By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos Gómez
I remember my mother’s pig tail guacho (a sort of thin risotto), chicken and rice, and pigeon peas. I remember my Aunt Dilcia’s sponge cake, beef jerky, and crispy rice. We looked forward to plates of rice with coconut and fried fish at our grandmother’s house every Easter; she served spaghetti and meat balls every Thursday at her apartment in the Ecuador building.
Our lives are interwoven with memories of foods that subtly influenced our preferences and now evoke nostalgia. Those smells we enjoyed as children seeped into our memories, so that many years later, an aroma wafting along a road makes us think: “That smells like Mom’s soup.”
Food is history. The subject of food has so much depth that, some years ago, Panamanian historian Alfredo Castillero Calvo wrote Food Culture and Globalization in Panama from the 16th to the 21st Centuries, which explores Panamanian cuisine and explains why we eat pixbae (peach palm fruit) or pizza.
Before Spanish conquerors reached the Isthmus, indigenous peoples ate corn, squash, taro, yucca, tapir, peccary, and squirrel, along with fruits like banana and peach palm fruit. The Spanish not only imposed single-crop farming and the extensive breeding of beef cattle, but were also slow to give up European foods such as olives, wine, oranges, chickpeas, and eggplant.
Trade with the British colonies of the Antilles brought tamarind, coffee, and mango to the Isthmus, and Italian and French restaurants sprang up in Panama when the Gold Rush began in the western United States. The Chinese arrived shortly afterward, followed by Antillean blacks. Modern immigrants hail from Colombia and Venezuela.
This gastronomic explosion sparked culinary competitions such as El Buen Tenedor, which seeks to honor and recognize the contributions and innovations of local cuisine through a contest in which nominated restaurants and chefs are judged by both expert palates and the general public.
This year, the third for El Buen Tenedor, included fourteen categories; we set out to meet the winners.
Best Casual Restaurant
Since Segundo Muelle came to Panama City in 2008 from the Peruvian capital, it has opened twenty-one restaurants in five countries: Spain, Portugal, the United States, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. Specializing in seafood for over twenty years, Segundo Muelle offers 120 dishes, including ceviche, the diners’ favorite. “We have from ten to twelve different kinds,” notes co-owner and manager José Antonio García.
Highlights: “Our main ingredient is sea bass, which is available in Panama year-round. The other great Panamanian ingredient is the Scotch bonnet pepper.”
Calle Crisantemos No. 16, corner of calle 68, San Francisco.
Coming soon: Segundo Muelle Balboa Boutiques
Tels: 391 9234 / 9235.
Open Monday from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday from 12 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Best Baked Goods Menu and People’s Choice
Athanasiou offers an extensive range of breads, cakes, chocolates, coffees, salads, soups, jams, and sandwiches, among other delights, in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere. The name has been attached to a famous family bakery in Greece’s Kalamata region for decades; Athanasiou set up shop in Panama City in 2013 with the idea of selling unique artisan products made with the best ingredients. There are five locations in the city, with four more to open by the end of 2016.
Highlights: “This year we were pleasantly surprised to be the people’s choice. We knew we were good, but I didn’t expect that, since there is a lot of competition,” says Athanasiou owner and manager Jean Franco Petrella.
Branches: Vía Porras, Costa del Este, Altaplaza, Paitilla, and Obarrio.
Opening soon: Brisas del Golf, Albrook, Multiplaza, and Torre Banesco de Marbella
Tel: 203 1010
Open every day from 7:00 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Best Fast-Food Restaurant
Rock Burger has been known for its vast selection of hamburgers and sandwiches since 1990, when it opened its first, now legendary, branch in Marbella. Its popularity and twenty-six years of experience have helped the chain expand rapidly via the franchise model. Currently there are seven locations, with four more to open soon. According to Brand and Operations Manager Jaime Ortiz, Rock Burger’s greatest assets are fresh ingredients, value for money, and fast service.
Branches: El Dorado, Marbella, Costa del Este, 12 de Octubre, Panamá Pacífico, Calle 50, Metromall, and Obarrio (Hotel Sortis).
Coming soon: Altaplaza, Clayton, Brisas del Golf, and Centennial Plaza.
