While it’s slowing down, Panama City, Panama has undergone a restaurant boom over the past five years. There are now half a dozen very good contemporary Panamanian tasting menus, dozens of spots for updated fonda fare, street food markets, and specialty coffee shops are roasting some of the world’s best coffees. Additionally, there is a century culinary diaspora that has brought in dim sum, Greek pastries, and arepas. While there has also been a surge in international chain restaurants and flashy Miami Beach style rooftop restobars, they don’t get nearly the attention as the things that are happening organically in Panama. Keep in mind that a decade ago your options were few and far between for eating well in Panama City. Just imagine what Panama’s culinary scene will be like in ten more years.
Born in Madrid, chef Álvaro Perrino arrived in Panama in 2000 and has quietly made a name for himself working with Panamanian ingredients, especially fish and shellfish. His eclectic menu, now being served from a bright new space in Coco del Mar, takes in influences from Spain, Asia, and the Americas in beautifully executed dishes like Arroz de Pulpo y Coco (rice with octopus and coconut) and Chiriquí cochinillo. azafranpanama.com.
José Olmedo Carles worked his way around some of the top kitchens in Australia (Attica, Iceberg’s, etc) before opening this 12-seat tasting menu only restaurant in Casco Viejo in 2015. The restaurant explores the country’s biodiversity by utilizing native ingredients like sand crabs, chayote, and ñampí. With the opening of his more casual restsurant Fonda Lo Que Hay, Donde José has become increasingly experimental, using lesser known ingredients in different plating formats. dondejose.com.
As the name suggest, dining at this 28-seat restaurant in the back of a San Francisco house is an intimate experience. Carlos Alba, better known as Chombolín, studied cuisine in San Sebastian and more recently had a stint at Oslo’s three Michelin starred Maaemo, is one of Panama’s best cooks and it comes through in tasting menus that showcase the best of Panamanian ingredients, plus a phenomenal snack menu that includes things like a pork tongue katsu. The bar program, run by NY veteran Robert Martin, is one of the most progressive in the city. intimorestaurante.com.
Panama’s only restaurant on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant list (#29 in 2018), chef and culinary entrepreneur Mario Castrellón’s flagship restaurant has been a driving force in modernizing Panamanian cuisine. Set in a wooden, canal zone style house in the Coco del Mar neighborhood, the elegant restaurant works with indigenous communities to develop native ingredients like boda, a baby corn-like palm flower, and embraces the full scope of the country’s cultural heritage, from Afro-antillean curries to Chinese dumplings. maitopanama.com.
With two oceans, Panama has access to a spectacular array of fish and shellfish. This is why Japanese chef Makoto Okuwa decided to open his second restaurant (after the one in Bal Harbour, Florida) in Panama City. The menu combines traditional Edomae sushi with contemporary techniques, making it the city’s premier destination for Japanese food. makotopanama.com.
This two-story wooden house in Coco del Mar was once the home of Panamanian BBQ spot Humo, though it has transitioned into something of a Mario Castrellón funhouse. Amano, on the second floor, is a modern cocktail bar that still serves a small menu of plates like fried chicken and brisket tacos. There’s also a branch of Tacos La Neta here. labarradeamano.com.
Founded in 1938 in Greece, this Greek pastry shop and market arrived in Panama in 2013 and now has several locations in the city. Attached to the market and pastry shop is a café with a full coffee bar, soups, and sandwiches. athanasioupastry.com.pa.
Bajareque Coffee House
From the Lamastus Family, which happens to own some of Panama’s most important coffee farms: Elida Estate, El Burro Estate, and Luito Geisha Estate. Bajareque was one of the first serious specialty cafés and roasters in Panama City and it remains a reliable place to sample Geisha (or Gesha), as well as have a light snack. elidaestate.com.
This Italian restaurant and pizzeria from Mario Castrellón, formerly hidden in the back of a plant shop, is now in a glossy location inside the The Plaza Coco del Mar mall. There are ten wood fired pizzas served alongside soulful plates of beet risotto, milanesa, and eggplant and plantain lasagna. botanicapanama.com.
