Ben previously listed his top 3 restaurants for authentic dining in Panama City, and he still stands behind these – but when pressed to pare the list down further, El Trapiche earned his #1 recommendation. That’s why this comfortable diner was the locale for my first dinner out in Panama.
If you’re seeking a fine dining experience, go elsewhere. But if you’re in a mood to sample a menu of delectable Panamanian favorites, all executed to perfection, head to El Trapiche on Via Argentina. Whatever this restaurant lacks in elegance, it compensates for with filling, flavorful food & unbeatable value.
Granted, I’m the sort who loves a good 24-hour diner back home in Chicago – those accommodating places where the coffee warm-ups always arrive on time and the cook gets my eggs right: double-yolked, over-hard. From the moment we stepped onto El Trapiche’s pleasant breeze-blown outdoor patio, I felt at home.
A peek through the shuttered windows revealed a laid-back indoor atmosphere and a clientele of mostly locals and families. I spotted a pair of old women laughing over a shared sandwich, enjoying prompt service from the friendly camarera who ministered to the indoor crowd wearing a quirky old-school waitress getup, teal with purple piping.
To start off the meal, I order the ceviche mixto. It arrives in a cocktail glass brimming with camarones (tiny shrimp), cubed pulpo (octopus) and corvina (white sea bass) and bursting with flavor, its bite of lime accented by the addition of onions, habanero, salt, and pepper – a classic Panamanian version of this popular seafood appetizer, El Trapiche’s ceviche refreshes as it awakens the palate.
Next, we share plates of empanadas de maiz and classic carimañolas tapas-style, initiating me into that sinfully delicious thing Panama does with fried food. The meaty insides of the empanadas were spiced just right, but it was the carimañolas’ yuca outsides that really left an impression on me with their taste and texture unlike anything I’d ever tried before. Considering that the yuca root comes out of the ground hard as a rock, the melt-in-your-mouth consistency of these meaty little torpedoes is something to celebrate with seconds and thirds.
By the time my chosen entree made it to the table, I was already running low on gutspace, but I pressed on with gusto — I’d been looking forward to my first taste of authentic Panamanian cuisine for quite some time, and with an array of appetizing dishes spread before me, I resigned myself to loosening the belt buckle another accommodating notch.
I skipped over the white rice and cabbage flanking my ropa vieja and dove into the piping-hot heap of stewed beef speckled with peas, carrots, and onions. Usually an occasional carnivore at best, I practically devoured the entire helping of tender, savory meat. I almost felt bad for consuming it so quickly, since ropa vieja involves hours of stewing shredded skirt or flank steak in its own juices, along with tomato and spices, to erase every trace of toughness. Another score for El Trapiche — so far, the típico panameño menu items had dazzled without exception…
…until I tried their plantain creations. The patacón I picked off Ben’s plate needed dipping sauce — too dry for my taste. A spear of fried plantain garnishing my ropa vieja went over a little better, as it hadn’t gone through the mashing process and consequently retained more moist freshness, but not much. If you want to sample all the staples of the Panamanian diet, hold it on the plaintains until you reach one of the high-end restaurants that pair their patacones with an assortment of dipping sauces, such as Don Patacón on Via Israel in the San Francisco district.
Another caution (based on my one experience but corroborated by Ben’s numerous visits): you’ll find the outdoor waitstaff less attentive than the waitress I observed bustling around the big tables inside the El Trapiche restaurant. You get everything you ask for (extra silverware, hot sauce, the check…) in fairly short order, but you have to make your needs known, either to your table attendant or your waiter; both can summon a serviceable English if you’re unable to converse with them in Spanish.
Their lag in anticipating my needs was noticeable, but no real nuisance – I’m not fussy when it comes to dining out. All I really care about is whether the food is good – and at El Trapiche, it most certainly is. Any of the entrees offered by El Trapiche at a comfortable price (under $10) will satisfy your appetite and sell you on Panamanian cuisine as something to be savored. And for my money, I can’t fathom a more charming environment than this low-key Panamanian diner, where your check is delivered with cough drops instead of starlight mints and a hippy waitress waves you off the patio with a smile, until next time.
Visit El Trapiche
Location: Vía Argentina at Avenida 2a B Norte
Cost: inexpensive (entrees run $5-10). Credit cards and USD accepted (true of most establishments in Panama)