The Aji Chombo, the black pepper, the famous Panamanian scotch bonnet! Ranging from 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville Heat Units (far outpacing the jalapeno's 2,500 to 8,000 units), this national sauce adds kick to any dish! The recipe for this smoking sauce is attributed to Antillean-Panamanians who largely traveled to Panama to work on the construction of the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal.
Rio Abajo was originally home to Afro-Antillean canal workers, and the food reflects the neighborhood’s heritage. Between 13th and 14th streets on Via España, you’ll find a row of fondas (inexpensive restaurants that are usually family run) offering traditional Afro-Antillean Panamanian dishes. We chose to stop at Donde Francis, a sparsely decorated, open-air restaurant (tip: if it looks like it is going to rain, choose a seat in the center of the restaurant as the rain sometimes flies in!). A friend from Rio Abajo also highly recommended neighboring Donde Fanso.
Don’t let the informal appearance dissuade you – this place has mouth-watering cuisine! We tested five-star bacalao (salted cod) with ackee, perfectly cooked arroz con coco y frijoles (coconut rice with beans) as well as the ever-famous saus (pigs feet soaked in vinegar and chile peppers – pigs feet ceviche, almost!). My Panamanian family tells me that I will not be fully Panamanian until I can devour a juicy pig’s foot, but I still have yet to find the stomach to consume one of these treats. My fellow diners, however, ranked the saus at Donde Francis as excellent.
During the week many of these fondas offer just the basic staples, catering to day workers who stop in for a simple bite to eat. From Friday evening to Sunday, the menu expands and changes according to what’s fresh. Aim to arrive early for a weekend meal – the fondas are small and tend to fill up. Most of the fondas also offer carryout. Bring cash, as many of these fondas do not accept credit cards.
Donde Francis and Donde Fanso are located between Calle 13 and Calle 14 on Via España. There is parking available just behind the restaurants as well as nearby Metrobus stops.
The all-time, well-priced classic? El Trapiche! With its principal branch along Via Argentina as well as an outpost at Albrook Mall, El Trapiche has all of the classics! Go here for sancocho (typical Panamanian chicken soup), corvina (sea bass) and fried yucca (a tuber typical in the region), limonada con raspadura (sugar-cane lemonade), tamal de olla (a tamale soup) among other classics. El Trapiche also serves the typical Panamanian breakfast: hojaldre (fried dough without the sugar – also referred to as a Panamanian pancake on some menus) and a thin beefsteak. Talk about a hearty start to the morning! The restaurant is typically filled with as many locals as tourists.
For gourmet Panamanian cuisine, I love Riesen. Owned by a young Panamanian chef and operated on the first floor of his home, the menu offers inventive twists that give new life to Panamanian classics and local ingredients. I particularly enjoy the appetizers here - churros made from ñame root, hojaldres dressed with pork and guava barbeque sauce, daintly prepared torrejas de maiz (corn fritters) . . . and leave space for dessert! The Mama Lllena, literally the full mama, is a rum drenched, delicious Panamanian bread pudding creation. The menu changes monthly and the restaurant is small – I’d recommend making reservations beforehand. This is our go-to splurge restaurant when we have visitors in town.