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    Post #1 - March 28th, 2007, 6:15 pm
    Post #1 - March 28th, 2007, 6:15 pm Post #1 - March 28th, 2007, 6:15 pm
    We returned from our third trip back to the lovely country of Panama, and this is my food report…

    We arrived in the city early enough to grab dinner at La Posta, an upscale restaurant in the Bella Vista neighborhood. It’s apparently the place to see and be scene for the city’s rich and connected (the heavily armed and uniformed guard outside the restaurant’s walls lend credence to this), and the room has a Cuba circa 1940 feel to it—cream and white, paneled walls, dark wood bar and trim, banana leaf motif, slowly undulating plantation fans…

    When we ate here last year, I’d been eating fish, fish and more fish for two weeks, and I was craving beef. I remember the steak I ordered that night like it was yesterday. (Side note: The flavor of Panamanian, or maybe Central American, beef is noticeably different—the meat isn’t as fatty, the texture is more “dense” and the flavor is, well, beefier. Maybe it’s the difference between corn-fed and grass-fed?)

    This year, we started with a scallop carpaccio—wafer thin slices of scallop in a citrus marinade drizzled with a mango and red pepper coulis. I had Corvina en Papillote—a lightly seasoned piece of perfection with a texture more like crab. The Co-Eater had “Cazuela criolla de mariscos calamares, camarones, mejillones, conchuelas, corvine y pulpo”—a clay crock of seafood (shrimp, calamari, octopus, mussels, conch) cooked in a criolla-style broth.

    Criolla is a word thrown around a lot on menus, but I think by its very “mixed” definition, the style of cooking/sauce seems to vary widely from place to place. Our first visit to Panama, I understood “criolla” to mean “over-salted, fluorescent red sauce” and it was thrown on just about everything. I’ve since had several incarnations of Panamanian criolla, and the common variable in each dish seems to be the presence of tomato and onion (think: shrimp creole). It can be subtle (as it was at La Posta) or it can be overpoweringly salty.

    La Posta
    Calle 49/Calle Uruguay*
    Panama City

    * For some reason, cab drivers never seem to be able to find this place, so it helps if you tell them it’s near the T.G.I.Fridays, which is apparently quite the singles hot spot in Panama City.

    The following day, before our flight out of town, we had time to stop by Panama City’s Mercado del Marisco, a small but bustling seafood market on the edge of Casco Viejo, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Despite minimal refrigeration/ice, the stalls are packed with some of the freshest looking/non-smelling fish you can imagine. A few vendors sell bright, tart ceviches, but if you’re really hungry, buy whatever looks good and take it to the restaurant upstairs. They’ll cook it for you for about $6.

    Check out the prices (in US$)…

    A bewildered fishmonger showing me his floundah…

    The clear, cold stare of a fresh redfish…

    After the fish market excursion, we ambled through Casco Viejo—a neighborhood with some of the same architecture style, character, charm, and squalor of the French Quarter, minus the drunken frat boy element. Noriega’s crumbling and graffiti-tagged palace sits perched on the edge of the district, and is soon to be renovated into a boutique B&B, according to a local restauranteur. The area (as is most of Panama) is experiencing a huge real estate boom, with investors buying up old buildings and renovating, and several new restaurants and upscale shops opening. There seem to be a few more restaurants in the neighborhood since our first visit, but I noticed more than a few places that were open before, but had closed and re-opened under a different name—perhaps a sign that the area is still struggling to find its audience.

    Having forsaken ice cream for the cold winter months, there was no resisting the rainbow of goodness at Heladeria Granclement, a gourmet ice cream/sorbet shop. I tried the mango and the ginger. Superb.

    Heladeria Granclement
    San Felipe Avenida
    Central y Calle 3a


    When we returned to Panama City (after a week in Bocas del Toro and another week exploring the Pacific side—covered in this report), we lunched at a chain called Pollo Pelao, a huge open-air chicken shack on one of the main shopping streets in the city. We ordered a platter with chicken, steak and sausage, and the requisite tonstones (Panamanians call ‘em patacones), but the chicken is the ticket. There’s a wall of rotisserie-style ovens in the kitchen, and you can watch a guy pull out your pollo asado and hack it into quarters. Each table had its own set up of house-made hot sauce and chimichurri, which made an excellent dipping sauce for the patacones. My Co-Eater threatened to leave if I stuffed the hot sauce in my bag, so I didn’t.

    Pollo Pelao
    Villa Espana (al lados de las Rancheras)

    Our last dinner in town, at Manolo Caracol in Casco Viejo, was one of the food highlights of the whole trip. We met Manuel Madueno, the chef/owner, in the town of Pedasi (Los Santos, Azuero Peninsula), where he was busy with the construction and opening of a new outpost. Unfortunately, we forgot the camera, so I have no photographic evidence of the restaurant, or the food orgy we had.

