Tinajas is a self-proclaimed cocina criolla (traditional kitchen) with an extensive menu. This includes an entire section dedicated to local cuisine. The restaurant is actually a charming old house, creating a warming ambience suited to its homey food. If you are seeking nostalgia, try the Chicken Pot Tamal, with its hint of chicken pot pie. The thick corn dough and raisons within the filling add a comforting element to this savory dish. Check out their traditional Panamanian music and dance performance which, though frequented solely by tourists, is a fantastic show.
Tinajas, Avenida Justo Arosemena, Panama City, Panama,+507 263-7890
Browsing around any food market will always give you a good sense of the country’s culture. In Panama, the market is a particularly joyful pastime. In addition to fresh, familiar fruits such as papaya and passionfruit, Panama offers some more exotic choices. One local favorite is mammon, a fruit to challenge your senses with the appearance of a lime and the taste of a grape. Another must-try is piva, an orange fruit similar in appearance to a persimmon, resembling both corn and potato in taste. To try piva, make sure that it is peeled and cooked. If the prospect of a bustling market with jabbering Spanish is a bit daunting, check out Foodie for a similar variety of fresh produce in a calmer setting.
The islands in northern Panama are a world away from its bustling capital. Surfers and Rastafarians alike flock to Bocas Del Toro’s largest island, Isla Colon, for its laid-back lifestyle. The local cuisine is correspondingly unadorned and heartfelt. The lapping waves of the Caribbean inspire classic dishes of coconut rice, plantain and Creole chicken. All of these are served at Tom’s at very affordable prices. The menu’s true heroes feature fresh fish and seafood, namely their rondon (fish head soup). Don’t be shy to quiz the waiters for their recommendations; they tend to be a friendly bunch. If in doubt, the pulpo (octopus) is consistently excellent.
Forget the beautiful scenery, Quesos Chela is motivation enough to embark on a road trip. Located just over 50 km away from Panama City, this independent cheese factory has gained its nationwide reputation from drivers alone. Choose from various empanadas, marinated balls of mozzarella with basil and tomato, or for those seeking a more authentic Panama snack, the chicha. This thick, creamy beverage is made from corn and is perhaps an acquired taste. If it proves too foreign for your tastebuds, pick one of their many flavored options. These include chocolate and manjar, a caramel spread made from condensed milk.
Quesos Chela, Carretera Panamericana, Capira, Panama, +507 6687-1893
Just over an hour’s drive from Panama City is the peaceful Pacific getaway of Santa Clara. As you have come to expect from Panama, the local food capitalizes on fresh produce from the sea, served simply and generously. Los Camisones is among the best examples of such cuisine. It offers a variety of fish served with different sauces. This is a great place to sample traditional Panamanian side dishes. The yuca is both fried into chips and boiled, and the patacones (fried plantain slices) are golden and delicious.