With half a dozen locations, including one in Washington D.C.’s La Cosecha market, this hipster café and roaster is Panama’s answer to Blue Bottle (but better). Their coffees, all Panamanian, are sourced from the country’s best coffee estates and a percentage of sales go to social and environmental projects in the coffee zones. The food includes a mix of sandwiches, brunch fare, and a trademarked waffle croissant hybrid called the waissant. cafeunido.com.
Former La Trona chef Alfonso de la Espriella has created his own version of Panamanian soul food in this once abandoned house in San Francisco. Tortillas de maíz nuevo with pork belly, roasted chicken with gravy, bucatini with clams, mondongo makes up the varied menu. Kick back on their patio with a gin and tonic or tequila sour. Facebook page.
The Dining Room at the American Trade Hotel
Former Limoncillo chef Clara Icaza heads the kitchen at this atmospheric Casco Viejo restaurant in the Ace hotel managed American Trade Hotel, which is also home to a branch of Café Unido and a jazz club. The mostly pan-Latin menu offers up some sophisticated plates like cobia tiradito and roasted pork pave with yuca poutine, along with snackier items like plantain empanadas and pickled pork carpaccio. Website.
This ice cream shop from Mario Castrellón has quickly become one of the best ways to beat the sweltering Panamanian heat. Expect creative flavors like Café Unido Cappuccino, salted caramel brownie, and tres leches, plus ice cream sandwiches and sorbets. Facebook page.
Of the several dim sum palaces scattered around Panama City, this spot in the Los Angeles neighborhood is your best option. Get there early for patitas (chicken feet), roasted pork, siu mai, ham pao, and other plates. Golden Unicorn near the Atlapa convention center is a good alternative if you don’t want to wait in the lines at Lung Fung. Facebook page.
Nina Café & Bistro
This hip design store in Obarrio isn’t just a two-level shop of furnishings, cookbooks, or kitchen tools, it also has an excellent café. The menu offers mostly light fare like cochinita de pibil tacos and smoked salmon sandwiches, plus a few heavier ones like creamy rice with ropa vieja and a cheddar topped grass-fed burger. There’s also a line of juices and coffee drinks. nina.com.pa/cafe.
Inside Casco Viejo’s Luna´s Castle hostel, this restobar with art lined walls and an all around good vibe has an above average pub menu. Their weekend brunches attract a wide crowd, while the all-day menu features things like a Moroccan lamb burger and chipotle mac and cheese. There’s a good list of Panamanian craft beers too. Facebook page.
An eclectic brasserie from Panga chef Andrés Morataya, Nueve in Casco Viejo is an attractive garden space strung with hanging lights. The menu features Panamanian classics like arroxz con pollo or chuletón, with the occasional twist, that are ideal to pair with their cocktail menu. Their brunch specials, with items like banana pancakes with Caribbean-style octopus, should not be missed. nuevepanama.com.
After using money from a culinary competition to buy a sous vide and smoking gun, Chef Hernan Correa Riesen opened this chilled out space in a nondescript street in El Cangrejo in his early 20s with his savings from working in kitchens and the support of his mother and grandmother, who opened up the ground floor of their house. It has been stylishly reborn with a new dining room, fermentation lab, geeked out kitchen, and outdoor patio with a wood fired hearth. His food, based in Panamanian ingredients and heavy on technique, continues to evolve, as seen with his win on the first season Top Chef Panama. Recently, they added an ice cream shop on the patio. riesenrestaurante.com.
Tacos La Neta
Mario Castrellón went to Mexico, fell in love with the taquerias there, and opened one not long after in Casco Viejo. Don’t expect traditional Mexican tacos, however, these are tacos tropicales. The corn used for the masa to make the tortillas is Panamanian, the hot sauces are made of ají chombo, and the fillings include things like chorizo criollo and coctel de camarónes. A second location has opened on the grounds of Amano in San Francisco. tacoslaneta.com.
The Strangers Club
An emergency fund from bartenders at top New York City cocktail bars Employee’s Only and Macao Trading Company grew to such a sum that the group decided to open a bar at the edge of Casco Viejo in July. Inspired by a jetset bar of the same name in Colon from the heyday of the canal, The Strangers Club serves international snacks and Sunday brunch alongside its list of progressive rum and tiki drinks. Facebook page.