    The restaurant itself is cozy, with a semi-open-kitchen layout. Behind a half “wall” display of fresh tropical fruits, the chef mans (or in this case, wo-mans) a 7-foot rail of burners. This rig looks like something you’d see at a roadside stand: a thick, open, welded iron structure fitted with a row of gas burners. An interesting set-up for a swanky-ish restaurant, but watching the chef bounce from flaming-hot skillet to pot to wok was an awesome sideshow to the meal.

    On to the food: We didn’t realize it was a tasting-only menu until the plates started showing up—and kept on coming until it hurt. I assume the menu changes with the seasons and availability of fish. Everything was peak-fresh. A trio of ceviche—shrimp, corvina and another firm, white fish we couldn’t ID. A cazuela of shrimp in oil, pepper, garlic and pineapple. Chicken legs in a sweet glaze. Baby clams in a musky seafood and white wine broth. Rice and beans with tomatoes dusted with a cocoa powder seasoning. Crispy chicken with honey sauce. Chunks of octopus—cooked perfectly tender—in a fresh green salsa. Red fish in a light, bright tomato sauce. In case you’re counting, that’s 10 courses, plus a final, gut-busting square of flan.

    When the flan showed up, I started getting a little nervous about the bill. We’d ordered two bottles of wine (the red was a mistake…this is definitely the place for a good, seafood-friendly white), and had no idea what the “tasting” would set us back. When the bill showed up, I mistook the wide-eyed expression on my Co-Eater’s face for the bad kind of shock, but, in fact, it was the utterly-good kind of shock: for this whopping meal, we paid a grand total of $17/person, plus wine.

    My only regret was not having the camera. And if I had to complain about one thing, it would be the meal’s pacing. Unlike traditional tastings I’ve had, where you get at least a short breather between courses, the plates showed up two and three at a time, in quick succession. At any given time, there were a few plates on the table, which makes it hard to concentrate on each dish. So the meal felt a bit rushed. But don’t mistake these minor issues for disappointment. We will return to Manolo Caracol every time we go to Panama—but we’ll probably skip lunch next time around to save room.

    Manolo Caracol
    Avenida Central y Calle Tercera, Casco Viejo

    Las Bovedas, a restaurant housed in a fortress-turned-prison on the water (prisoners reportedly drowned or were picked to bits by sea critters when the tide came in) is a bit tourist-y and overrated. When we dined there (on our first trip), the food struck me as a slightly pretentious and over-priced spin on typical Panamanian food. We were told that the adjoining jazz club was happening, but the night we went (granted, several years ago now) a woman was screeching jazz favorites over the tinny backbeat of a humming electric keyboard. Not good.

    Las Bovedas
    Plaza Francia in Casco Viejo

    A much better option, if you’re in the mood for jazz, is a place around the corner called Platea, formerly Take Five. The place has been in full swing every time we’ve gone, but consider this fair warning: the drinks are totally watered down, and pricey by surrounding standards. There’s a Mediterranean restaurant called S’Cena in the same building, but we haven’t tried it yet.

    Calle Primera in Casco Viejo

    Casuale Lounge and Restaurant, a newish restaurant that took over the space of another, has a comfy, relaxed atmosphere and a charming bartender. We weren’t able to eat dinner here, but we met the GM, a friendly guy named Bjorn, who told us the menu was “World food with Panamanian ingredients”—which seems to be a good description for a lot of the food in the area.

    Casuale Lounge & Restaurant
    Calle 1, San Felipe (at the University Club building) in Casco Viejo

    I’m almost ashamed to admit that one of my last tastes of Panama was at a place called New York Bagel Café. But it was breakfast. And it was good. They offer GI-normous cups of coffee and fat bagels of all flavors. I had a breakfast sandwich, which they serve with a side of bagel chips. Nothing like a little overkill to complete the vacation.

    New York Bagel Cafe
    Ave. Arturo Motto/Via Argentina (near the Einstein head)
    (El Cangrejo district)

    Other non-food-related thoughts on Panama City:

    * I like the Hotel Marbella. It’s cheap ($40-$50/night), uber-clean, in the shopping district, near casinos and restaurants and a quick, $2-$3 cab ride to anywhere else you want to go.

    * See the Canal. Once. It’s amazing. But don’t get sucked into the over-priced buffet at the Miraflores locks.

    * Find a cab driver you like and stick with him. You can negotiate a price for an all-day “tour” (to see the Canals, Casco Viejo, Ancon Hill—the highest panoramic point in the city, etc.), but be sure you do this on the front-end. We got hosed for $70 on our first visit.
    Last edited by crrush on April 28th, 2007, 6:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.
  • Post #2 - April 17th, 2007, 8:39 pm
    Post #2 - April 17th, 2007, 8:39 pm Post #2 - April 17th, 2007, 8:39 pm
    I really enjoyed reading your Panama restaurant write-up. Just want to throw something in there, the Miraflores Locks restaurant (on the Panama Canal) has a new Chef...a real rising star...and so now that over priced buffet is so totally worth it! As is everything else on the menu. The guy is a genius with Indian food, I may try to convince him to work that into the menu, too! Plus, the views of passing ships are spectacular!

