This is the second of a two-part post. To read the first half of our food crawl through Panama City titled ‘Foraging our Way Through Panama City Part 1 of 2’ click here.
We left the Mercado de San Felipe Neri (public farmers’ meat and produce market) and needed a moment to collect ourselves. I took great care in sloughing off any unwelcome morsels of raw meat clinging for dear life to my shoes. Thankfully one of the Longchamp Ladies—a nickname I’ve given to Jonathan’s mother and sister because they travel everywhere we go with matching Longchamp purses—had wet wipes and antibacterial gels, otherwise I would have been anxious for the rest of the day, resisting to rub my eyes and scratch at mosquito bites. Because the last thing I needed was larva gestating under my eyelids or some bubonic plague spreading through my blood stream.
Our next stop…
The Mercado Mariscos (Seafood Market)
The seafood market is only a block and a half away from the Mercado de San Felipe Neri. We’d already ventured there on our own a few days before (checkout the visit here), but this time we had Rudy. Instead of walking around the outdoor ceviche stalls, we focused on the indoor fish-hall that you enter right off the main road (Cinta Costera 2). Once we passed over the threshold from the sunny outdoors and into the cool shade of the large covered square hall it was clear we’d entered into something special.
The seafood market of Panama City is the heart of Panama’s food scene. Professional chefs and home cooks hustle in and out all morning long, haggling to get their hands on the freshest fish and seafood they can find.
Whole fish, fileted fish, buckets of fish parts for stocks, pacific lobster tails, shrimp, giant octopus, squid, and more; are displayed on ice for the discerning eyes of buyers. The single aisle that makes its way around the room is saddled on both sides with fish vendor after fish vendor, each one trying to get rid of that morning’s catch as fast as possible so they can go home and take a nap.
The lobsters in Panama City are from the Pacific Ocean and tend to be smaller than what you’d find in New England. They’re delicious, but I find them to be a little tougher and less sweet than the ones we stuffed our faces with on Cape Cod.
Having Rudy there was helpful, because the Spanish word for some types of fish don’t have an obvious equivalent in English. At the end of the day, we gave up and just figured everything was just a “type of snapper” or “type of tuna,” whether that was actually the case or not.
And then there’s the random specimen, like this barracuda for sale. The vendor said it was tasty, but we took his word for it.
Before leaving the fish market, we had one taste of lobster tail ceviche. We wanted something different from what we’d eaten there a few days before, so Rudy recommended the “cocktail,” which in Panama is any ceviche that’s made with a creamy base of coconut milk, or in some cases mayonnaise.
From the fish market we headed back to Casco Viejo and piled into Rudy’s van so he could take us across the city to Panama Viejo, the “older old city.”
While there, we walked around the old ruins (or what’s left of them), and climbed to the top of the cathedral tower for breathtaking views of the coast and city. The frame of priests’ quarters, a monastery, and more….all from the early 1500’s when it was originally founded by the Spanish, becoming the first European settlement on the Pacific Ocean. The 100-inhabitant colony grew to over ten-thousand people until it was attacked by Henry Morgan in 1671. The location was exposed and hard to defend, causing the Spanish to move the city center to Casco Viejo. Our guidebook had a few interesting things to say about the historical site, but after you’ve seen a few ruins, you’ve seen them all, and we were hungry again.
So we moved on to our next and final stop on the tour….
Established in 1983, El Trapiche is a restaurant at the base of an old peach-colored apartment building in the El Cangrejo district (which means “the crab” in English). According to Rudy, it’s where everyone goes for authentic Panamanian cuisine….even the President of Spain! Or at least that’s what the framed newspaper article near the men’s bathroom said. This place is totally casual, warm, and welcoming. The interior is designed to make you feel like you’re eating inside a traditional adobe Panama-style home with terracotta tiles coming down from the ceiling around the edges of the room and indigenous masks hanging on the walls. Then there’s the giant flat screen TV haphazardly mounted in the middle of the dining room….which was proof that locals eat there too, because they like to watch the news while eating breakfast, lunch and dinner.
El Trapiche is like those kitschy suburban Mexican restaurants in the states where Mariachi bands serenade guests, fajitas are served on sizzling cast iron platters, and murals cover candlelit walls. The only difference is El Trapiche is the real deal; an old-school Panamanian diner where the waiters are seasoned, wear guayaberas, and taste is more important than presentation. The food is served on utilitarian plates and the chairs are chunky and made of wood, flaps of leather and trimmed with rope.
Rudy told us El Trapiche was actually named after the old-school sugarcane press that was used to make Guarapo aka sugarcane juice. It may be one of the original juicers, but it looks more like some medieval torture device. They have one on display on the right side of the front patio, but I’m sure they use something a little smaller in the kitchen.
Since the place is known of it’s fresh squeezed sugarcane juice, I ordered some. It was delicious!
I used it to wash down the no frills, food El Trapiche is known for.
The table started with a plate of empanadas stuffed with green plantains. These were smaller than I’m used to seeing in the US, but they were lighter and flakier too, which is what’s important. Quality over quantity, right? [And “yes,” that’s only a good argument sometimes]
We ordered a bowl of sancocho, a chicken soup with loads of flavor, vegetables, and sometimes other “mysterious” meats, because we couldn’t get enough of it, and Rudy said, “if anyone is going to make the sancocho well, it’s gonna be El Trapiche.” Sold!
We had the mixed Panamanian foods plate, which had some arros con pollo (chicken and rice), patacones (tostones), shredded beef, fried dough with ground beef inside, fried corn meal stick, and a few other fried delights with a side of some chicken stew.
The ropa vieja (shredded beef) plate with white rice and caramelized plantain with a side salad.
Chicken sandwich with lettuce, mayonnaise, tomatoes, and a little Dijon. What made this “Panamanian” is that they used hojaldras for the bread. Imagine eating a chicken club sandwich with plain doughnuts on the top and bottom.
And a plate of the arros con pollo with the shredded chicken mixed with cooked peas, carrots and onions.
For dessert we had the arros con leche (rice with milk), which was one of the best versions of arros con leche I’ve ever had. It was sweet, but not too sweet, and the cinnamon wasn’t overpowering.
And we also got an order of the flan caramel, which was also delicious and the perfect consistency—moderately firm. The gently burnt caramel added a bitter note to the dish and balanced out some of the sugars in the custard. Qué bueno!
With our tummies full, and the elastic band to my shorts screaming for relief, we sat in traffic with Rudy and made our away back to Casco Viejo. If you’re planning a trip to Panama City, and looking for a tour guide to take you around, Rudy is one of the best! You can contact him via email at email@example.com or just contact him through his website here: http://www.rudystours.com/