I can’t say I was all that surprised to discover that, after spending my first year out of college driving across the country in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, I had acquired a slight obsession with road food. When you’re spending hours staring out the window of a giant hot dog, there’s no better change of pace than an impromptu stop at a local eatery. You never know who you’ll meet, or what morsel of local history you’ll pick up over a quick bite, and a spur-of-the-moment stop may become your favorite part of the whole journey.
Needless to say, I have pretty high standards for drive-by food, but I have found a tried and true favorite in Panama. About an hour outside Panama City, in a town called Capira, there’s a hopping roadside stand that may rival the Panama Canal in daily number of visitors. As Panama City residents make their weekend pilgrimages to El Valle and neighboring beach towns, it’s almost required that they hit up Quesos Chela for their road food fix.
You could easily pass by this unassuming little stand stationed next to a long-abandoned gas station on the outskirts of town, but those with a trained eye know to look for the red and yellow sign on the top of the building. It’s almost the Panamanian equivalent of the golden arches, and a beacon of freshly baked deliciousness.
Quesos Chela offers hearth-baked breads and artisan cheeses made locally, but the real draw is the empanadas. These dumpling-shaped delights contain a spicy, savory mixture (choose from a variety of different meats and cheeses) pocketed in a flaky, buttery crust. Crowds pack in at all hours, grabbing fresh-baked empanadas to go, accompanied by chichas (Panamanian smoothie-like concoctions) of all flavors. My favorites are the ground-corn and vanilla Chicheme and sugary-sweet oat milk Avena.
It’s almost impossible to spend more than $5 at Quesos Chela, and the stand is open morning to night. The atmosphere is always chaotic and exuberant, reflecting the mood of everyone making their weekend getaways, and even when there’s a line (almost a guarantee), it moves quickly. There are no tables or chairs, so it’s best to take your food on the road – luckily empanadas make for a pretty manageable travel meal.
If you’re planning to visit Panama, it is more than likely your travels will take you by Quesos Chela. Stop in, grab an empanada, and while you’re waiting in line ask a local how many times they’ve visited the fast food hotspot – you will more than likely hear that they’ve lost count.