Panamá, a culinary capital
Very few countries have seen as many temporary and permanent influxes of people from distant and disparate cultures as Panama, and Panamanian chefs and restaurateurs sought — and found — ways to express this abundance in their dishes. The presence of 4 Panamanian restaurants among Latin Americas’ best 100 is proof of that.
By Juan Abelardo Carles R.
It might sound rather boastful or even arrogant to claim that Panama City is the culinary capital of Central America and the Caribbean. After all, the countries in this region all have rich and multi-faceted culinary traditions. But after seeing the latest listing of the region’s best restaurants –especially entries 51 to 100– released by “Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants,” it seems an inescapable conclusion. The canal side capital was triply represented by “Fonda lo que hay,” “Íntimo,” and “Cantina del Tigre.” These emerging stars, along with the long-standing excellence of “Maito” (the culinary venue that won the Highest Climber Award in the top 50, climbing from #36 to #6) make Panama City one of the largest contributor to the list among all the small countries located in the midriff of the Americas.
There is a reason for this. Very few countries have seen as many temporary and permanent influxes of people from distant and disparate cultures as Panama, where newcomers have brilliantly woven their own threads into the patchwork of the country’s character. Panamanian chefs and restaurateurs sought ̶ and found ̶ ways to express this abundance in their dishes, expressions that are becoming more and more familiar on the international culinary stage. Panorama de las Américas visits these sanctuaries of good food to talk to the kitchen wizards behind the scenes and learn a little about their magic. Dear reader, perhaps you’d like to come along and let yourself fall under the spell.
The venue helmed by chef José Olmedo Carles already had one foot in the waiting room to fame in 2021, when it was selected as one of the 50 Best Discoveries. It is interesting to note that the existence of Fonda Lo Que Hay was essentially an accident. The pandemic uncovered the public’s preference for simple spaces and menus, which encouraged Carles and his brother, Olmedo José, and his friend, Alberto Loaiza, to open a new space separate from his first business, the fine-dining oriented “Donde José.” Time has vindicated the trend, and Fonda Lo Que Hay has become an obligatory stop in the Old Quarter of the Panamanian capital.
As the restaurant’s name (“whatever’s available”) suggests, the offerings change frequently, but there are classics that remain on menu to stave off riots among the clientele. One of the standard dishes is the tuna carpaccio with a house ceviche sauce resting on a delicious bed of toasted yucca. Another is concolón, a dish of golden, toasted rice that had been viewed with disdain by the culinary scene until recently. Carles elevates it by giving it a special bake and serving it with a glorious parade of sauces that run the gamut from the classic tomato sauce to tripe stew. The evening might end with a raspa’o en paila that reinvents the classic sweet antidote to tropical heat: a mound of crushed ice accompanied by syrups, condensed milk, honey, and other toppings. It’s big enough to share.
According to the chef, the concept of Fonda Lo Que Hay encompasses not just the food, but what the ambience, the music, and the staff interactions with customers say about Panama. “Panamanians are very diverse. It’s salsa music one day and rock and roll the next. They can spend hours baking in the blazing tropical sun and then dive into a nearly freezing air-conditioned space. They are loud, happy, and passionate,” he declares.
After more than 8 years of teasing the palates of residents and visitors alike, chef Carlos “Chombolín” De Alba’s concept centers on first-quality local products, and a blend of the traditions that constitute the Panamanian nationality, particularly Asian, Afro-Antillean, mestizo, and North American. Íntimo is constantly reinventing itself in an effort to stay ahead of the changing desires of its regular customers. The main menu has changed at least 15 times, while the tasting menu has undergone some 20 modifications.
Nonetheless, there are constants that regulars can always expect, such as the arroz con pifia, which contrasts a smooth broth with rice, corn, and crunchy cashew apple seeds, and pieces of plantain in compote as a counterpoint. Another surprising evergreen dish is a plate of Chiriquí-style beans.
At first, customers shied away from this humble dish enjoyed even in the most modest of homes, but Chombolín transforms it with a tamarind glaze and a crown of queso fresco (mild white cheese) and pickled watermelon. Other iconic dishes at Íntimo are the fried siu mai with salsa criolla and cheese, and the marinated suckling pig roasted with sweet-and-sour plantains.
The cocktails created by his partner, Robert Martin, live up to expectations. Try the vodka-based Martini de Agua de Pipa with white vermouth and aromatics or the 1956, made with Ron Abuelo 7 años rum, ginger cordial, mandarin and orange extracts, and Angostura bitters. The beer menu doesn’t disappoint either. This magical fusion of flavors takes place in an open-plan kitchen and bar in view of the diners.
Cantina del Tigre
Necessity is the mother of invention. Fulvio Miranda is the brains behind “La Flaka Rica,” a landmark for hamburger lovers in Panama City. When the restaurant had to stay closed during the pandemic lockdowns, he and his partners, Juan Carlos Noriega and Marc Van Der Werf, moved to the interior of the country. When they would come back to check on the restaurant, they managed to use the kitchen to prepare takeout ceviche orders, which they delivered along their respective return routes. The range of dishes they developed during this period served as the basis for the concept of Cantina del Tigre, which came into being a bit later.
The rambutan ceviche is a good example of the restaurant’s offerings. The interesting resemblance of rambutan pulp to the flesh of white fish turns it into the star of a delicious mixture that is very popular with habitués of the restaurant. There is also the crowd-pleasing and simple mondongo con langosta (tripe and lobster). The humble tripe and the aristocratic lobster join in a revolutionary marriage on a bed of coconut rice. Sommelier Gilberto Garrudo adds spirit to the good times with his cocktails, including the outstanding Piña Cantina and Seco con Leche, which reinvents a traditional working-class dry schnapps and milk drink with clove, nutmeg, and grated orange peel, in homage to Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán.
Cantina del Tigre is located in the foodie district of San Francisco in one of the old wood mansions that abounded there before the area was swallowed by Panama City’s urban sprawl. The restaurant’s wine cellar welcomes you and then sends you out on to a large terrace with a view of the kitchen and the bar, designed in accordance with the popular open concept that is taking the city’s restaurants by storm.
Even though the number of Panamanian restaurants on the list of “bests” continues to grow, pioneer Mario Castrellón is still indisputably in the leader with his Maito, which was among the few establishments in Central America and the Caribbean on the “50 Best”. Castrellón led the way in the research and use of native products; he regularly visited producers, artisans, and indigenous communities, and established his own organic farm. He also initiated a movement of young chefs to encourage a Panamanian culinary identity. Many of the chefs gaining renown today are part of the movement.
The menu at Maito is known for its light dishes that feature vibrant contrasts of flavor. The list of must-tries at this restaurant is endless. Of note is the sancocho a la leña, which rediscovers the essence of this tasty Panamanian chicken soup. The ceviche rayado de pescado is also a classic on the menu.
Maito has continued to strengthen its presence on the Panamanian culinary scene and the international stage, taking its place alongside other restaurants that play to varied audiences with different menus and experiences. Eateries such as “Botánica Pizza,” “Tacos La Neta” (Panama City, Bocas del Toro, and Cartagena), “A Tope,” “La Milagrosa,” “Döbo” (Boquete, Chiriquí), “La Palma – Venao” (Playa Venao, Los Santos, Panama), “Corriente Latina” (Cartagena), “Besties,” and “Laobán” carry the stamp of Panamanian cuisine well beyond the capital, spreading it throughout the rest of Panama and influencing neighboring countries. This small Central American country is undoubtedly taking giant steps toward becoming even more relevant in the culinary circles of the Americas.