On a downtown train

Mango’s Original Mex-Caribe Grille

980 Ninth St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 553-4207

I hardly ever go downtown, and as I navigated hungrily around massive amounts of construction and down one-way streets, I remembered why. I was headed to Mango’s, a new quick-service spot downtown that promises “Mex-Caribe” fare and calls itself a “grille.” I distrust on principle any place that adds superfluous E’s to its name (that goes double for anywhere calling itself “olde,” but that is neither here nor there), and Mango’s exemplifies why.

The menu promises a certain amount of zing and imagination in the food, with offerings like Yucatan spicy shrimp tacos, jerk chicken wings and the “pirate’s dream” burrito (which sounds a lot like a regular burrito). The décor tries to create an island feel with mint, sea-blue and bubblegum-pink paint on the walls, which are adorned with cute tchotchkes like stylized voodoo dolls and brightly painted frogs. There’s even a halfhearted attempt at outdoor seating: A single table sits on the wide sidewalk along busy J Street, opposite one of those construction sites I passed while trying to get to the restaurant. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t in use on our visit.

The tables inside, however, are strangely sparse. I don’t know what occupied the Mango’s space before, but it looks like it was one of those big lunch counters where workers on a quick break get a squishy tuna sandwich and get out. It’s certainly not that now, but neither does it feel entirely homey, despite the bright, brave colors of the chairs. In essence, Mango’s is a lunch counter, with plastic-wrapped cookies at the register.

That’s about the only thing that’s plastic-wrapped, however. Much of the food is cooked to order on the grill behind the counter. You can smell it sizzling, with an appetizing aroma of spices. It’s too bad, however, that the food doesn’t always live up to the promise of the preparation. I spotted a diner with shrimp skewers that looked fresh and tasty, but my tacos—one filled with the aforementioned Yucatan spicy shrimp and one with grilled chicken—were a pallid disappointment.

The tacos’ too-plentiful “voodoo sauce” turned out to taste like ever-so-slightly seasoned mayo. (A large number of menu items come with this sauce.) The skimpy portion of shrimp, far from being spicy, had very little flavor. What it had to do with the Yucatan I couldn’t say. The chicken was a little better, with a pleasant if unassertive chili flavor. Shredded iceberg lettuce on each added a cool crunch, but the promised pico de gallo had no bite (indeed, it seemed to be simply a few bits of tomato). The menu also mentioned cilantro, which would have added a welcome hint of color and flavor, but it was nowhere to be seen. The tortillas, meanwhile, would have benefited from being warmed.

We also ordered an appetizer of chips and guacamole. It seemed odd that this came out with the whole of our order, rather than being handed over first as something to munch on. Even odder (and less pleasing) was the size of the order. It consisted of a tiny bag of chips—about as much as you’d get in a moderate handful from a bag of Tostitos. Moreover, the chips themselves were exactly what you’d get from said bag; they were the salty, white-corn type now available on supermarket shelves as “restaurant style.”

The guacamole, however, was good. Its unctuous chunkiness was studded with bits of tomato and onion. The portion of that, too, was small, though not as small as that of the chips. There weren’t enough chips to eat all the guacamole, even if one dipped up very plentiful portions. I used it to improve my tacos instead, but I must say that if a restaurant is going to charge $3.59 for chips and guacamole, it ought at least to offer more than a dozen chips in the order. After all, unless you’re in Vegas, chips are pretty darned cheap.

Not to harp on the chip thing, but this all seemed especially irritating considering that my husband’s lunch, a Caribbean wrap, was actually supposed to come with chips on the side. Not so much. Still, the wrap wasn’t bad. It was beset by some of the same problems as my tacos, but the beef had a nice savor.

Drinks are mostly the standard fountain variety of sodas and iced tea, but there are also a couple of smoothies. My husband tried the mocha, a powerfully sweet, tan concoction. I was briefly attracted to the strawberry, but I saw one of the workers refilling the whirling smoothie machine out of a big carton of dark-red goop and was glad I had passed.

Mango’s promises an appealing concept and a change from the usual lunches available to downtown workers and passersby. If it came through with true Mexican or Caribbean flavor, it could give me a real reason to go downtown. As it is, I’m left wondering what that extra E means. It definitely doesn’t stand for “excellent.”