafe.