“This whole thing happened because I tweeted the mayor after seeing it on the news and he replied almost right away and recommended I create a proposal. So I did,” Maito chef Mario Castrellón, told me as we walked around Cuara y Cuara, a string of street food shacks, aka fondas, that snake their way down Panama City’s Avenida Perú.
The fondas, there for decades, are a bastion of traditional Panamanian foods in a rapidly modernizing city where they are fewer and fewer. For a few dollars you can buy dishes like mondongo a la criolla, pollo rotizado, or torrejitas de maíz. Everything is made from scratch and served hot from the hand of the person that made it.
In late 2013, the fondas of Cuara y Cuara received word that they would be shut down. A plaza and underground parking lot was going to be built. Some of fondas accepted a buyout, while two dozen others agreed to be moved to a new location on Calle 35 Este where they would, for the first time, try paying rent, plus adhere to additional regulations. With their long-term future and the potential loss of what makes them special up in the air, Castrellón stepped in.
“There’s real fucking Panamanian people here,” he said, as we waited for a brown paper sack of patacones with chorizo at the Fonda Alex Express. “They are just patacones. Simple. But they are made so good that the owner sells 1,400 orders per day. Tourists should be here. Or even middle class people that are coming here anyway but just ignore it.”
Castrellón knew early on after opening Maito that the country’s food evolution is bigger than himself. As has happened in countries like Peru, Panama’s culinary community has realized it can achieve more if they work together. Castrellón has taken that message to heart. He regularly meets with indigenous producers, such as rice growers in the Darién, or coffee growers in Boquette, to help them develop their craft. It not only gives him better products to work with, but also allows them to create a sustainable living.
He sees Cuara y Cuara as something uniquely tied to Panamanian gastronomy. It’s not something to be pushed aside, but celebrated. Just like the fine dining chefs and the fishermen unloading their catch at the fish market, Cuara y Cuara is an integral part of Panama’s wider culinary identity. This is how the idea for Menu Panama, Castrellón’s fonda and music festival, came to be. The event, of which the second edition was held in February, takes place on the grounds of the Frank Gehry designed Bio Museo, brings together some of Panama’s and Latin America’s top chefs and the fonderos for a night with drinks, live music, and an open market.
“They need to know that they are part of this city too,” Castrellón said. “That they are appreciated. Hopefully this event can show them that.”
The pairs of chefs work together for weeks to prepare their dishes. One of the requirements was that they had to use the exact same ingredients as they normally would. With that in mind the fonderos, most who have never worked with a trained chef before, were able to learn new techniques.
In the first edition, Carol Vargas, whose stall stands opposite a McDonald’s, sells a cajita feliz, a Happy Meal, where she prepares a different dish each day of the week. At Menu Panama she worked with Chef Alvaro Perrino of Azafrán to create a cajita feliz with pesca’o frito (fried fish) with pineapple pico de gallo and mini patacones with homemade hot sauce. Then there was Maria de Los Angeles of Botánica who helped recreate a torreijita de maiz by filling it with encebollado de café, chorizo, and queso del país. If it were an arepa it would have been the best arepa I’ve ever had. It might not be feasible to recreate all of the plate in the timeliness needed on the street, but I could see elements of it working. At the same time the chefs, most of whom work in fine dining restaurants with just a few dozen tables, were also able to see the value of perfecting a single dish made over and over again, not to mention feeding the masses.
“I was worried when I heard how many plates when I heard we needed to prepare 600 something servings,” said Donde Jose’s José Carlés, who was working with Rigoberto Velásquez on serving his patacones. Mr. Velásquez assured him it was nothing compared to what he is used to.
The second Menu Panama focused on Afro-Panamanian fondas, particularly those of the Chorrillo neighborhood. It’s ghetto. Straight up. The streets are cluttered and run down, but there’s life. And there’s food. He takes me to a street side kitchen on Calle 27 that’s home to Cecilia Pesca’o. Run by Afro-Panamanian woman Cecilia Smith, who lives in the house behind the kitchen, the informal restaurant with nothing but a few plastic chairs on the sidewalk has been open for several decades.
Early each morning she walks over to the Mercado de Mariscos, a few blocks away at the edge of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Casco Viejo, to pick up supplies she needs to make her curries and guisados that all get made from scratch that morning. “They all look the same,” Castrellón says, “but each tastes completely different.”
There is squid, bacalao, turtle meat, and stewed octopus in coconut milk. There are touches of bay leaf, ginger, and anis. Then of course there’s her pescado frito, with perfectly fried skin and tender white insides. All of it gets piled over arroz con coco and tajada de plátano verde. The smell of her food wafts down the street, attracting a crowd of people. Every street in Chorrillo has a Cecilia Pesca’o of some sorts, cooking up Panamanian soul food that’s waiting to be discovered by the rest of the world.
Guidebooks often say to avoid Chorrillo completely, and there’s good reason. It’s dangerous in places. Gang violence limit more people from coming, so many from elsewhere in Panama City and even other streets within Chorrillo, stay away. Castrellón has visions of sitting all of the gangs together and letting them know the potential that this food has here. Even without sitting them down, he’s doing that piece by piece. In late 2015, he invited Smith to cook a dinner with him at Maito, arguably Panama’s best restaurant.
Not far away Castrellón helped launch Sabores de Chorrillo, an outdoor food court that launched in 2015 on the Cinta Costera 3, beside Maracaná stadium. Forming a semi-circle around a brick plaza, each of the half-dozen stalls opens up on to a back patio with tables and umbrellas, looking out over Panama Bay. The location is more tourist friendly that the traditional street kitchens. When there’s not a game you can pull in and park right in front and there are no security concerns to worry about. It’s clean and organized.
The stalls have names like Donde Gato and El Don de Vitoly. Even Cecilia Pesca’o has a stand. Each serves a few traditional Afro-Panamanian dishes like Sopa de Mariscos and Pescado a la Macho. For $10 I had a plate of pargo frito con camarones al coco y patacones (fried red snapper with coconut shrimp and fried plantains) that could have served four.
Castrellón doesn’t have a TV cooking show, but he’s instantly recognized by anyone in the Panamanian food community, from top restaurants in Casco to street stalls, wherever we go. They’ve rallied around him because he he hasn’t exploited them for his own means. He has become the mediary for fondas and street food vendors that are facing modernization and insists that they shouldn’t lose their essence.
“We have to keep it in their style,” he told me. “To not lose the spirit that made them great in the first place.”
On his own Castrellón has built a handful of successful restaurants. Aside of Maito, there’s the BBQ restaurant Humo, taqueria La Neta, the Italian Botánica, beach restaurant Mansa, and a chain of Café Unido coffeeshops. They are modern and forward thinking, yet all have a Panamanian touch. They have landed Panamanian food in the pages of the New York Times and in glossy travel magazines, plus he also helps other promising Panamanian chefs get their start. He is often the first customer when a new restaurant opens. Yet, he’s aware that if Panamanian cuisine is to be taken seriously, it must extend beyond the restaurants frequented by the city’s wealthier residents and into the barrios. Into the hearts and minds of every Panamanian. He is proving that the fondas have value. Not just for those that live and work near them, but that they are worth seeking out by other locals and tourists. Their recipes, ever evolving ideas of flavor shaped by decades and centuries of using a singular ingredient in a particular way, are a part of the country’s eternal memory.