Good News and Bad News About Panamanian Food
When I moved to Panama City in 2011, I was thoroughly disappointed by the Panamanian food. In general, it sucks.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is it doesn’t all suck. There’s enough deliciousness hidden amongst the gleaming skyscrapers and crumbling apartment blocks of the nation’s capital to trick a visitor into believing Panamanian food is on par with Mexican or Peruvian. Well, almost. You just have to know where to go.
And where to go to get the best Panamanian food in Panama City is what I’ll share with you here.
Make it a Day Tour!
If you’re really hungry, it’s possible to visit them all these places in one day, especially if you’re with someone to share with. By doing so, you’ll end up going on a gastronomical tour through the most interesting parts of the city.
The “tour” starts and ends in El Cangrejo, the best area of the city to stay in. It’s safe, walkable (at least by Panamanian standards), and right on the excellent Panama metro, which is the fastest and cheapest (35 cents!) way to get across the city and avoid its crazy traffic.
I hope you’re hungry.
Best Panamanian Food Map
Here’s a map with all my recommendations for the best Panamanian food in Panama City. Check out our guide for how to save this to your phone and even use it offline.
Cheese Empanadas and Chicheme from Artisana
About an hour outside of Panama City, right on the Interamerican Highway, is a legendary vendor of cheeses and treats called Quesos Chela. Day and night, people line up here to buy their delicious snacks.
While it’s almost worth the drive out there and get in line to try for yourself, the good news is you don’t have to. You can get a taste of Queso Chela’s best at Artisana, a small cafe in Cangrejo.
The two must-try items, which make for an ideal quick snack or breakfast, are the cheese empanadas and the chicheme. Chicheme is a traditional Panamanian corn beverage that’s thick, tasty, and… chunky. You gotta try it.
A Smoothie From Batidos La Sorpresa in Santa Ana
Batidos la Sorpresa consists of a man, his blender, and his ingredients. That’s it.
It’s a no-frills roadside stand that serves fresh fruit shakes for the best price in town. Select whichever fruits you’d like (…or corn flakes) and he’ll whip you up a refreshing smoothie for just $1.50. To avoid sugar overload, ask him to make it “sin azucar” (without sugar).
Don’t be put off by La Sorpresa’s location. Though it’s in a low-income neighborhood, its proximity to Casco Viejo means it’s safe to walk around during the day.
Ceviche From the Mercado de Mariscos
Within eyesight of Batidos la Sorpresa is Panama City’s main fish market, the Mercado de Mariscos. Around the back end of the market, on the sea side, is the food court. There you can get maybe the healthiest Panamanian food there is (which isn’t saying much): ceviche.
When you get to the food court, you’ll be accosted by people trying to guide you to their ceviche stand. Smile, say “no gracias,” and make your way to the stand at end closest to Casco Viejo. Whereas most other stands charge $2.00 for a cup of ceviche de corvina (sea bass), this one only charges $1.50.
Nothing at Casco Viejo
While “Nothing” would be an appropriate name for an eatery in the increasingly hipster Casco Viejo, Panama City’s old town, I literally mean you should eat nothing in Casco Vieo.
The old part of town is definitely worth walking around for a while, but when it comes to true Panamanian food not only is it lacking, but it’s far too expensive.
Fonda Food at the Mercado de Abastos
A fonda is a typical Panamanian eatery you’ll find all across Panama. Kind of like you do with Chinese food from a food court, at a fonda you typically pick from a selection of pre-prepared meats and sides.
While you can find fondas everywhere in Panama City, I suggest the ones at the Mercado de Abastos because A) they’re en route between the previous and next destinations, and B) the Mercado de Abastos is worth checking out in its own right.
The Mercado de Abastos is the main fruit and vegetable market of the city. It’s both a wholesale market—you’ll see plenty of restaurant and corner store owners buying large quantities of produce—and a market for thrifty individuals.
As for what to eat at the fondas, I’m partial to the costillas (very fatty and very crispy ribs) with tajadas (sweet fried plantains) and lentejas (lentils) on the side.
