by Eric Ginsburg
The speaker system, arranged in two towers on the floor to the left and right sides of a large stage, dwarfed my 6-foot-4 frame. It rivaled setups for outdoor music festivals that draw audiences approaching five figures, and I wondered if the dormant bar across the open dance floor struggled to keep bottles from vibrating off the back bar when a band is in full swing.
The night-and-day comparison for Mambo Café is quite literal in this case — a venue that allegedly draws hundreds for its weekend dance and karaoke nights, especially Sunday, apparently hasn’t found a way to attract a lunchtime crowd to the restaurant that shares the same semi-industrial space near Winston-Salem State University.
But don’t blame it on the kitchen.
The place may be named for a type of Cuban music and dance — and before that, it appears to have been called Rumba Café, another dance from the island — but the menu is flush with Mexican, Honduran and Salvadoran fare as well as other regional cuisine. The Salvadoran options, including a typical plate and pupusas, rival any Salvadoran joints in the Triad, and I can’t recall seeing any other local menus with a Honduran section (albeit with three items in it).
The things Americans have come to expect from a Mexican restaurant’s menu are all there as well, including the cheap lunch specials such as the tasty enchiladas con pollo with rice, beans and sour cream that come so full of chicken the two halves look like stout burritos.
But the Salvadoran and Honduran choices are what really impressed me. Sure, there’s the standard pupusa options (search our website for more on pupusas if you’re unfamiliar), but Mambo also dishes up the Salvadoran hot cakes with loroco — a vine with edible flowers — chicharones al estilo Salvadoreño (fried pork) and a “Salvadoran style” shrimp cocktail with tomato, onion, cilantro, lemon and avocado.
I’ve been to El Salvador twice, for about two months total, and I’ve never seen the type of Salvadoran enchilada offered on Mambo’s appetizer menu for a mere $3. Ignore the name; this app looks exactly like a Mexican tostada, with a softer corn tortilla base topped with a pile of Salvadoran style coleslaw (no mayo), chicken or beef, cheese and sauce. It’s almost like an open-faced sandwich but a little smaller and, in this case, with a flavorful, thick orange tortilla base that’s a little flimsy.
Just because I haven’t seen this sort of Salvadoran enchilada in person before says nothing of its popularity — El Salvador may be a tiny country, but while I’ve been to more than a half dozen states there, we’re still talking about a nation. One of the Central American country’s principal exports is its people; millions who fled a US-backed military regime or the civil war in the 1980s ended up here. Though pupusas are the most identifiable and widespread culinary tradition from the freckle of a country, a quick internet search of “Salvadoran enchilada” turns up tons of photos that look similar to Mambo’s meal.
Therein lies a lesson; even when you’re a local know-it-all, you’ve only begun to scratch the surface.
That’s how I felt at Mambo in general — the stage and speakers made it clear that a whole world exists here that I haven’t come across, just a short stretch down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive from Winston-Salem State. The Triad and its three cities often feel small, after exploring it for a decade, and a little too cozy to those who have been here longer than I. You’ve tried horchata (which isn’t as sweet but comes with a little more cinnamon here than the average) and maybe pupusas, experimented with a soup or hit up all the Taco Tuesdays you can find. You might know what carne asada means or have determined long ago that you don’t mess with tripe.
But have you tried Honduran-style tilapia? What about a baleada? Or you could opt for Mambo’s Honduran-style pollo con tajadas — bone-in bits of chicken covered in a dripping slaw, tomatoes and cucumber surrounded by pieces of fried banana. It’s pretty messy, thanks to the bones and saucy slaw, but it’s totally worth it. Try the lobster tail stuffed with crabmeat and served with rice and salad, one of the specials here, then tell me how it is.
Better yet, grab dinner on a Sunday night and then stay for the party. I’m guessing it will be a smash, and I know the food won’t disappoint.
These cities may be small, but you’ve only begun to uncover their glory.
Visit Mambo Café Restaurant & Bar at 1527 S. MLK Jr. Drive (W-S) or call 336.293.4266.