One may be surprise by the delicatessen on offer in Panama. You won’t have seen Panama at the top of any lists for global culinary delights, yet this small Central American country has its own delicious dishes to discover and enjoy. Panamanian cuisine is heavily influenced by its diverse population of Hispanic, European, African and even Chinese migrations. Seize the opportunity to ignite your taste buds with this nation’s cuisine, stuffed full of cultural heritage.
The Traditional Dishes
Every Panamanian enjoys a good Sancocho (pictured above), a chicken soup made with a special herb, “culantro” (not to be confused with “cilantro”) which is often had with rice on the side. I guarantee you that this is the best hangover cure money can buy. Tested and approved.
On a daily basis, you’ll find a lot of rice, black beans and lentils in meals here. One thing is certainly clear: Panamanians love meat! Beef, pork, chicken and so many choices of seafood are widely served and the most popular fish dish is la corvina (red snapper).
Another characteristic of Panamanian dining is the prevalence of fried side dishes such as carimañoles, hojaldres, empanadas, patacones and some Yuca Frita, to start with.
10 places to Eat Panamanian Food in Panama City
1. Mercado del Mariscos – Cinta Costera
THE one unmissable stop in Panama City! Fresh fish arrives is this unusual place every single morning and you can buy the whole fish or even better- enjoy a delicious Ceviche right there. Ceviche is a fish dish made with the national lemon/orange zest of the country. A small cup costs only around $1.50 at the market so it’s worth trying a cocktail with a bit of everything- sea bass, octopus, shrimp- before making up your mind.
2. El Trapiche – El Cangrejo
I have to confess that every time a friend comes to visit me in Panama, I bring them to El Trapiche where pretty much all the traditional Panamanian dishes are served. At breakfast time there’s the ” centenario“, a hojaldre covered with eggs, tomato sauce and chicharron. Everyday of the week you can enjoy a different lunch for $7,5. My favourite is the Ropa Vieja, a type of shredded beef in a flavourful sauce, with a fresh chicha de pina (pineapple juice) or the famous lemonade of raspadura (made from sugar cane). Also take the time to observe the typical hats with a black line that all the restaurant’s waiters are wearing. It is not to be confused with the other widely popular “Panama hat” that is originally made in Ecuador.
3. Diablicos – Casco Viejo
Established in the beautiful old town of Casco Viejo, this restaurant is made even more spectacular by its impressive decoration with Diablicos masks from Panama’s ancestral history. Try to go on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night to enjoy some live music with national songs. El Tamborito (the little drum) is the national song and dance of Panama. Witness it here danced by Panamanian ladies wearing the famous traditional dress, the Pollera. If you would like to try a bit of everything, you can’t go wrong with the Bandeja Diablicos.
4. Donde Jose – Casco Viejo
The chef Jose knows a thing or two about artistry with the fresh local products of Panama. For gourmet food lovers, this is the place to go and be amazed by the fine cuisine. The restaurant is very intimate, cosy and offers extremely good customer service. For those with a refined palate and no budget restrictions, don’t miss the place.
5. Fonda Lo Que Hay – Casco Viejo
Created by the amazing chef Jose, this place is a great spot to enjoy a delicious creation with fresh products for a reasonable price – less than $10. The menu changes all the time but trust me, you won’t regret it whichever day you choose to go. I will never forget the day I had the pleasure of eating this very ConColon, a crispy rice dish, almost like a crepe. It was so soft on the top with a delicious coconut sauce and melting vegetables. I hope your mouth is watering just as much as mine is right now!
6. Cinta Costera – Bella Vista
I always enjoy a nice walk with some street food along the way. Cinta Costera is the place to go when the sun sets, before then it’s simply too hot. Start with a renowned Choripan or salsicha stick, then try a refreshing raspao which is peeled ice with a natural fruit juice and some concentrated milk on the top . For the brave ones, you can try then the spicy mango salad. You won’t be hungry on this beautiful walk along the coast and you won’t spend much either.
7. Pixvae – Bella Vista
This is one of the few places left where you can really see the passion of cooking fresh local products right before your eyes. As soon as you enter, you can feel the warm vibes and breathe in the numerous tempting smells. They offer lunch everyday, from sandwiches to a larger main menu. You can also do some grocery shopping to take all these beautiful products home. I was totally captivated by their Aji Combo sauce, so delish!
8. Café Coca-Cola – Casco Viejo
Opened in 1875, Café Coca-Cola is the oldest in Panama City and it’s an institution in Panama. It used to welcome many politicians who gathered together drinking a pintado (a tiny cup of black coffee with a few drops of white cream). I really enjoyed the delicious arroz de coco con guandú and pollo asado (coconut rice and grilled chicken). A secret from the chef: a good ” arroz de coco” is made with coco rallado (grated coconut) and not from a milk coconut can. Reach paradise with a side order of some tajada (fried plantain), crunchy and soft all at once.
9.La Tapa del Coco – San Francisco
Let chef Isaac Trae transport you to the caribbean right away with his exotic flavours. At La Tapa del Coco you can try all the delicious Afro Panamanian cuisine. I totally LOVED the torrejitas de bacalao (codfish cakes). The spice level can escalate quickly so be ready to feel like you’re on fire. If more flavour is what you desire, try the patty (a type of empanada filled with meat) or one pot colonense.
Demonstration with the chef himself!
10. Queso Chela – Carretera Panamericana
This last option is cheating a bit because this golden place which produces a precious empanada de queso (cheese empanada), is actually an hour away from Panama City. However, this is THE empanada de queso chela, trust me. Dozens and dozens of people line up to buy it and they sell an average of 3000 units per day. Crazy! But it’s worth the wait to finally enjoy this warm delicious empanada. If you have a bit more space (I always do), you can try their famous Flan de coco, one of the traditional desserts of Panama. Other special drinks are the Chicha de nance (a small yellow ball-shaped berry fruit) or chicheme (a drink made with corn). It is not for everyone, but definitely different.
One last sweet stop on the way?
Oro Moreno – Casco Viejo
This chocolatier is proudly Panamanian and its products are 100% made in Panama. The cocoa beans are grown in Bocas el Toro then directly processed in Panama City , a “tree to bar experience”. You can find tablets, pralines and the very special “culantro bombones“. If you so wish, you can learn more about the process with the very welcoming Yoshiris, the creator of this fantastic chocolate shop. For coffee lovers, you can’t miss the Geisha coffee, one of the most expensive coffees in the world. Let yourself be surprised by its very interesting taste and forget everything you knew about coffee.