This narrow, Casco Viejo eatery is a reliable option for a range of comfort foods like burgers, poke, and ceviche. Their cocktail bar, Mula, is one of the better options in the neighborhood. Facebook page.
This playful eatery near the Multiplaza Mall describes its food as “Cocina Urbana.” This translates to a waffle shaped falafel, pork stuffed calamari, and duck confit croquetas. Facebook page.
FONDAS, FOOD TRUCKS & STREET FOOD
This tasty food truck was launched as the antithesis of the gourmet burger trend that has been picking up in Panama. They focus on simple burgers made with good ingredients that don’t cost a lot of money. They also have Animal fries, sorry, Anti Fries, with bacon, onion, and Anti sauce. Specials like General Tso’s chicken sandwich and occasionally brings in guest chefs for collaborations. Facebook page.
After winning the food reality show Pritty Fonda, this no-frills, open-air restaurant in gritty Río Abajo is home to some of the best Afro-Antillean food in Panama. The lengthy menu features shrimp empanadas, sous (pig feet in vinegar), salted cod with curry and coconut rice, ceviches, pescado con patacones, and many classics. Facebook page.
Esa Flaca Rica
From Panama restaurant veteran Fulvio Miranda, this food truck was born in David in the Chiriquí province and made the move to Panama City and has since opened a brick and mortar location in Costa del Este. Expect juicy, fatty burgers slathered in cheese and toppings, plus succulent ribs, choripan, and other things that will probably give you a heart attack. Facebook page.
Fonda Lo Que Hay
From José Olmedo Carles of Donde José, this informal fonda might be the tastiest restaurant in Casco Viejo. The tavern like location with a long bar riffs on classic fonda fare like concolón, essentially the crispy rice at the bottom of the pan, served with smoked tomato sauce, or thin yuca tortillas topped with fish carpaccio. Instagram page.
La Casa de las Frutas
More sign than building, this old school juice booth is where to come to sample native fruits in juices, salads, or batidos. Non-locals will appreciate unfamiliar tropical fruits like nance, guanabana, and passionfruit.
La Tapa del Coco
Rio Abajo born owner Isaac Villaverde has become one of the strongest promoters of Afro-Panamanian cuisine with his La Tapa del Coco food truck that has transformed into a small restaurant. Serving dishes like torrejitas de bacalao (codfish cakes) and empanadas Jamaicanas (Jamaican Beef Patties), he has turned his food into an engine for cultural growth. Facebook page.
Panamanian craft beers and oversized, juicy, sloppy burgers are emphasized at this food truck style eatery with picnic benches near Plaza Centennial. A new branch is in the works for the San Francisco neighborhood. Instagram page.
Cuara y Cuara
This strip of no-frills fondas, set in streetside kiosks, was nearly wiped out until Panama’s culinary community rallied around them. They are now stationed at Parque Francisco Arias Paredes de Calidonia, between Avenida Cuba and Avenida Perú. Each fonda has a specialty, such as pollo frito (fried chicken), torrejitas de maíz (corn fritters), and patacones with chorizo.
Mercado de Mariscos
At the entrance to Casco Viejo, Panama City’s bustling fish market is connected to a pier (private access) where boats from all along the country’s the Pacific Coast are coming in loaded at every hour of the day. Much of the best fish (tuna for example) gets immediately exported, while a considerable amount is just transferred a few meters to the market area. Inside, women sell ceviches and cocktel de camarones (shrimp cocktail), while food stalls outside sell a wider variety of seafood dishes, most of them fried.
Sabores del Chorrillo
Some of Panama City’s most beloved informal food vendors (including iconic cook Cecilia Pescao) from the nearby Chorrillo neighborhood – who previously only cooked out of make-shift sidewalk kitchens – and installed in this half moon shaped food court near the Cinta Costera waterfront. Pargo rojo frito (whole fried red snapper) is the most common dish, but you’ll also find a few curries, ceviches, and canastas de patacones rellenos de mariscos (plantains stuffed with seafood). Facebook page.
Header image of Fonda Lo Que Hay by Nicholas Gill.