How Panama’s Culinary Scene Became the Envy of Central America : New Worlder

The first time I went to Panama, in 2005, the culinary scene was dead. Scratch that, it was never alive. Outside of the way ahead of its time Manolo Caracol, Panama City lacked good restaurants. There were Italian and Greek restaurants, but if you wanted anything Panamanian you were limited to street fondas where just about everything was fried. The food showed no hint of the complexities and layers of a country with unparalleled ethnic and biological diversity. It was, for lack of a better term, just plain shit.

When I returned in 2013, Panama was a different place. The economy was booming and Panama City’s skyline was starting to resemble Dubai. Casco Viejo, where you once wouldn’t dare venture at night, was suddenly full of rooftop bars and art galleries. A few restaurants, like Maito and Riesen, had opened up and they were modernizing Panamanian dishes and ingredients. Young chefs were getting together in groups like Proyecto Paila to create their own hot sauces from ají chombo and a growing number of craft brewers were experimenting with local ingredients. Far from a full-fledged culinary scene, just a small group of enthusiasts, but you could feel something happening at a base level.

Since, I’ve continued returning to Panama, and the country’s culinary scene has exploded. There are dozens of high quality restaurants exploring local ingredients. Found in multiple neighborhoods throughout Panama City and elsewhere around the country, more are opening every month. The first Panamanian restaurant, Maito, has entered the Latin America’s 50 Best List and several others will likely appear alongside Maito soon enough. To reiterate, a little more than a decade ago there was no culinary scene in Panama. None. Today, it’s the most exciting food destination in all of Central America. Not by a little, but by a lot. The growing economy, even with the occasional dip, helps, but that doesn’t explain why Panama’s food scene is blowing past that of much more hyped neighbor Colombia, also prosperous in recent years. Here’s how it happened:

Cultural and Biological Diversity

Aside from the affects it has had on Panama’s economy and the general development of infrastructure in the country, the construction and operation of the Panama Canal has brought waves of immigrants that has drastically changed the cultural landscape. After the arrival of the Spanish, which pushed indigenous groups deeper into the mountains and forests, came the French, the Chinese, Jamaicans, Americans, and Greek. More recently, the country has seen an influx of wealthy, educated Venezuelans escaping disruption at home and another wave of North American expats. Few countries in the world can claim this level of diversity coming from, roughly, a single century and the impact of this infusion of ideas, culinary and beyond, cannot be ignored.

Biologically, Panama, with two coasts, extensive forest cover, and a mountainous interior set in a place where two continents connect, is profoundly rich flora and fauna. Huge tracts of the country, from the entire Darién to mountainous areas of the Caribbean coast, are completely undeveloped, while autonomous indigenous comarcas, or tribal lands, of the Guna Yala and Ngäbe-Buglé have maintained the landscape and their traditional ways of life. While getting much of this biodiversity into Panamanian kitchens in sustainable and efficient remains to be seen, it is starting to translate and there is enormous potential. Still, there’s significant biodiversity in most Central American nations, so this doesn’t completely explain how Panama has been able to take advantage of it.

The Rise of Mario Castrellón

In 2010, when Maito opened in a restored wooden house in the San Francisco neighborhood — at the time a mostly residential zone — Mario Castrellón was alone. The restaurant was serving dishes and ingredients picked up from cultural groups in the country, like dumplings from the Barrio Chino, banana-leaf-wrapped Afro-Antillean seafood stew-filled tamales, and concolón, the crispy rice at the bottom of your grandmother’s pan. “Diners still wanted international classics like risotto, and big plates with lots of rice,” Castrellón explains. “It was a slow and steady process.”

At every step along the way Castrellón has pushed the envelope on the possibilities of Panamanian cuisine. Aside from introducing countless indigenous ingredients to Panama City (see below), he invented Panamanian style BBQ at Humo and Panamanian tacos at La Neta, created a cult coffee roaster at Café Unido, and has helped nurture the talent of young chefs like Carlos Chombolín Alba and Maria de los Angeles, among other things including the opening the Italian inflected Botanica, cocktail bar Amano, beach restaurant Mansa, and the food truck Anti Burger. Without Castrellón coming onto the scene when he did, we wouldn’t be talking about food in Panama in quite the same way. Keep in mind that he is only in his mid-30s and picking up steam with each passing year.

Experienced Cooks are Flocking to Panama

Even before there was a culinary scene to speak of, cooks with experience in some of the world’s top restaurants began coming to Panama. Spanish Michelin star chef Andrés Madrigal arrived in 2013 and opened Madrigal, plus two other restaurants. Before opening Donde Jose, José Olmedo Carles worked his way around Australia, including a turn at Attica. Carlos Chombolín Alba staged at Ni Neu from Andoni Luis Aduriz’s Ixo group in San Sebastián and, even after opening Intimo in 2015, staged at Norway’s Maemmo for inspiration. Joseph Archibald, who now has Receta Michilá and Octo in Bocas del Toro, spent years in Paris working at Michelin starred restaurants including Le Grand Vefour and Frenchie. Luis Young, now at Salsipuedes in The Bristol Hotel, did stints at Alinea and the French Laundry. Felipe Milanes, who has Tomillo and several other restaurants in Casco, spent years working with Jose Andrés in D.C., while Rafael Rayes, who works operations in Castrellón’s restaurant group, worked at Blue Hill in New York. Spanish born Alvaro Perrino of Azafrán worked his way around Madrid. The list goes on and on.