Seafood from Peach Fuzz International
The name, “Peach Fuzz International” isn’t the only thing that doesn’t make sense about this restaurant. What is such an awesome restaurant doing in such a sketchy neighborhood? And what is the owner, who is just as American as he is Panamanian, doing there?
Who knows and who cares. What’s important is that the seafood at Peach Fuzz International is better than any I’ve tried at exponentially more upscale restaurants.
I recommend trying pataconos rellenos (plantain cups filled with your choice of seafood). The octopus, whole red snapper, and everything else on the “menu” (he has no menu, you just ask what’s available) are delicious.
Beware that the neighborhood Peach Fuzz is in is so sketchy that our Uber driver, upon seeing our destination, exclaimed, “Oh my! You’re entering into the wolves’ den! Why?” Do not walk there, even though it’s close. And don’t go at night. But you’ll have no problem if you go by car during the day. There’s a strong police presence and diners are left alone out of respect for the owner. Seeing this side of town is an experience in itself.
Craft Beer from La Rana Dorada
La Rana Dorada was the first to bring micro-brewed beers to Panama and has since expanded to multiple locations throughout the city. While the other locations are brighter and more modern, if you’re following this Panamanian food tour you should go to their original location in El Cangrejo.
Before ordering, ensure they bring you a little boat with a small sample cup of each beer. It’s free! Pick your favorite and, if you’re there before 6 pm, enjoy a glass (or pitcher) at half price.
I was such a regular when I used to live in Panama that I got a customized mug with my name, Blachut, on it. Look for it in the vestibule on the way to the washrooms.
La Fiesta Panamania from El Trapiche
El Trapiche is no secret. Every guide book lists it and if you google “Panamanian food restaurants” it’ll be the first one that shows up.
Once a restaurant gets such a stranglehold on a market its quality typically goes down. Frankly, that’s probably the case with El Trapiche. You’re unlikely to finish a meal there and think, “Wow, that was mind-blowingly good,” then tell your friends they have to visit Panama City just to eat there.
Nevertheless, you should go. Get a sampling of traditional Panamanian food by ordering La Fiesta Panameña. This dish, which you can probably share with someone else—especially if you’ve been eating at all the places above—is a platter of many different Panamanian foods. Not all of them are particularly delicious, but they’re all worth trying at least this one time.
Batido from La Casa De Las Frutas, Jugos y Helados
La Casa de las Frutas, Jugos y Helados (the House of Fruit, Juice, and Ice Cream—if you needed this translation you might want to brush up on your Spanish just a little bit) is located on Calle 50 in the San Francisco neighborhood. It’s a bit of a detour from the rest of our Panamanian food tour, but I have to mention it anyways.
La Casa is a drive-through fruit and milkshake fantasyland. I honestly don’t know why no other blog or food site mentions it. Maybe it’s because the locals selfishly don’t want more people to know about it. The lines are too long as it is.
What even the locals don’t know is there’s a trick to skipping the line: come by foot (or park your car nearby but out of sight). That way you can walk right past the lineup of cars and make your order. People in their cars won’t resent you for jumping them in line; they’ll think you’re crazy for walking in the heat of Panama.
While La Casa serves every imaginable variety of fruit-derived drinks, desserts, and salads, batidos are the go-to. These batidos are not like the ones from La Sorpresa above; they’re ice cream milkshakes. Pick from any of the long list of fruits (or combine two for an extra fifty cents) and enjoy the cheapest most tropical milkshake of your life. Then go home to digest all that food.
Rest and Digest
If you made it through this whole Panama City Panamanian food tour, you’ll be wanting to lie down.
Where to stay?
As I mentioned above, I recommend staying in Cangrejo, nearby via Argentina. Since I’ve always either had my own place or stayed with friends, I can’t recommend any specific hotel. Check out what’s good on Booking.com, or on Airbnb. If you haven’t used Airbnb before, you can use this link to get $45 off your first stay.