Arroz con Mariscos
While there’s no shortage of cheap and cheerful neighborhood eateries, Panama City is the perfect place to lighten up the wallet, pack on a few extra kilos, and wine and dine to your heart’s (and stomach’s) content. – Lonely Planet Panama, 5th Edition
My experiences with the local cuisine and dining scene in Panama City were vastly different and much less romantic than this optimistic bit of narrative in our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook. Granted, I spent just 2.5 days exploring the city, and those days were spent almost exclusively in the captivating UNESCO World Heritage Site / neighborhood of Casco Viejo, which is currently undergoing a massive restoration (and gentrification) the likes of which I’ve never seen.

One thing LP was right about, however, is the “lightening of the wallet.” Given more time, surely I would have stumbled upon tastier, more reasonably priced food than I did… right? As it is, I left Panama City–and, really, the country at large–with a stomach full of starch and carbs, but one somewhat devoid of absolute fulfillment or satisfaction.

As a pescetarian who doesn’t indulge the red meat that Panama counts as one its specialties, I arrived with modest expectations for fresh seafood, fresh fruit, and hearty, flavorful plates of beans ‘n’ rice. I figured all three would be amply available and super cheap.. and I guess they were, sort of, but Southeast Asia this is not. Maybe Bangkok has just spoiled me.

Street food everywhere? No, hardly anywhere.

Roadside fresh fruit stands and/or vendors with carts overflowing with pineapples, mangoes, bananas, coconuts? Nope.

Mounds of beans and rice covered in onions, served with sides of boiled yuca and saccharine-sweet plantains, just like at my favorite Latin American joint in New York on the corner of Spring & Lafayette Streets? Not even close.

In Casco Viejo, the ongoing influx of expat-run restaurants is helping to drive prices up and “cheap and cheerful” hole-in-the-walls out.

I realize it’s an increasingly touristy area, and that touristy areas begat touristy prices, but it really was shocking to see restaurant prices consistently and favorably compare with those found in New York. A handful of buffet-style spots do still exist, somewhat hidden, within the heart of the neighborhood, places where you can load up your plate with meat and rice for around US$7 or less. Places like the no-frills Coca Cola Cafe, where I dug into the arroz con mariscos (pictured above), yellow rice sauteed with mixed veggies and healthy hunks of octopus. It was… okay, but a little bland and sorely in need of hot sauce, just like the locals eat it, except…

Most of the Panamanians I observed didn’t use much hot sauce–they instead drenched their food in ketchup. Ketchup! Piles of white or yellow rice with seafood? Cover it in ketchup. Fresh fish fried whole? Pour ketchup all over it. Ceviche, one of the most beloved dishes in Panama City? I saw that, too, eaten with ketchup. Hey, I’m the foreigner with the foreign palate and I don’t really have any grounds to dismiss the Panamanian obsession with ketchup, but… gross.

I didn’t eat any fruit in Panama City because I didn’t see any, except in or around the supermarket. I didn’t eat any black beans ‘n’rice, either; lentils and rice, yes, but it was less flavorful than a box of Zatarain’s. I couldn’t find any yuca that wasn’t fried, while the popular side of patacones (plantains cut, salted, pressed into thick wafers, and, of course, fried) tasted, again, totally bland and didn’t do much for me. Hot sauce was, indeed, the saving grace at most meals.

One place we did enjoy, and returned to twice, is Mercado de Mariscos, a plain-looking restaurant located on the second floor of the fish market just outside Casco Viejo that gets packed during lunch hours, especially weekends. The corvina (sea bass) ceviche is relatively cheap at US$4 and quite tasty, while the fried white fish filets ($7 – $9) were hot and flaky and wonderful.

Beyond that? Meh.

Panama City’s food scene was kind of a letdown. Maybe I just needed to add more ketchup.

* I’m not actually insinuating that Panamanian food in Panama City should be set on fire because it’s so bad, nor that it needs to be covered in ketchup to be made edible. That’s an obscure reference to, and innocent play of words on, an obscure song entitled “Cover It With Gas and Set It on Fire” by the great Ween. The “ketchup” refers to what I repeatedly watched locals pour all over their food, the “fire” being hot sauce I often turned to myself (in part because I love hot sauce). Nothing more. And for the record, though I’m not going to apologize for being honest in that common thing all travelers experience called “first impressions”, I actually enjoyed some great food elsewhere in the country and I’d love to find more if/when I return. If anything, this is merely and partially a gentle commentary on the typical oversell often found in some popular guidebooks… but, sorry, ketchup-covered food is still gross.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.