By: Lázaro I. Rodríguez Oliva
Photos: Javier A. Pinzón
The first time I visited Panama City, people told me to go to San Francisco, the heart of the creative Panamanian cuisine movement, if I wanted to eat well. This is the Panama City neighborhood where gastronomic corridors were set up after the city’s designation as a UNESCO Creative City in 2017. It now boasts many types of new Panamanian cuisine, characterized by inter-cultural recipes, the bounty of two oceans, and the diversity of local ingredients. Where you go in the San Francisco neighborhood depends on your tastes, but you certainly can’t complain about a lack of choice, morning, noon, or night.
El Mercadito Biológico
Calle 67 Este and Av. 3 Sur / Tel.: 392 2069
There is no better way to start a day in San Francisco than with El Orgasmo (Orgasm), a bowl of coconut cream with chia seeds and chai spices, topped with granola. There are vegan, vegetarian, organic, and gluten-free options. Breakfast includes Faux Fried Eggs, served with grain sautéed with soy sauce, sesame, and microcilantro, served with bao buns and vegan “chorizo” for a taste of inland flavors with a Chinese-Panamanian touch. They also offer a menu of organic teas and Café de Palmira coffee from a cooperative in the Boquete highlands.
Le Mare Bldg., ground floor, Panama City
Tel.: 399 2408
Café Unido is just the place to try different preparations of three trending brands of coffee. There is La Harpía, a blend of Boquete and Volcán coffee that is ideal for espresso; Elida Estate, from the Lamastus family, celebrated for achieving the highest record score in the Best of Panama competition; the difficult-to-obtain Geisha Natural; and the high-mountain Caturra Lavado, a fine representative of good Panamanian coffee
Calle 71 / Tel.: 381 0981
You mustn’t miss the new San Francisco location of traditional restaurant El Trapiche if you’re looking for authentic dishes from inland Panama. The menu lists the producers of the ingredients and the region of origin. Delicacies include hojaldra (dough fritters) with ropa vieja (shredded beef) or pernil de cerdo interiorano (country leg of pork) and tamal de olla (tamales made with ground corn, shredded chicken, green olives, and raisins). If you love pork, then the Pork Belly glazed with Abuelo brand Panamanian rum and served with mashed plantain will be a little bit of heaven. The pesada de nance with local cheese (nance fruit pudding made from local ingredients) is highly recommended, especially if you have never tried this fruit.
Calle 72 Este / Tel.: 399 5756
The restaurant is a variation on the very personal style of Chef Cuquita Arias, an icon of Panamanian cuisine. She is known for the color pink —her favorite color— but mostly for her amusing, teasing, and delicious take on local ingredients and recipes. She gives traditional foods an added dollop of magic through sophisticated techniques. For breakfast, try the Buenos Días Alegría; Vive La Tuna (tuna with mango salsa), a clear nod to Caribbean and Afro-Antillean influences; or Gallina Fina, a toasted bun filled with chicken salad, avocado, and Serrano ham. The enchanting salad Con la Papa en la Boca (Potato in the Mouth), amusingly named for the manner in which the San Francisco upper crust supposedly speak, is a delightful mix of potatoes, tender beets, pickled egg, and tzatziki. If the Nutcracker came to life, Cuquita would be the Sugar Plum Fairy, as evidenced by three rave-worthy desserts: Cuatro Leches (Four Milks), a recreation of the traditional Tres (three) Leches cake; the perfectly sinful Baked Alaska, with marshmallows, caramel, meringue, and chocolate brownie; and the Ponche de Café y Corazón de Capuchino, which showcases the local coffee that is now so popular among discerning aficionados.
Saint Francis Café
Calle Mathilde Obarrio de Mallet, house 12 / Tel: 226 9950
Specializing in brunch, Chef Elena Hernández serves the Cubano Bowl in honor of her father’s roots. A chicken breast is marinated in Creole sauce, cooked sous-vide, and then served with rice with black beans and bacon, ripe plantain glazed with guava jelly, and pineapple salsa.
Calle 75 Este / Tel: 300 2003
This restaurant serves a variety of homemade soups. Rachel Pol’s secret recipe for artichoke-pesto dip is a winner, and if you don’t have room for more this time, you’ll just have to come back to try the Ropa Vieja sandwich, which features queso prensado (a soft, white cheese), ripe plantain, pickled onion, and cilantro mayo.
Pixvae, A Panamanian Market
Calle 75 near vía Israel, La Placita / Tel: 6614 0550
Owner Analisa Carles serves up nostalgia, with traditional ingredients and forgotten recipes, for onsite dining or take-out: butter cookies, almojábanos (S-shaped corn fritters), oils, dressings, and chorizos, among other foods.
La Cocina de Sofy
Calle 69 Este / Tel: 301 3366
Another classic restaurant in this area for onsite dining or take-out (the menu is on WhatsApp) serves outstanding dishes like corn soufflés with local cheese, shrimp ceviche with grapes and cashew apple seeds, and coquitos con chocolate (coconut cookies with chocolate.
