Forget pizza and hamburgers. Sure, you'll find them on the menu at some restaurants in Panama, but if you want to experience the country, eat as the Panamanians do. The dishes aren't fancy or pretentious, just tasty and truly local. A primer to get you started:
Corvina: Don't let your waiter fool you. Corvina, nearly ubiquitous in Panamanian restaurants, isn't sea bass, but rather a white fish native to the Central American area. In Panama, it is prepared in any number of ways, although our guide, Ivan Hoyos, says it should be deep-fried, head and tail intact. But perhaps the best idea, if you have a kitchen, is to try it yourself. Head to the infamous El Mercado de Mariscos (the Seafood Market) and take your pick of the fish just plucked from the sea. Octopus also available.
Plantains: Depending on how it's cooked, this fruit goes by any number of names. You can't go wrong with patacones, plantains that are peeled, sliced, fried, flatted and refried. Delicious.
Yucca: Another fruit that serves as a staple in many meals, yucca can be fried in a similar manner to plantains, but it can also be hollowed out and stuffed with meat.
Raspado: Not exactly a food, but a street treat definitely worth mentioning. Wander through Casco Viejo and it won't be long before you see a street vendor expertly shaving a huge block of ice into a cup that is topped with sugary syrup and condensed milk. After this, slugging back a plain old Slushie on a hot summer day just won't cut it.
WHERE TO EAT
Manolo Caracol: If you're looking for a place to talk about the next time your friends try to make you jealous with tales of their recent holiday, this is it. Nestled on a quiet street in historic and bustling Casco Viejo, this one-of-a-kind restaurant combines the best elements of a family kitchen, variety show and five-star restaurant. You won't find a menu, but you will be treated to about 10 delicious courses prepared with a Spanish influence. Calle 3 at Av. Central Sur, Casco Viejo;manolocaracol.net
Barandas Restaurant:Cuquita Arias de Calvo runs the kitchen here, and she's earned her reputation as the Martha Stewart of Panama for a reason. When she's not hosting TV shows or writing one of her many cookbooks, she's whipping up exciting dishes that pair the best of Panamian cuisine with a worldly twist. Avenida Aquilino de la Guardia, Bristol Hotel; thebristol.com
El Trapiche:So you say you want to know where the locals go? This small restaurant in an upscale, but non-touristy part of town has got you covered. The placemats are paper and the menu is plastic, but the patacones, or fried plantains, are the real deal. Via Argentina y Ave 2a B Norte; 507-269-4353