My absolute favorite part of travel is always FOOD. Tasting local cuisine is the best way to really get to know a country and its flavors and textures. The coast along the Costa Arriba in Panama is dotted with little blink-and-you’ll-miss it restaurants serving typical Panamanian fare with a Caribbean twist. While in Bocas del Toro, international cuisine owned and operated by expats are mixed in with fondas and street carts serving “palitos” – barbecued meats and veggies on a stick. I’ve tried a lot of places on the Caribbean and I review quite a few of them on Tripadvisor and Yelp but those places I only usually visit while I’m passing through or just trying out. So instead I’d like to share with you my regular favorite spots on the Caribbean that I’ve been to at least 5 times and I consider a regular stop.
First stop is a chicken joint in the town of Sabanitas in the Colon Province called Rosticeria La Fe. I was first introduced to this place 5 years ago and now we stop here frequently on our way in and out of Portobelo. The second you walk up to the driveway your nose is hit with the strong aroma of spit roasted chicken rotating slowly in its own juices. The roasting spit is placed outside of the shop for all the world to see and smell! We select an entire chicken which is then expertly chopped up in snack sized pieces so you can eat it in the car on the way to the beach without utensils… at least that’s how I eat it! There’s no way anyone can sit in a hot car with the smell of hot chicken and not grab a little piece. Don’t forget to smother it with hot sauce and mustard!
Second stop on the Costa Arriba is Coco Arte for some roasted coconut shavings called Coco Cryspi. Coco Arte is actually a little art gallery/shop selling unique and gorgeous driftwood art. I love to visit this place and run my hands along the smooth, beautifully sculpted driftwood and imagine having one of these pieces in my livingroom whenever I decide to stop traveling and actuallly have a place to live. Then I remember how awesome it is to travel and eat all the things so I go grab myself some coco cryspies instead! These thin crunchy bits are toasted to golden brown perfection and tastes incredible! Want to know the secret ingredients? Coconut and heat. Just shaved coconut expertly roasted in regular ovens…seriously that’s it. And then sprinkled with magic and then goes in my mouth. Tip: if these things are miraculously not devoured before you get home and makes it back to your kitchen, they make excellent toppings for salad, or chop it up some more in a food processor and use it to coat chicken and bake!
Number three of my regular stops on the Costa Arriba is Las Anclas located on the road towards Portobelo. You know that scene in The Little Mermaid where she sings “Part of Your World” in a room with her collection of sunken treasures? This restaurant is that room (and also, that song is now in your head). Every corner and every inch of wall is decorated with fishing relics, antique wine bottles, seashells, driftwood, fishing nets, flags and whatever else has washed up on the beach in the last 50 years. You can’t help but get up and walk around to look at stuff while you wait for your food. The food itself here is just ok… I usually get fried fish with coconut rice that comes with a side of sweet fried plantain, or garlic clams and ceviche. Not the best I’ve had, but a nice filling lunch for a nice afternoon on the coast. What makes this place unique is the appetizer that comes while waiting for the main course. A giant piece of fried flattened plantain with a side of fresh tomato sauce and chutney served in little clay pots. It’s such a simple but special little appetizer that leaves you wanting more. Wash it down with some ice cold coconut water and you’re in paradise.
Regular spot number 4 is good ol Captain Jack’s in Portobelo located a few steps from the Portobelo Ruins. It’s an open air bar/restaurant that sits on top of Hostel Portobelo and offers a beautiful view of the ruins and church steeples yonder. There are 2 giant long tables with a bench on each side to encourage eating together like the pirates we are. Now, I’m asian and grew up in Toronto so I love and miss dearly some good asian food when I’m in Panama…especially some good Thai food. Captain Jack’s in Portobelo might be the last place you’d think to get good thai food but I find myself quite often sitting on that bench eagerly waiting for springrolls, pad thai and chicken satay – 3 of my favorites on the menu. I am also a sucker for a good plate of fries and Captain Jack’s has THE BEST FRIES ON THE CARIBBEAN. Thin sliced, skin on, perfectly fried crispy bits of goodness. Hurry up and pass the hotsauce. Extra special treat is when Captain Jack himself whips out the guitar and serenades everyone with a rendition of “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”. You’ll be tappin’ your feet with a big smile on your face while you take a bite of delicious springrolls. Oh and they also have really good burgers.
Well, that’s my little slice of good eats on the Costa Arriba… stay tuned for my regular places to eat in Bocas del Toro!