Tel: 223 0725
Best Restaurant Service, Chef of the Year, and Best Cocktail Menu
Conceived by Carlos “Chombolín” Alba and Robert Martin just two years ago, the restaurant received the largest number awards in this year’s El Buen Tenedor: Alba earned the title of Chef of the Year, Martin was recognized for his cocktails, and the restaurant topped the Best Restaurant Service category.
The rave reviews may have something to do with the cozy ambiance that envelops you as soon as you step into the patio and the open-plan dining room-kitchen, a design that encourages informality and conversation. What is the secret of Íntimo? This is a restaurant where the kitchen emphasizes the product and its history and is always ready to innovate, constantly providing customers with new experiences.
Calle 72 este, San Francisco.
Tel: 388 1365
Open Tuesday to Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 6:30 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.
Best Classic Panamanian Restaurant
People go to El Trapiche to eat fried bread, stuffed yucca fritters, and rice and beans. Founded in 1983, the idea for the restaurant came to Alfonso Jaén, Domingo de Obaldía, and Santiago Anguizola, who wanted to open a restaurant that would offer the foods that grace the tables of the country’s interior. As Marketing Manager Domingo de Obaldía Jr. says: “We serve authentic Panamanian food from original recipes, because here at El Trapiche we’re not trying to surprise anyone, but rather to offer them tried and true flavors.”
Highlights: “Here we make everything by hand, from the tortillas and stuffed yucca fritters to the plantain turnovers.”
Branches: Vía Argentina and Albrook Mall.
Tel: 269 4353
Open every day from 7:00 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Best Design and Concept
Gula is striking, with quilted chairs, walls decorated with odd objects, and curtained windows. Located in Costa del Este, Gula hopes to attract nightlife in a neighborhood that is corporate by day. At night, the restaurant turns into a disco featuring live music and stand-up comedy. “We took a chance with our name (Gluttony), but it was the stepping stone to innovation,” explains owner and general manager Mark Vander Werf. Future plans include a new menu and remodeling to make the venue even more nightlife-friendly.
Calle Centenario, just before the entrance to Corredor Sur. Costa del Este.
Tel: 397 2526
Open Tuesday to Thursday from 5:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:00 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Best Innovative Panamanian Cuisine
Donde José’s mission is to help consolidate Panamanian identity by rescuing the history behind the country’s traditional dishes. Put another way, Donde José offers items like beans or peach palm fruit, for example, but reworks the ingredients into refined versions of classic dishes. “We do not serve Panamanian food, but food that represents Panama,” explains executive chef José Olmedo Carles. Not only are the preparations innovative, but the dishes are served up with a story.
Avenida Central and calle 11, Casco Viejo.
Tel: 262 1682
Open Tuesday to Saturday from 7 p.m. to 12 a.m.
Best Coffee Menu
Panama produces the most exclusive coffee in the world, but it was impossible to find it here until a few years ago. Alberto Benito Bermúdez suggested to his partner, Mario Castrellón, that they could fill this need with a venue that focused on Panamanian-grown coffee. The idea of Café Unido was born. Over the years, Bermúdez has noticed that customers are more daring, requesting new flavors, using less milk, and paying attention to the differences among coffee beans.
Branches: Coco del Mar (Edificio Le Mare), Casco Viejo (American Trade Hotel), Costa del Este (MMG Tower), Marbella (Plaza La Riviera), and Multiplaza (Paitilla).
Tel: 399 2408
Best Beer Menu
Esteban Arosemena and Christopher Cook used to get together to chat and drink beer over local barbecue; these conversations gave rise to the idea of opening a venue in Panama City precisely for chatting, drinking beer, and eating well.
The partners decided getting involved in distribution would be a good bet since they had no experience. They became representatives for several artisan beers made in the United States before they opened their own place: the first Brew Stop. That was two years ago. Now they have two branches that offer not only the sixteen U.S. beers they distribute, but also another sixty local and international brands. Faithful to their original idea, the duo debuted a menu of grilled foods in August.
Branches: Marbella and El Cangrejo (vía Venetto).
Tel: 395 9461 / 388 3420.