What to Eat in Panama

If you come to Panama expecting just Latino food, you’re in for a big surprise: You might find dim sum on the breakfast table, lunch with an African accent, and ceviche at dinner that was probably today’s catch.

Panamanians love Chinese brunch. The Chinese community here, one of the largest and most prosperous in the Western Hemisphere, is the result of a wave of immigration that began 160 years ago for railroad construction. One happy result of this long relationship between Panama and the Chinese? Dim sum options abound in the capital city. Many tout Lung Fung (on Avenida de los Periodistas in the Los Ángeles quarter), considered the oldest of such restaurants; the Golden Unicorn (in the San Francisco quarter behind the Atlapa Convention Center) has been gaining adherents due to its more contemporary vibe and decor. Palacio Dorado (at Plaza Mirage on Avenida Ricardo J. Alfaro) is another highly attractive setup, well-decorated and spacious. Finally there’s Sunly (Los Tucanes shopping center in El Dorado), where Cantonese delights are the specialty.
Av Balboa s/n, Panamá, Panama
Panama City’s seafood market stands near the halfway point along the Cinta Costera, so the goodies on offer can be your reward after a long walkabout. Since colonial times, fishermen who sold the city its seafood have anchored here; there’s now an up-to-date market home to nearly a score of open-air stalls where customers chow down on ceviche, fried corvina fish with patacones (fried plantain rounds), filete a lo macho (fish filet in a shellfish ragout), and those same patacones, now stuffed with shrimp or much-celebrated shellfish guacho (think a tropical risotto). Don’t expect anything ritzy: This is plastic-chair-and-table country, but the food is so delicious that you won’t be thinking about the ambience.
Panama City, Panama
There was a tradition years ago among Panama City dwellers: going out for fried fish in El Chorrillo, the raffish barrio where boxing legend Roberto Durán grew up. While the custom faded over the years, the popularity of El Chorrillo’s fish has not. It’s led to the recent establishment of a “gastronomic marketplace” along the Cinta Costera. (The waterfront market was originally to be named the Fritódromo, in honor of the Panamanians’ love for all things fried.) Eleven chefs were selected from the neighborhood and trained in restaurant management as well as haute cuisine by renowned high-end chefs; then the city turned the premises over to them. It became Sabores del Chorrillo, and today every stall has its own kitchen and its own creative bill of fare.
Vía Argentina, Panamá, Panama
When it comes to matters breaded, battered, and fried (a Panamanian food obsession) you’ve got to try a carimañola (a cassava-meal fritter stuffed with meat), hojaldre (pretty much fried dough), and corn tortillas and chicharrón (pork cracklings). Yes, all fried, nothing good for you, absolutely scrumptious. This is the tasty culinary tradition rooted in the customs of peasants who emigrated to the capital in search of work. It’s the kind of food you’ll find in any hole-in-the-wall, but the atmosphere at El Trapiche aims to make diners feel like they’re back on the farm. Ask for the bandeja panameña (a sampler) to try a little of everything; or go for restaurant specialties like hojaldre sandwiches or the local tamale, tamal de olla, served casserole-style.
Vía Argentina, Panamá, Panama
Vía Argentina runs through the heart of El Cangrejo, the central neighborhood famed for its selection of restaurants, bars, and hotels. A walk along the street is like taking a gastronomic trip alongside all the immigrant groups who’ve come to call Panama home. It’s no exaggeration to say you’ll see Mexican, Peruvian, Indian, Chinese, Greek, or Spanish joints, one right next to the other. Then you’ve got the Venezuelan, Colombian, Afro-Caribbean, Lebanese, Costa Rican, Thai, French, and who-knows-what-else places. You can also find great Panamanian artisanal microbreweries like La Rana Dorada and Animal Brew.
Above and beyond the canal experience, A&PC is a good choice in its own right for an unforgettable Panama meal. Just being able to dine as you watch vessels pass through one of the world’s most colossal engineering marvels is a treat. Talk about atmosphere! The nocturnal quiet, the lights on the ships and the locks, all conspire to create magic. Adding to the ambience, smart service and fusion dishes (arroz con pollo, coconut croquettes, new-corn and plantain gorditas, and hibiscus-dyed pork belly) make the restaurant completely top-notch.
Calle D, Panamá, Panama
Chef Hernán Correa, the creative force behind the restaurant known as Riesen, is famed for his love of experimentation: He transforms old-school Panamanian recipes into something all his own. Hits include a version of the pickled pigs’ feet known locally as saus, as well as his hint-of-lime chicharrón, or pork crackling. That said, nothing has received more attention than his signature iteration of the traditional mamallena dessert: His version of the bread-pudding treat comes topped with Abuelo Añejo 12 Años rum ice cream he makes himself. The menu updates periodically as dishes adapt to seasonal ingredients. Correa also stays close to regional farmers and ranchers; some 90 percent of all ingredients are local and fresh.
Coffee culture is a big deal in Panama. And thanks to geisha-bean production in the highlands of Chiriquí (the province that borders Costa Rica), local coffees are some of the most sought-after in the world. Try them at Café Unido, where they buy carefully selected coffee beans directly from sustainable plantations. The beans are roasted by hand and prepared with painstaking expertise. You’ll also find food at all five branches. There’s one in the Casco Viejo, one on the ground floor of the American Trade Hotel, and another in the Multiplaza mall, down Luxury Avenue.
Calle 72 Este, Panamá, Panama
Cuquita Cookita is the latest venture from celebrated local chef Cuquita Arias de Calvo. She serves up “gourmet-homemade” in this colorful eat-in or take-out café. Desserts and other sweets are a specialty too, like her banana cake and lime brownies (among the biggest crowd-pleasers). The establishment also sells a variety of culinary items, including Cuquita’s latest book, Panamá Chombo Style, which recently received first prize at the Gourmet World Book Awards, in Yantai, China, in the best African cookbook outside Africa category. In Panama, a chombo is a man of African descent. With the book’s publication, Arias de Calvo pays special homage to Afro-Panamanian cuisine.
Calle 50, Panamá, Panama
Maito snagged No. 36 on a recent list of Latin America’s 50 best restaurants. It was the sole Central American venue to make the cut, in addition to being named by the list’s authors as the top Panama restaurant in 2016. Behind the kudos stands the restaurant’s chef and creator, Mario Castrellón, whose industry peers celebrate him for having brought a formidable evolutionary twist to New Panamanian cooking. His forte? Using ingredients that, while recognizably national, have not traditionally gone into sophisticated cuisine, like Darién red rice or exotic flor eléctrica (Acmella oleracea, a flowering herb that grows on the slopes of the nation’s highest volcano).
Carlos “Chombolín” Alba, the creator behind Intimo, focuses on local cooking and describes his restaurant as a “gastro-cultural” space. The place lives up to its name: In addition to seating only 28 people, it does not separate the kitchen from diners. The menu is based on Panama’s climatic and harvest seasons, so during July’s local harvest of eggplant, avocado, watercress, and chayote, that’s what will show up in the kitchen’s offerings; the idea is to use all ingredients at their zenith of quality.
Calle 1a, Bocas del Toro, Panama
Breakfast is tops at Amaranto, a marvelous spot for a cup of joe, rich avocado toast or fluffy, mouth-watering waffles. The Isla Colón location offers fresh, healthy breakfasts and brunches (always with an impressive juice array) within a simple, cozy atmosphere…plus priced to move. And whether it’s toast with mozzarella and egg or a crunchy vegetable bowl, don’t leave without trying the coffee, some of the very best in town.
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