Tango With Your Mango?

The World Café and Juice Bar plays a Caribbean tune.

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"Every time I eat, my mouth sings," says Johnny Mango, that fictitious bon vivant, beach bum, and namesake of one of Cleveland's most interesting eateries.

It's no wonder, since the flavorful Caribbean-and-Asian-influenced food and drink at Johnny Mango World Café and Juice Bar could make even a tone-deaf diner launch into a reggae riff. In fact, if you can step into this lighthearted restaurant without wanting to rumba, check your pulse: You may already be dead.

Co-owners Shelley Underwood and Gary Richmond opened their zippy little dining spot in late 1996, in a historic Ohio City building, but the lively decor is anything but Midwestern. Panes of tinted glass, etched with black lizards, form a large mural against one blueberry-colored wall; more lizards-on-glass hang from golden chains in the sunny windows. Other walls in the irregularly shaped dining room have been washed with tropical hues of watermelon, cantaloupe, banana, and lemon, creating a fitting backdrop for the sherbet-shaded fruit and vegetable drinks that come from the juicer.

A vintage tin ceiling—painted blue, with puffy white clouds—supports a line of slow-moving paddle fans. As the wooden blades stirred balmy breezes and wafted the beat of island music throughout the restaurant, it was all we could do to keep from dancing on our tile-topped table.

The restaurant's long wooden bar is decorated with a straw beach hat, festoons of dried grasses, strings of tiny white lights, and an impressive assortment of bottled tequilas. Just because "juice bar" is part of the name, Johnny clearly doesn't limit his libations to family-friendly drinks: The International Wet Bar Menu lists six types of margaritas, a host of top-shelf tequilas, a modest selection of beer and wine, vodka and tequila chasers, and a handful of exotic mixed drinks, making this a fine spot to chill in the summer heat.

Even on a humid Sunday afternoon, we found Johnny Mango bustling with hungry diners. The smiles, waves, and backslapping passing between many of the guests marked the restaurant as a friendly neighborhood hangout, and the welcoming vibe continued as our server crouched down beside our chairs to share tasting notes about tequila brands, and to describe the menu's juices and fruit smoothies to our younger companions.

We opted to bypass the booze this day and headed straight for the fruit and vegetable drinks. (As a compromise, we could have had any of the nonalcoholic selections "spiked" for an additional two dollars. But we didn't.) Our first choice, a golden-orange Sun Drop, combined fresh orange and carrot juices in a cool, slightly sweet drink with a righteously healthy flavor. We also loved the pink Pelican Kiss, a blend of apple and cranberry juices assertively spiced with fresh ginger. The Melon Sparkler, with cantaloupe, lime, and fizzy water, was less intense but crisp and light—just right for a hot summer day. The creamy Zoni Beach, a rosy blend of strawberries, apples, bananas, lime, and frozen vanilla yogurt, was cold, naturally sweet, and almost thick enough to eat with a spoon.

Johnny apparently is not a picky eater, and we knew from a previous visit that entrées here are huge. Still, we couldn't resist ordering up a few small meatless dishes to go with our juices. A serving of Guacamole Scoop—a chunky homemade blend of avocado and cubed Roma tomato, with a few bits of onion for crunch—was well-seasoned and bursting with freshness. Although the dip itself had no appreciable heat, it was garnished with a fat pickled jalapeño pepper and a spicy pickled carrot. Chopped up and loaded onto the salted tortilla chips, the pepper and carrot lent the guacamole a tantalizing bite.

We also gobbled down an order of unusual Caribbean French Fries, which we discovered were not french fries at all, but instead were three tender little pancakes made of plantain, a cooking banana with a pinkish flesh and squash-like flavor. Their vaguely sweet taste and starchy texture reminded us of sweet potatoes, and they made a great foil for the kicky tomato-onion-and-cilantro salsa that came with them.

A collection of ten-inch burritos and black-bean quesadillas are mainstays of the all-day menu. Both are available à la carte or on a "Big Plate" along with the day's selection of beans and grain, zesty Yucatan cabbage slaw (also seasoned with habañero peppers), a cup of salsa, and a buttery grilled half banana brushed with lime juice. We sampled two Big Plates, one with a bean-and-cheese burrito and the other with a chorizo-and-potato burrito.

Both burritos were stuffed with sliced Romaine lettuce and bits of tomato as well as the chosen filling. The finely ground chorizo sausage was mild and meaty, and the tiny cubes of red-skinned potatoes were tender and pleasantly salty, but we were disappointed by the scant amount of the filling. The bean-and-cheese burrito was more generously filled, with a satisfactory heft and a delicious flavor.

After five o'clock, main events (which the cleverly written menu calls "Big Plates of Rumba and Salsa") include a small assortment of chicken, steak, and seafood dishes, each accompanied by cooked grain, vegetables, bread and "slather," and "Happy Beans." Whenever possible, Chef Eric Williams crafts these side dishes from organically grown produce from the West Side Market. This day, the beans were tasty, mustard-spiked black-eyed peas; the grain was white "sticky rice;" the bread was tender pita; and the slather (a healthy alternative to butter) was a delicious Summer Ratatouille—a vibrant but light-textured spread of eggplant, herbs, and garlic, whose exact recipe is a closely guarded secret.

The day's veggie selection—a flavorful stir-fry of crisp yu choy (a kale-like Asian green) and mung bean sprouts—was also wonderful, at least until we crunched down on mouthfuls of grit. Garden-fresh eating is one thing; eating the garden itself is where I draw the line. So the poorly prepped vegetables were pushed to the side of our plates for the remainder of the meal.

Our entrée selections included Escondido Crab Cakes—delicate, mild-flavored patties of shredded crab and roasted red pepper, bound with egg and a small amount of bread crumbs—and two different blackened chicken dishes.

Both Bangkok BBQ Chicken and Jamaican Jerk Chicken—two thighs and two legs each—had been seared to a fare-thee-well. But despite being nearly carbonized, the meat inside the sooty crust remained juicy and tender. The Asian-inspired Bangkok BBQ had been quenched with a mild sweet-and-piquant garlic sauce; unfortunately, the delicate sauce was nearly overpowered by the taste of carbon.

The Jamaican Jerk Chicken had a similar flavor problem, this time exacerbated by the incendiary habañero-based jerk rub that topped it. Although the dish came with a cooling fruit salsa of mango, onion, cilantro, garlic, and spices, the stridently spicy rub was so hot that it left us trembling with sweat and temporarily drowned out the flavors of just about everything else on the plate.

Our choices for "Harmonious Conclusion" (Mango-speak for "dessert") were limited to bowls of the day's ice cream selection or a serving of housemade Chocolate Triple X. We sighed to find that the mouthwatering concoction of housemade sponge cake, strawberries, and whipped cream that our waiter had described was all gone by the time we got around to ordering. Still, the butter-pecan ice cream was pleasantly cold and creamy, and helped to calm our well-exercised palates. And we gave the Triple X—a square of light, bittersweet chocolate pâté dotted with real whipped cream in a pool of thick raspberry sauce—rave reviews for its tender texture and rich but not sugary flavor.

You've got to hand it to that Mango fellow: With the help of alter-egos Underwood and Richmond, he's put together a hotspot with flavorful food, friendly staff, and a warm and welcoming climate right in the heart of Cleveland. If he ever moves to a real tropical island, people, watch out!

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