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.