Calle 72E, house 112, San Francisco / Tel: 387 3978
At Casa Escondida, Chef Alfonso de la Espriella serves infalible crowd pleasers: croquetas (fritters), corn tortillas, tacos, pastas, ceviches, and fried fish, chicken, and pork. As you might expect, all these foods are “taken to another level,” as they say in San Francisco, through a combination of creativity, technique, and local ingredients. The beets à la ceviche, with culantro, red onion, and a crunchy topping create a play of texture that reinterprets one of the most under-appreciated root vegetables. I whole-heartedly recommend the patacón con cangrejo (plantains with crab), which combines two basic ingredients of Panamanian cuisine: fried green plantain and fresh seafood. The pork tacos with secret sauce are not to be missed, even if the extra cholesterol knocks a week off your life. You really haven’t lived until you’ve tried them.
Calle 72 Este / Tel: 388 1365
San Francisco is also home to Afro-descendant chefs who pay tribute to their roots with new and creative interpretations of Panama’s culinary heritage. The personalized cuisine of Chef Chombolí showcases new techniques in reclaimed Caribbean recipes, such as bacalao con papa (cod with potatoes), pixbae (peach palm fruit) with foie gras, and tostadas with curried shrimp tartare.
La Tapa del Coco
Calle 68 Este / Tel: 203 0454
La Tapa del Coco is the place to go for a creative twist on Afro-descendant cuisine, such as Majestad el Sous (an Afro-Antillean dish of pork trotters and tails), prepared by Isaac Villaverde, one of many Panamanian Afro-millennials.
Calle 67 / Tel: 6670 4321
Food Truck Park features a smorgasbord of movie nights, live bands, DJs, and other events, complemented by all manner of food in a relaxing outdoor atmosphere. You can choose from Afro-Panamanian and Caribbean food (Shasampty), grilled delights (The Smoke Truck), seafood (The Fish Market), sandwiches (The Cooking Machine), and even hamburgers (Fatburgerpanama and Pa’ la Gorda). These days, local creative fervor seems to have taken a new look at the hamburger. Antiburger is a concept in itself. If you go to the food truck on calle 71, don’t miss the Highway, given a unique flavor by the Anti sauce that makes addicts of the long line of teenagers waiting. Another nearby food truck, Esa Flaca Rica, features Fulvio Miranda’s whimsical takes on hamburgers, all cooked with prime ingredients directly from the Chiriquí countryside.
Local and Central
Calle 74 Este / Tel: 387 2149
These two establishments represent the best of the cooperative urban spirit of the new Panamanian cuisine movement and its concern for Panamanian producers. Since the two establishments are side by side, you can eat at Local and stay for a beer at Central. At Local, I would pick the Panamanian risotto with pigeon peas, plantain, and arugula, all perfumed with truffles, and wash it down with a Guachimán, a draft beer, a Hoppy Pale Ale, or any of the twenty Panamanian beers available at Central.
Calle 69, house 115 / Tel: 203 4574
Chef Roberto Richa offers a new vision of urban cuisine, with tortellini carbonara, flautitas de pollo al carbón (crispy rolled chicken tacos), and a daring cocktail menu, making it a good idea to use a taxi to get there and back.
Calle Crisantemos, between 67 and 68 / Tel: 391 9234
A standout among many international options. Featuring recipes from Perú with Panamanian ingredients, the intercultural flavors will definitely wake up your palate if you’re used to more typical dishes. Treat yourself to fried ceviche, served with Scotch bonnet pepper cream, sweet potato tempura, and cancha (toasted corn kernels), or the leche espumada (foamed milk), a party on your tongue, with seasonal seafood accompanied by crispy crayfish, sweet potato, and the typical Peruvian garnish of cancha.
Calle 50 / Tel: 391 4657
San Francisco boasts Panama’s only restaurant to have been included twice in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. Mario Castrellón has revamped the menu, so every dish is delicious, but the tasting menu’s sancocho (chicken and vegetable soup), cooked over a wood fire, brought tears to my eyes, and the vegetarian Darién red rice with palm hearts, cauliflower, and carrots explains why Castrellón has earned so many awards. He was born to explore Panamanian ingredients and delve into world cuisine, as exemplified by his coconut octopus dumplings and garlic clams with beer.
Calle Crisantemos, between 67 and 68 / Tel: 392 1595 / 392 1596
As if tasting the expressions of this creative revolution in restaurants were not enough, young residents Chef María de los Ángeles Echeverría, and Jorge Chanis, gourmet and columnist for El Buen Diente, have developed a “gastronomic playground” that also pays due homage to local producers. La Mesa offers “tailor-made experiences” that run the gamut from private dinners to tastings of wine or Panamanian specialty coffee.
In short, dining in Panama is definitely trending now, and if your eyes are bigger than your stomach, you might consider a return trip, especially in 2019, when in addition to its designation as a UNESCO Creative City (Gastronomy), Panama City will be the Ibero-American Capital of Culture and celebrate the city’s 500th anniversary with five hundred new Panamanian recipes by local chefs that distill the flavors of the country, the city, and the neighborhood.