One of my favorite parts of traveling is trying the local cuisine. Who doesn’t love food?! Especially when it’s way cheaper in other countries. There are a couple ways I sniff my way around town in my quest for food. Yelp, for one, is a trusted source I use at home in the States all the time (Yelp Elite right here). When traveling abroad I may browse Yelp reviews once in a while for nicer, more well-known restaurants. My go-to method of course, is asking the locals where their favorite spots to eat are.
The first night I got there I was tired and it was getting late, so I simply picked a nice restaurant that a friend had recommended, Las Tinajas. Considered pricey for Panama, there weren’t many customers when I went. Still quite affordable compared to nice restaurants in the Washington D.C. area.
Left: For my entree I ordered the filet de corvina (sea bass), chef’s style. When it arrived it didn’t look too impressive, but it was surprisingly delicious and undoubtedly fresh! Center: Ceviche (chilled raw seafood dish soaked in citrus juices and various seasonings) is a must try while in Panama. My first ceviche there was ceviche de corvina, which I really liked. Right: For dessert I opted for the flan de coco (coconut flan), probably one of the best flan I’ve ever had. Perfectly chilled, loved the soft texture.
Casco Viejo, the ‘old city’ otherwise known as Casco Antiguo, is full of restaurants and bars. One of my favorite lunch spots there was Fonda Lo Que Hay, meaning “what there is”. It’s a pop up restaurant one of Panama’s most famous chefs, Jose Carles. Carles is the chef of fine dining restaurant Donde Jose, named one of the world’s top 50 restaurants and which requires reservations months in advance. (I may have to come back around to Panama to try it!) Below Right: Their guachito is amazing. The dish is similar to a stew, with white rice hidden underneath the sauce, short rib, eggs, crispy thin plantain strips, and other ingredients. You eat it by mixing it all together. Super filling, couldn’t even finish it. Below Left: You can sit at the bar directly in front of the kitchen and watch them whip up your meal!
Bottom Left: Listen up, coffee aficionados…Panama is home to Geisha coffee, the most expensive in the world. It is said that at certain places it can cost over $600/lb! In Casco Viejo beside the American Trade Hotel, there’s a pop up café called Unido where you can get pour over Geisha for $12, iced or hot.
Top right: They also offer Geisha at a nice little café called Casa Sucre, where they also have an incredible yama lenta gateado, slow drip iced coffee. Normally I don’t like black coffee but this needed no cream or sugar! Perfection in a cup. At Casa Sucre they also have cheap breakfast. I ordered a satisfying portion of tamal for $4. Grabbed breakfast there with a new Panamanian friend while attempting to wait out the rain so we could go hiking, though it never stopped.
Bottom Left: One morning I was craving some authentic Panamanian desayuno or breakfast so I followed a friend’s recommendation and went to Restaurante del Prado in Obarrio. Fresh jugos (juices) are abundant everywhere there, so I spent my trip trying as many tropical juices as possible.
Center: Here I tried jugo de papaya (papaya juice), pan (bread), sausages, sancocho de gallina (chicken soup; sancocho is a Colombian dish as well), and ceviche de pulpo (octopus ceviche). Top right: Interestingly, the sancocho reminded me of Chinese chicken soup my mom used to make at home, the chicken seems boiled much the same way.
All the food I tried there was incredible; however, I discovered my absolute favorite authentic Panamanian meal at a hidden gem called Peach Fuzz International in the Curundu area, southwest a bit from the city. There is no physical address, but I was able to pinpoint the area and call an Uber. Once your driver arrives, I recommend using google maps if needed (it’s on Calle Q) and saving your driver’s number or WhatsApp number so you can call them back when you’re finished your meal. Remember, always negotiate the price of a ride before taking off. I was able to get from Obarrio to Curundu for $5. The place is kind of in the hood, but it didn’t seem any more dangerous than the average streets. A hotel staff member told me that area was dangerous, but remember “dangerous” is sometimes subjective to the speaker/audience. Of course they will say that at a nice business travel hotel where they usually only see the same type of clientele. (I appreciated his concern, anyway, and replied with a smile, “esta bien!”).
I got a table to myself and ordered a plate of pescado frito, fried fish atop a bed of patacones. It was fresh and delicious with the sauces. The chica de limon was refreshing, a great drink to pair with your meal. You may have to wave off a couple flies as you eat, but service is fast and the food is so worth it— and it’s all about the authentic experience. I ended up waiting an hour for my Uber driver to return since he was busy, so I got to chat with the owner, Danny, an amiable man. He used to work as a chef for Marriott before starting his own business. (We’ve kept in touch, so if you’re ever planning to swing by his restaurant let me know and I’ll give him a heads up). I asked him how the restaurant got its name, but I’ll keep it a secret and let you ask him yourself!
After lunch my Uber driver offered to give me a tour of Mercado de Mariscos, the open air seafood market where fishermen bring the fresh catch of the day, early in the morning. Definitely stop by one morning to pick out a fish and they’ll prepare it in the restaurant section or you to eat fresh! I didn’t time it well so they were cleaning up by the time I got there. The ceviche is also a must try here.
In Panama you’ll find plenty of agua de coco, coconut water. Coconut water doesn’t get any better than when you drink straight from the source itself! Even better, for a beach day, order a coco loco (coconut water mixed with rum or ron) and if you’re lucky you’ll get to watch someone use a machete to chop down a coconut and hack it open for you. Next time I go somewhere tropical, I plan to ask them to teach me the art of coconut hacking (because my spirit Disney princess is Moana and she seems to do things like that). Some sellers of coco loco may be generous and pour as much ron as you like, so you definitely get the bang for your buck.
If you want to try some super flavorful lobster and don’t mind dropping an extra dime, hit up the restaurant Sirena in Calzada de Amador. Service was impeccable. I sat out on the deck and ordered langosta del chef con vegetales, lobster cooked chef’s style with vegetables. Never seen or tasted anything like it, definitely treated myself that day. Just watch your food to make sure the annoying birds nearby don’t steal it, because they will try.
On my last day I took a stroll down cinta costera in the city for a scenic view. Try helado con helatina– ice cream with a red jelly that tastes surprisingly good with it. I tried the dulce leche flavor.
All in all, the unique cuisine alone completed my trip. If I could teleport, I’d go back in the heartbeat just to get another Panamanian meal! Happy food adventures in Panama…buen provecho.
Look out for my next article in the travel series on interesting things to do in Panama City!