  • Post #3 - April 17th, 2007, 9:38 pm
    Post #3 - April 17th, 2007, 9:38 pm Post #3 - April 17th, 2007, 9:38 pm
    The prices and selection at your Panamanian fish market made me weep.
  • Post #4 - April 20th, 2007, 2:44 pm
    Post #4 - April 20th, 2007, 2:44 pm Post #4 - April 20th, 2007, 2:44 pm
    Hi...thanks. Do you work at the restaurant?

    PanamaJane wrote: the Miraflores Locks restaurant (on the Panama Canal) has a new Chef...a real rising star...and so now that over priced buffet is so totally worth it!

    Overpriced is right. We ate there last year and I wasn't impressed in the least. Who is the new chef? Where has he worked before?

    The Canal itself is definitely worth the trip, but not something I'd go back to again and again. Unlike, say, the fish market.

    Jay K wrote:The prices and selection at your Panamanian fish market made me weep.

    We will definitely purchase fish and have it cooked on-site the next time we're back.
  • Post #5 - April 24th, 2007, 12:37 pm
    Post #5 - April 24th, 2007, 12:37 pm Post #5 - April 24th, 2007, 12:37 pm
    Great post. thanks.
    Ten years ago I went to Panama City for a work assignment. Didn't get to see as much as I wanted to but had some great sea food. One restaurant in particular stands out in my memory, Siete Mares. Pricey, but on an expense account. At that time there were armed guards in front of nicer restaurants, big guns.
    I enjoyed the folk art painted buses, and picked up some molas, the native handicraft items that I still have. The people who lived there and I worked with recommended going to Bocas del Toro Islands on the Carribean coast. Still haven't made it back. But you've got me looking at websites again.
  • Post #6 - April 24th, 2007, 3:27 pm
    Post #6 - April 24th, 2007, 3:27 pm Post #6 - April 24th, 2007, 3:27 pm

    Bocas del Toro is the first place we explored in Panama. [EDIT: Here's the link with tons of recommendations--where to eat, where to stay, what to explore.] This year (it was our third trip to Panama), we also ventured over to the Pacific side, and while it's not as lush/green/jungle-y as the Carribbean, it definitely has its charm. And good food, naturally. I also recommend the Boquete area, particularly if you like coffee. Beautiful coffee plantations and organic/hydroponic farms. I'll PM you once I finally get around to posting on Bocas.

  • Post #7 - April 11th, 2010, 5:17 pm
    Post #7 - April 11th, 2010, 5:17 pm Post #7 - April 11th, 2010, 5:17 pm

    I am going on a week-long trip to Trinidad-Beni in Bolivia in early May for a mission work. I am in the process of buying my flight. I can transit through Panama city for one day or La Paz for one day. I will be by myself(female), so don't want to do anything adventurous/dangerous, but also don't want to miss out anything interesting both in terms of sightseeing/food. I would appreciate any input on anyone who's been to Bolivia or Panama. Thanks,
  • Post #8 - April 16th, 2010, 7:37 pm
    Post #8 - April 16th, 2010, 7:37 pm Post #8 - April 16th, 2010, 7:37 pm
    I've got to 2nd some of the previous reccs in Panama City and beyond-
    The Seafood Markets 2nd floor eatery serves up some of the FRESHEST seafood you'll ever eat!
    You can see the action from above the Mercado- and looking out the windows seeing pick-me-up trucks offloading blue plastic barrels & tubs of freshly harvested fish.
    I still can taste a particular coconut flavored seafood soup that I had- such a rich and savory broth, subtly sweetened by the coconut milk....WOW!
    A variety of Cerviches are on the menu as well, served with requisite saltines, and are so fresh too.
    Here are some of the images I captured from our trip there-
    and for those with shorter attention spans-
    the quick look at Panama "lite",

    Find a driver (taxi) via a hotel- they all have some of the BEST salsa playin' on their CD's you'll ever hear....even though Casco Viejo is "walking distance" from the Seafood Mercado-
    I don't reccd it- the area's a little sketchy- plus- it's kind alike walking on Lake Shore Drive's shoulder- not worth it.
    Check out The Causeway called the Armador- they were planning a Frank Gehry Museum there- not sure if it ever got built due to the Economic Metldown- but a great place to rent a bike- and to have a cocktail at sunset.....
  • Post #9 - December 13th, 2017, 11:10 am
    Post #9 - December 13th, 2017, 11:10 am Post #9 - December 13th, 2017, 11:10 am
    Any updates on PC? I'm heading there in the near future.
    "At a formal dinner party, the person nearest death should always be seated closest to the bathroom." George Carlin