Defending Panamanian Street Food

April 10, 2012 by:
Defending Panamanian Street Food

As I sat down to write this post, the USA Today article, “Panamanian Food: Cover It with Ketchup or Set It on Fire” had 374 comments, 99.3% of them negative. I, too, will pile on the author Brian. Here are some of his comments with which I disagree:

“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…”

Evan Terry Forbes

Brian, you should have blasted an email to local bloggers titled, “Hey, I’m doing a Panama City street food article for USA Today. Help me, POR FAVOR!”. Surely, someone in PTY would have volunteered.

A great candidate would have been’s Matt Landau. He is a blogger that lives in Casco Viejo (Casco) and often posts about food. In 2.5 days, Matt could have given you Casco’s low down.

Street food everywhere? No, hardly anywhere.

Again, this is where a local foodie guide would have been useful. He/she would have informed you that Casco’s street food scene is mobile. For example, Señor Peru sells morning empanadas from his motorbike in Plaza Cathedral. By 11am, he’s gone. Papo cooks up a helluva BBQ chicken. Yet, the grill is only smoking during the weekday lunch rush. A dedicated man on a bike pedals around warm cups of Chichime at 5pm. Casco has street food. You just need to know when and where to look.

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

An angel lady sells freshly sliced mangos for half of the year. She sits under the shade on a Plaza Bolivar park bench adjacent to Simon Bolivar elementary school. However, mangos are not in season right now. During the downtime, she carries around a box of bottled water.

Also, almost all the chinos offer bananas and pineapples daily. It’s not as novel as a overflowing cart of fruits, but it is fresh.

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.

Comparing any Developing World city with New York City is just unfair. In NYC, one can eat better Italian food than in Italy; better Brazilian food than in Brazil; and better homemade food than Grandma herself makes! NYC has the world’s highest concentration of talented, energetic culinary kings and queens. New Yorkers, too, have godly high expectations.

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.

This is a simplistic view of Casco’s revitalization/gentrification. True, Casco Viejo has seen a surge of foreign entrepreneurs (Americans, Venezuelans, Italians, etc) arrive on the restaurant and nightlife scene. However, the majority of these newbies are not driving out “cheap and cheerful” local Panamanian establishments.

Remember that Casco Viejo was nearly abandoned in the last half of the 20th century. Swaths of city blocks of buildings were left dilapidated and deserted. The restoration of these uninhabited facilities didn’t displace the “cheap and cheerful”. Instead, they displaced trash and trees that had been accumulating inside the property.

Furthermore, Casco Viejo didn’t (and doesn’t) have high population density. Every street corner of Hanoi is crowded with small plastic stools surrounding a hot pot of Pho. Yet, every square inch of Hanoi is densely populated. This creates a strong demand for cheap eats.

Casco doesn’t have even the neighborhood density (yet) to sustain more than a handful of street vendors.

Panama City’s food scene was kind of a letdown.

Fair statement. You’re entitled to your opinion. But, let’s see where your taste have been formed. According to your travel article page, you’ve spent considerable time in Asia – specifically Bangkok.

Asian and Latin American cuisines are considerably different. Signature Asian street dishes are loaded with greens and lack hearty hunks of red meat and starches. On the other hand, Latin American street food is heavy on both:

Argentina/Uruguay: All sorts of red meats cooked on la parrilla.
Costa Rica: Gallo Pinto the staple breakfast.
Cuba: Ropa Vieja
Colombia: Arepas
El Salavdor: Pupusas
Peru:  Freakn’ 3,000 different types of potatoes!

A Pescetarian will have a very hard time in most parts of Latin American.


I do applaud Brian for giving his honest opinion. Travel literature is too god damn fluffy and politically correct! Brian, just next time you come to Casco, stay with us. I’ll take you on the cool kid’s tour of Casco. Food included!

Evan Terry Forbes

Evan Forbes 122 post in this blog.

Evan Terry Forbes is an Author, Entrepreneur and Hall of Fame Traveler. He writes entertaining books about how travel has changed his life. In so many beautiful ways. Currently, Evan is traveling with his retired mother for 1 year through Europe and Asia. This book will be called, Travels With My Mother - How Travel Transformed A Mother-Son Relationship. Read his books here.

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One Comment on "Defending Panamanian Street Food"

  1. To Be Fair on Tue, 10th Apr 2012 8:08 am 

    The response to Brian’s article (the 374 comments) is typical of the response any kind of criticism in Panama received by locals: “you’re wrong, you’re misinformed, you’re an idiot, leave.” I have seen some of the most educated Panamanians I know writing these kinds of comments.

    In Brian’s case, the response shouldn’t be “we DO have great street food, you idiot” but rather “we DO have great street food but we need to make it more accessible so that foreigners like you (who only have 2.5 days in town) can see and enjoy it.”

    Cartagena is a great example: you can’t go anywhere without access to wonderful fruits, snacks, pastries…etc. Had Brian hit up the specific (almost secretive) spots locals like to enjoy, he may have left with a different opinion. But he didn’t. And the majority of most tourists don’t.

    To the 374 negative commenters on the USA Today article: Help foreigners understand the country better instead of putting your immature feathers up in defense.

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