Great Latin soul food is inspired and comes from the heart. According to Mango Man Chef Thony Clarke, owner of Café Costa Rica, “The best thing a creative has ever created is what has not been made yet. If you are an artist, chef, or musician at the top of your game, you can’t get too comfortable because then you’re not creating anymore.”
Creatives enjoy pleasing others with their works of art but are even more concerned with meeting and exceeding their own standards of performance. Learning to follow his heart and unlock his creative potential has been the journey of Thony’s lifetime since his early teens. Playing and singing music, dance, choreography, and culinary talent are separate strands of one creative thread. Embracing his unique personality and developing his innate musical gifts and talents eventually led him to cultivate his culinary creativity for memorable flavors and delicious food.
“As a middle schooler, I was unable to focus during classes at school. My music teacher sat down with me, and I told him I had so many things in my head that I just couldn’t think straight. He asked me to put on paper what I was seeing in my mind. When I put musical notes on the page, he told me I was a natural musical creative and that my nature wouldn’t let me ignore it. He signed me up for band and chorus to start my musical training.
“I’ve always been driven to learn as much as I could, as fast as possible. One priority for me was to learn Spanish. We were an English-speaking family, and I endured ridicule from the kids at school because I couldn’t speak Spanish and understand what they were saying. Being bilingual couldn’t happen fast enough for me.
“With dance, it was the same thing—I learned it quickly, so at age 13 I was able to join a dance tour. It came easy for me, so I went on to learn Latin-, jazz-, and Brazilian-style dances, like the salsa, merengue, bolero, and the bossa nova. Along the way, I discovered I had a knack and passion for teaching others to dance. As I gained in experience and ability to produce a show and visualize a live video, opportunities kept coming my way. I became a choreographer of dance numbers for bands and TV shows, sometimes featuring as many as 50 dancers. My next creative endeavor was writing the music and directing a band that performed jazz, blues, rock, punk, and acid music and becoming the lead singer.”
In 1996 Thony married Lora, a woman from Wisconsin. Although pregnant, she made a visit to the states for her sister’s graduation, and while here, she became very sick. Thony came to be with her, and the two began plans to permanently move to this country.
Thony held a few conventional jobs before deciding to be self-employed. He was gifted in culinary arts, so operating a food cart would provide self-sufficiency and independence to go wherever people gathered. It was reminiscent of his youth when his mother made Jamaican patís that he sold door to door and at events.
“I learned to create simple, traditional, and delicious dishes from my mother. She raised 11 kids on her own, and I was number 7 in the family. We all learned to cook by helping her, everyone learning at the same time. She had to cook big with just a few basic ingredients. Her creative way of cooking made the food taste incredible with so much flavor that you didn’t notice the scarcity of that time and that there wasn’t much money for ingredients. She’d take simple rice and beans and make it taste like glory. She taught me that good cooking is the art of turning simple ingredients into something delicious and memorable. Her influence is present in all of my culinary creations.”
Mango Man Latin soul food is a unique blend of Central American and Jamaican cultures and cuisine. The Mango Man concept was inspired by the culture of Limon, Costa Rica, where Thony grew up. The city was mainly populated by Jamaican immigrants brought to Costa Rica as indentured servants and slaves to build the railroad for the Port of Limon. The fusion of the food traditions of these two cultures became renowned for its own style of cooking, known as Latin soul food. It combines the Central American staples of rice, beans, meat, and plantains with a liberal amount of allspice, curry, ginger, anise, and certain peppers which are more associated with Jamaican culture. Patently, tropical fruits, mainly the mango, made their way into Mango Man recipes. The food is not spicy, so the taste buds can fully explore the flavors. Chef Thony is not afraid to experiment with different flavor combinations to create a memorable meal, which keeps people coming back for more.
In 2004, Thony built his food cart with the help of friends and launched Café Costa Rica in 2005. When he couldn’t get a downtown location for the cart, an opportunity opened for him to have a six-table restaurant by the same name on Butler Street, near downtown Madison. He operated it from 2006 to 2011 in conjunction with the food cart. Having a restaurant just a block from the capitol was a good thing. He met a lot of people who worked at the capitol, which is how he eventually landed a food cart spot on library mall. From 2011 to 2013, he operated a restaurant on Williamson Street.
A chef with too many pots on the fire and not enough help is a recipe for burnout, so he closed the restaurant. His new passion became the creation of sauces, which brought him to FEED Kitchens at 1219 N. Sherman Avenue, Madison, in 2014. He wanted to take things up a notch and create sauces while continuing to cater through the food cart. The sauces can be purchased through local grocery stores, specialty shops, and at mangomancooks.com.
Lauri Lee is a culinary herb guru and food writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.
Café Costa Rica