The Embrace of Regional Cuisines and Restaurants

Throughout Latin America, with the exception of maybe Mexico, nearly all of the best non-traditional restaurants are limited to the largest city. This applies to countries like Chile, Argentina and, even, Peru (though Arequipa and Cusco are showing potential in breaking this curse). In some countries, it has not been possible to open non traditional restaurants in in the provinces because all wealth is concentrated there. The growth of the economy in most areas of Panama, coupled with thousands of expats moving in has allowed for smaller hubs of gastronomic ideas to develop.

At Receta Michilá on tiny Isla Carrenero in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, I was served a tasting menu in the middle of a jungle beach from barefoot waitresses. Chef Joseph Archibald named the restaurant after a forgotten local porridge of coconut, plantain, and ginger, and is applying his experience in France to a revival of local food traditions. While the restaurant is being renovated, he’s running a food truck called Octo on Isla Colón. In David, Panama’s second largest city, Luis Mendizábal served contemporary menu utilizing the diverse ingredients of Chiriqui at Cuatro, while further up in the highlands chefs like Charlie Collins at Panamonte (who just wrote an excellent new book about native cuisine called T’ach) and Patricia Miranda at Cerro Brujo Gourmet also explore the region’s foodways. On the Caribbean Coast, Cuquita Arias de Calvo, Panama’s Martha Stewart, has been exploring Afro-Panamanian cuisine. On the Pacific Coast, Castrellón’s opened the excellent Mansa in the Buenaventura complex, while ex-Manolo Caracol chef Andrés Morataya’s Panga has brought farm to table dining and pop-ups with top chefs to Playa Venao, a remote beach on the Azuero Peninsula where he smokes, forages, and harvests everything around him while helping develop a network of local suppliers.

The Standardization of Street Food

True Panamanian cooking is in the streets of Panama City and in informal beach and country shacks, yet for many years it was avoided by all but the working poor. Over the last few years, Panama City’s fondas – inexpensive eateries and food stalls serving typical dishes ­– have been incorporated into the cityscape, attracting a wider variety of clientele. It first began with the fondas of Cuara y Cuara, which were being demolished for a parking garage. The culinary community rallied behind them and found them a new setting. Then, in the run-down Afro-Panamanian El Chorrillo neighborhood, where women like Cecilia Smith have been cooking different preparations of fish and curries out of their house, a new seaside market was built. Some fonda owners, like Donde Ivan’s Iván Gómez from the gritty Río Abajo neighborhood, have become local celebrities.

Developing Supply Chains

While Panama has some spectacular ingredients specific to the country, there’s been a lack of will on the part of producers in developing a market for them. That’s changing. There has been a collective effort to cultivate new supply chains, with many chefs buying up everything a producer has or helping them find outlets in order for them to survive. Castrellón has spent several years working with the NGO Nutre Hogar to get indigenous ingredients like boda from the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca and red rice from the Darién into Panama City restaurants, going as far buying up their overproduce to create a hot sauce out of it. In the Azuero peninsula, Morataya has helped spread awareness for the first oyster farm in the country.

Young Chefs Taking Risks

When José Olmedo Carles first opened Donde José, a 16-seat tasting menu only restaurant in Casco Viejo in 2014, he admits he probably wasn’t ready for the project. Yet, the restaurant has been wildly successful and allowed him to grow as a chef, finding his own voice. He’s now preparing to open a research lab with a fermentation room and his own style of fonda. Other young chefs have jumped into projects because they knew the city was hungry for them. In 2013, after winning a cooking competition Hernán Riesen, took the prize money and opened his own restaurant, Riesen, despite being in his early 20s. When Alfonso de la Espriella left the much loved and very chic La Trona to open his own restaurant in 2016, Casa Escondida, he didn’t cook the food that the public expected him to, but the food he wanted to cook.

A Flourishing Coffee Scene

While there are no vineyards in Panama and likely never will be, having some sort of beverage component (beyond a small amount of rum production) can help a culinary scene feel more complete. A decade ago no one really spoke of Panamanian coffee and even today production quantities are quite small compared to the standard of other Central American countries. However, the quality is spectacular. On the slopes of the Barú volcano, the Ethiopian varietal gesha, or geisha, mutated in the rich soil to blossom into one of the world’s most sought after coffees, not to mention the most expensive. Geisha and its tea like qualities have become emblematic to Panamanian coffee, though the caturra and typica is quite good too. At Café Unido, Castrellón and his partner Alberto Bermudez have helped create a coffee culture in the country, offering fair prices for beans to stay in the country. The roaster now has five locations that look straight out of Brooklyn. Other cafés have followed their lead and opened in places including Boquette and beachside in Playa Venao.

Creating Culinary Culture

When I went to Panama Gastronomica in 2013, a culinary event organized by the chef Elena Hernandez, who also owns the brunch spot St. Francis Café and a cooking school, I was impressed with just how Panamanians were embracing things like Tapa de Coco’s Afro-Antillean food truck, craft beer, and eating lionfish as a way to protect coral reefs. Each year, the festival has gotten bigger and bigger, and the ideas more progressive. In 2015, Castrellón launched Menú Panama, an annual food and music festival on the grounds of the Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo that brings in Latin America’s 50 Best chefs. In 2016, reality show Pritty Fonda saw divey restaurants battle it out as Spanish food critic Ignacio Medina did what he does best, alongside Castrellón. Shortly after, a Panamanian edition of Top Chef premiered and was wildly successful. There are regular pop-ups, takeovers and collaborations at top restaurants being used as a vehicle to create awareness of lesser-known chefs, be it a street food vendor or cook with a new restaurant. And while there is plenty of ego and jealousy within Panama’s culinary community, as there is everywhere else in the world, the collective idea of bettering Panamanian kitchens is shared by everyone.  The last time I saw chefs working together toward the selfless promotion of other chefs was a decade ago in Peru.