- Walter Novak
- Jerk chicken and stir-fried rice: What margaritas were made for.
"Every time I eat, my mouth sings," croons Johnny Mango, that fictional bon vivant, gourmet, and, since 1996, namesake for one of the region's sassiest casual eateries.
Now, make that two sassy eateries. Since November, our man Mango has been splitting time between his original Ohio City digs and a new, conceptually identical Johnny Mango World Café and Bar on Erie Street in downtown Willoughby.
In launching their expansion, Mango's handlers, Gary Richmond and Shelley Underwood, said they wanted to bring a bit of tropical pleasure to the Snow Belt. But if the Lake County address seems like a strange port o' call for a sophisticated world traveler such as Mango, you obviously haven't been to town in the past five years or so. While it's no Chapel Hill, N.C., Willoughby's small downtown business district does possess a decidedly funky flair, making it a dream destination for day-trippers and short-term touristas, with stops that range from an art gallery to a tattoo parlor, and from a wine bar and Irish pub to a coffeehouse aimed at junior self-styled Goths.
Among this merry mélange of amusements, Mango's newest outpost is a natural fit, with its small but worldly menu of international delights, under the orchestration of Executive Chef Ryan Wagner, and its laid-back, come-as-you-are persona. From the cloud-covered ceiling to the stone floor, it's obvious that the casual vibe is as popular in Willoughby as ever it was at the smaller Ohio City location: On a recent Saturday night, in fact, nearly every table in the new 140-seat dining room was occupied, and the horseshoe-shaped bar -- with its poured-concrete top, corrugated steel base, and little grass-hut-style awning -- could hardly be seen for the press of bodies that surrounded it.
Predictably, though, there's more to Mango's magnetic draw than a well-stocked bar and a beach-party mind-set. Frequently goosed with high-wattage goodies like jalapeños, habañeros, and citrus, the assorted dishes -- everything from Asian-accented fried rice to Jamaican jerk chicken -- are generally well prepared, amply apportioned, and reasonably priced, with enough variety to please virtually any member of the family. And like the Ohio City location, the Willoughby spot is entirely smoke-free.
Mango's freshly squeezed juices are always a good stepping-off point, whether you choose something like the pure and simple Fruity Wabbit, with a subtle blend of carrot and apple juices, or the bracing Morning After, composed of tomato, carrot, celery, scallions, green pepper, and garlic. In comparison, one night's Mango-Lime Spritzer tasted watered-down and bland. But it's hard to go wrong with any of the menu's three frozen-yogurt milkshakes; I must confess, though, that I have never felt the need to venture far beyond the creamy Zoni Beach, a refreshing yet surprisingly light mix-up of frozen yogurt, strawberries, apple, and banana that's as good at the start of the meal as it is at the end.
For more grown-up palates, however, the full bar stocks a selection of premium tequilas, six beers on tap, and more than a dozen international bottled brews, including Red Stripe, Pacifico, and Negra Modelo; and freshly made margaritas ($5 a glass or $19 a pitcher) are a house specialty. However, neither our $5 Brazilian caipirinha (made with lime, sugar, and cachaça, a distilled sugar-cane liquor) nor the $5 Cuban mojito (Puerto Rican rum, lime, and fresh mint) packed much in the way of a wallop; we suspect that guests interested mainly in getting a cheap buzz on would do best to stick to the beer.
Other old favorites on the all-day menu include starters like chunky homemade guacamole, garnished with a whole jalapeño and a spicy pickled carrot, and sided with crisp tortilla chips; sweet-savory Caribbean "french fries" -- not potatoes at all, but tender little plantain patties, served with a kicky salsa fresca; and an exceptionally hearty, well-balanced miso soup, chock-full of tofu, bean sprouts, and chopped scallions, and slurped from a traditional Asian soup spoon.
From there, many guests go on to explore one of Mango's giant, 10-inch burritos, served either Solo (with chips and salsa), or as part of a Big Plate, where it's joined by generous portions of salsa fresca; habañero-flecked Yucatan slaw; a buttery half-banana, deeply grilled and stroked with lime; the Grain of the Day, which might be anything from quinoa to brown basmati rice; and the kitchen's signature Happy Beans, which have ranged recently from organic black-eyed peas with pasilla chiles to lush golden soybeans, with the texture of butter.
For the burritos' savory fillings, alternatives include grilled veggies, grilled steak, shrimp salad, and beans and cheese, each garnished by ribbons of lettuce, cubes of chopped tomato, and strands of pickled red onion, wrapped in a soft tortilla. A word of caution about the chorizo-and-potato version, though: Two of the three times we've ordered it, we've been appalled by the stingy amount of chorizo and potato inside. On the most recent occasion, we went so far as to rip open the wrap and actually segregate the sausage and spuds from the garnishes: If there was even a tablespoon of the star ingredients hidden among the greenery, we promise to eat the menu on our next visit.
Then again, maybe we'll just order more of Mango's marvelous Jamaican jerk chicken, a mouthwatering matchup of succulent thigh meat and incendiary, habañero-spiked spice rub. Served with the day's Happy Beans and grain selection, as well as the veggie of the day (on this occasion, fresh green beans goosed with lime and garlic), and the "bread and slather" du jour (thick slices of honey-wheat bread and smoky, spicy tofu-chipotle spread), the jerk chicken -- one of the menu's five Big Plates of Rumba and Salsa, available nightly after 5 p.m. -- is among the best we've ever tasted.
Meanwhile, under the category of One-Dish Melodies, shrimp pad thai seemed to be singing our song. Too bad, then, that the kitchen was out of the ingredients to make it on the night we dropped in. Or maybe not so bad: If we had ordered the pad thai, we would have never discovered the stir-fried rice, seared in a blend of sesame seed and soybean oils and scrambled with egg and bean sprouts. Topped with tender grilled chicken bits and cool, diced cucumber, the dish virtually hummed with a mouthwatering blend of sweet, salty, and citrusy flavor notes, thanks to a swoosh of Thailand's famous fish sauce, nam pla. Finally, doused at the table with a tongue-tingling sauce of lime and habañero peppers, and gobbled down with chopsticks, who knew that plain-Jane rice could dress so sexy?
As always, Harmonious Conclusions (Mango-speak for desserts) are limited to a bowl of good-quality ice cream from North Royalton manufacturer Country Parlour or a thick slice of decadent, homemade chocolate paté (the Chocolate Triple X), settled on a drizzle of red-raspberry sauce and finessed with a pouf of whipped cream. Both are large enough to share; both are good enough that you may not want to.
In either case, though, we've got to hand it to the dude: While he's capable of hitting the occasional flat note, when Johnny Mango opens his mouth to sing, most diners will be hustling to join the chorus.