No matter where we go, the Amble Resorts team and I are always on the lookout for good places to eat a tasty, authentic meal.
Our 3 recommended restaurants for dining in Panama City can all be termed “authentic” because Panamanian cuisine is actually a pretty broad term. Unlike places that existed in isolation long enough for their traditional culture to crystallize independently from outside influences (such as China), Panama’s location at a global crossroads has resulted in a culture more eclectic than most.
This trifecta of Panama City restaurants covers the spectrum of authentic Panamanian dining experiences, from the most típico panameño at El Trapiche to what is essentially a culinary free-for-all at Manolo Caracol (but still rooted in Panama through the use of fresh, local ingredients and the background of its master chef).
Admittedly, the food at other spots around Panama City can be hit or miss, so use this short list as your guide when looking for some fresh and delicious Panamanian food in the capital.
El Trapiche: Panamanian Comfort Food at a Comfortable PriceVia Argentina y Ave 2a B Norte | Panama
The least expensive on our short list, El Trapiche’s casual atmosphere and longstanding reputation for tasty, affordable Panamanian food attracts a regular clientele of locals and native Panamanians, a few expats – and few tourists. “Panamanian diner” might be the most apt way to describe this little place: think old leather furniture, a collection of traditional crafts adorning the walls, and clues that it’s been around for at least 50 years now (though I have no way of verifying this).
Offering traditional dishes for the working-class Panamanian, El Trapiche does its fried entrées really well – their carimañolas really stand out, and you can’t go wrong with the empanadas, the ropa vieja, or the fried pargo (snapper).
Be sure to order: the jugo de guarapo, or sugarcane juice, when it is in season. All their in-season fresh juices are delicious, but the guarapo is a unique treat. If they have it, get it.
Don Patacón: There is Such a Thing as a Nice Panamanian Restaurant
Via Israel y Calle 70 | San Francisco (the original, and the one we go to; there’s another location at Calle Uruguay y Calle 48)
A relatively new restaurant (it first opened back in 2009), Don Patacón distinguishes itself from El Trapiche by giving authentic Panamanian fare a gourmet touch and serving it up in an upscale, modern atmosphere. It’s a place you can bring a date to if you want to impress them and it’s a good choice for a special occasion dinner. I don’t know of any other high-end authentic Panamanian restaurant in the city, aside from those geared towards tourists (all terrible). If you know of one I’m forgetting, tell me and I’ll be happy to try it!
Just hip enough to be edgy while still being mainstream, Don Patacón presents Panamanian cuisine as worthy of the fancy restaurant treatment (which it is). For my money, I’m still going to go to El Trapiche when I want authentic Panamanian food, simply because I don’t think the trendy atmosphere and plate presentation panache justifies the higher prices, but that’s a matter of opinion. Notable entrées at my most recent visit included the corvina steamed in bijao leaf and the shredded chicken in phyllo dough. In subtle but delicious ways, they give many traditional Panamanian foods a little something extra. The last time I was there (a couple of weeks ago) I noticed that they roll their plaintains in cheese – something I’d never seen before, but which felt very authentic.
Be sure to order: the patacones. Maybe it’s obvious to taste the restaurant’s namesake, but these are worth mentioning. Bigger than patacones you’ll find elsewhere by a factor of five, and accompanied by three different sauces, Don Patacón’s signature fried plantain is thin and has a lot of surface area – the key to a good patacón.
Manolo Caracol: Always a Worthwhile Experience
Avenida Central y Calle 3ra | Casco Viejo
On the third night of my first visit to Panama City back in 2007, I was taken to Manolo Caracol and got the chance to see what this fixture of the Casco Viejo neighborhood is all about. Ever since, we’ve been tipping people off to Manolo Caracol as a great place for a highly satisfying dining experience that celebrates everything Panama is becoming.
Dinner at Manolo is always prix-fixe and relies on fresh, local ingredients that are combined in innovative ways, often reflecting a fusion of different culinary styles ranging from Latin to Mediterranean with a basis in Panamanian cuisine. They’re still undercharging for the kind of experience they offer, even after having bumped up the price in recent years. For an idea of what might come parading out as part of your multi-course meal, follow Manolo Caracol on Facebook — Executive Chef Dany Suaya updates their page daily with photos of his fresh finds at the local market so you can see what will end up on your plate.