You Haven’t Tasted Panamanian Food Until You Get Here

“I wasn’t exactly thrilled when my husband came home and announced we’d be moving to Panama,” said the woman who had just gotten off a direct flight from Chicago to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. “The only thing I knew was the obvious fact there was a canal,” she continued as I smiled and nodded in her direction.

I’d heard similar statements many times in the past. Generally it was pretty easy to change people’s minds and I silently looked forward to chatting with her about life in Panama. I was a little surprised when I found out her biggest concern was food.

More Than Plantains and Rice

Food Panama

Fish or chicken with rice, or the Panamanian staples of plantains or yuca are common, but there is so much more to Panama than chicken and rice!.

“We are foodies,” she continued seemingly a little distraught in her explanation. “I freelance food centered articles for several top magazines in the States, so I Googled Panamanian food almost immediately upon knowing for sure we’d be moving,” she said. “The search results weren’t good. My search turned up fried plantains and a steak house in Columbia. There was some mention of chicken and rice,” she continued. “I certainly don’t want to have to go to another country for a steak,” she said, now laughing.

“Just like everything in Panama we are a mix of cultures and that carries over into our foods,” I began. “It’s true that indigenous Panamanians like their plantains, chicken and rice,” I continued smiling, “but, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you actually experience the Panamanian food scene today.”

Lots Of Gastronomical Influence

She didn’t seem convinced. “Because of the importance of our geographical location we have been almost always occupied and therefore been influenced by many other cultures. The French were here for a long time and they brought Chinese workers to build the canal; you can’t underestimate the importance of the Americans, who just gave us back our land in 1999! The Spaniards were a huge influence on all of Latin America. If you are going to limit your food ideas to the indigenous Panamanians you will be very limited. We have just about everything,” I said.

Coste del Este: A very new and well planned area of Panama City filled with bars and restaurants. They even have an IHOP, for your pancake cravings…

As we went along the green area in Coste del Este, where I was showing her property to rent or purchase, she noted that the area seemed very new. “Everything is so perfect,” she said.

“Coste del Este is new and it is well planned,” I began. “This area was presented to the public in 1995 and has since grown into a somewhat affluent section of Panama City. A lot of expats and young business people working for multi-national companies live here. Lots of green space and all wires are underground. It’s pretty hip and trendy. I thought it would be perfect for you,” I said.

Think Casco Viejo For Exciting Food

Panama Dining

The sandstone courtyard at Tomillo’s restaurant in Casco Viejo is a charming spot to enjoy some modern Panamanian fusion cuisine.

“And what about the food scene here?,” she countered. “Coste del Este is young and vibrant and the restaurants reflect that. You have sushi and Italian, international and wood fired pizza. The food is good but if you are going to write about the emerging food scene in Panama, I think you’ll have to do some driving and get back mainly to the old city of Casco Viejo.”

I wanted to be completely honest and paint a very clear picture for someone who called herself a foodie. “We are an emerging food scene. You should be excited to experience the explosion,” I began. “I think you’ll have so many articles to write, your editors will be sick of hearing about all the great food things in Panama. I’m sure you have enjoyed a great tasting menu,” I said as she stood stock still in the park in Coste del Este and looked at me as if someone living in Panama wouldn’t have enjoyed a tasting menu or two.

A Tasting Menu For $75

“One time I was visiting Las Vegas and my friends and I wanted to really experience great food so we booked a table at Joel Robuchon and found out the price per person was $435 and that didn’t include wine or gratuity. That was a lot,” I added for emphasis. “We almost chocked, but the food and service were perfection!”

She smiled. “Wasn’t it the best food ever,” she said letting me know she had actually been to this star-studded eatery. “Vegas has come a long way!”

“It was great,” I countered, “but a bit over the top. It was 16 courses and by the time I hit about course 12, I was so done,” I laughed. “I did like that the caviar was included. Another time I ate at The French Laundry, which was considerably less at about $295 a person, and they charged us extra for a couple of shavings of truffle. Those are special occasions for sure.”

Chef Jose O. Carles from restaurant Donde Jose

The woman seemed to relax. “So you know what I’m talking about,” she enthused. “What can I expect in Panama?”

“A lot,” I said simply. “I’d consider Donde Jose’s which is in Casco Viejo. Chef Carlos believes Panamanian food is just developing and he is a large part of the new food scene. I remember him saying once that Panama didn’t have a strong food identity, but that was changing. Jose tells the story of Panama through food and he uses endemic ingredients,” I continued.

“His restaurant is easy to miss because there is no signage. You have to know where you are going and knock on the door,” I continued. “I can help you with that and you’ll need reservations well in advance. There is room for 12 people at tables and four more at the ‘chef’s table’. The four lucky people not at tables get to watch as Jose cooks and tells you the story behind each dish. Drink pairings will cost around $40 and the tasting menu goes for $75,” I said with a smile acknowledging the difference in price from the previously discussed eateries. “Your editors will love the article,” I said with a smile.

Can You Say Michelin Star?

“Then we have the Michelin starred chef at Madrigal, also located in the old city of Casco Viejo. The chef is Spanish, but he really incorporates traditional Panamanian food into his dishes. I know it sounds just wrong, but I find the lamb tacos pretty unbelievable,” I explained.

Maybe the roof top pool area at Coronado Golf would be a perfect place to blog about Panama’s emerging food scene!

My new client was beginning to relax so I went on to explain that another chef—two starred by Michelin—had arrived at the Hotel Las Americas Golden Tower in Panama City. “The views from the 29th floor are also amazing but we are still waiting for the restaurant to open,” I said.

“You should also consider Caliope,” I began, now thinking about where I wanted to eat next. “We need to stop talking about food. I’m starving,” I laughed. “You are going to find so much to write about here in Panama and the good news is that the food scene is so new and so hot. Everyone will want to read about what’s happening. As a foodie, this is a great place. Now let’s talk about where you’ll sit while writing. What about Parkside? You can write while enjoying tremendous views. When you are finished, play a round of golf. You’’ll have all the amenities,” I said as we continued toward the beautiful high rise. “You are going to love it here, food and all!”

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