Panama City has a blossoming restaurant scene that will satisfy any foodie – with Latin, Caribbean, and international flavors are combined to create interesting flavors. From cheap eats to fine dining, here are some of my favorite local eateries in Panama City that you won’t find in the guidebook.
Fonda Lo Que Hay
Grab lunch or dinner at Fonda Lo Que Hay. This casual eatery was opened by legendary local chef José O. Carles of the Dónde José restaurant and is a gourmet version of a fonda or local Panamanian cafeteria. The menu changes almost weekly, so you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s guaranteed to be delicious. One of my favorite dishes (if it’s on the menu when you’re there) is the Concolón Sexy con Vegetales, a “burned” rice patty topped with flavorful vegetables cooked in sauce with loads of flavorful spices. The half chicken and tuna carpaccio are also outstanding.
Tomillo is a hidden gem off a side street in Casco Viejo that’s set in an open-air shell of a building. The food is tapas style and a mix of local ingredients with international fusions. Be sure to order the Rigatoni con Cordero and secret Kaboom dessert while you’re there. After your meal, head up to the V Piso Rooftop located here for a well-prepared craft cocktail.
Donde José provides one of the most unique culinary experiences you can have in Panama City with an intimate maximum 16-person seating per meal. They focus on using local Panamanian ingredients and dishes and come out with a new set menu every few months. This restaurant is reservation only so be sure to register through their website. If you want to make sure that your experience is extra special, reserve a spot at the chef’s table.
Peach Fuzz International
For lunch, you have to eat at the best seafood restaurant in Panama City: Peach Fuzz International. I’ve had a lot of seafood in Panama and this off the beaten path spot kills it. The owner Danny is Panamanian, but grew up in Brooklyn and decided to return back to his country to open the best seafood joint in town (be sure to ask him why it’s called Peach Fuzz). It’s located in Curudu, which is a neighborhood most people will warn you not to go to, but you’re missing out if you don’t. The specialty is the whole fried fish, but EVERYTHING on the menu is outstanding. You MUST use Uber to arrive here, putting Peach Fuzz International as the end destination. There are not addresses in Panama, and this is off the beaten path, so taxi drivers will not know what you’re talking about if you try to describe where it is. Look for the painted “Pescado Frito” letters on the outside.
El Trapiche is a classic Panamian restaurant, but it’s the new location they’ve opened in Panama’s San Francisco neighborhood that you need to go to. At this location, they have kept items from their classic menu while adding several new things and the ambiance is more upscale than the others without being expensive. They have also created a cocktail menu with unique ingredients that you won’t find at the other locations. Some of my favorite things to order here are the Tamal de Olla, Ropa Vieja, Carimañolas, and an Emparedado en Hojadre de Panza.
Restaurante Mercado de Mariscos
A truly unique experience in Panama City is dining at the Mercado de Mariscos (Seafood Market) for lunch. The market is divided into an outdoor area with ceviche stands and an indoor market where they actually sell fish. You wan’t to head to the indoor market (the indoor market is only open until 2:30 pm but the outdoor area is open until 10 pm). Once you’re here you can purchase raw seafood and then visit the restaurant on the second floor and they will cook it for you! I typically get a pound of fillet and have the restaurant prepare it “apanada” (breaded and fried) or “a parilla” (gilled) and a pound of shrimp that I have prepared “al ajillo” (garlic sauce), be sure to also request for them to take off the shells. They charge around $8/pound to prepare the food and each pound includes a side item (get the coconut rice). If you go with the fillet and shrimp that I mentioned it will be enough food for at least four people. The restaurant also has delicious items off the menu that you can order if you need more.
Esa Flaca Rica
Panama City’s most famous food truck is definitely Esa Flaca Rica and they now have multiple locations throughout the city. However, if you want the full food truck experience, go to their San Francisco location. Here you’ll typically find a line of people patiently waiting for one of their iconic burgers and fries. While they are most famous for their burgers, my favorite thing to order here is actually the Busca Pleitos, a sandwich that uses fried corn tortillas as the buns with flavorful “ropa vieja” shredded beef inside.
Tacos La Neta
Tacos La Neta boasts having tropical style tacos that you won’t find anywhere else and they even make their tortillas in-house. You can order three tacos for $10 and I recommend ordering the Cochinita, Pastor, and Mariachi. They have a location in Casco Viejo and San Francisco, but I do like the San Francisco location a little better.
Via Argentina Empanadas
I’m not sure if this streetside empanada stand actually has a name but I normally refer it as the “Empanadas de Via Argentina” because it’s located right next to the Via Argentina metro station on Via España. These are Venezuelan style empanadas and they are AMAZING. Be sure to order the Pabellon Empanada, which is filled with shredded beef, black beans, cheese, and sweet plantain.
Brutto is an upscale eatery located in the San Francisco neighborhood and fits right in with any world-class restaurant. The Pulpo Tapioca and Taco don Julio are some of my favorite appetizers while the Corvina Acevichada or Cochinillo for the main dish is outstanding.
You should always end every meal with dessert! Mentiritas Blancas may translate to “little white lies” but the truth is that this café is one of my favorite coffee shops in Panama City. The Nutella or passion fruit cheesecake will satisfy any sweet tooth and they have tons of locally grown coffee for you to try.