1. La Carbonera, Volcán
La Carbonera is Panama’s best-kept culinary secret. Located on the edge of town on the highway toward Cerro Punta, La Carbonera serves up steak, chicken, fish, pasta, pizza, andsandwiches. It’s a simple menu but memorably executed.
If you’re craving a proper filet mignon steak, a rarity in Panama, this is the place to come for it. For only US$12, I had what may have been the best steak of my life, with veggies and potatoes included. A similar dish would have cost US$30 to as much as US$50 in Panama City… and wouldn’t have been as good.
To accompany your meal,imported wines and beers are available, again, for fractions what they would cost in the city.
2. Hotel Anachoreo, Santa Fé
This could be a one-of-a-kind restaurant in Panama, maybe in all Central America.
Several restaurants in Panama serve Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian-style dishes, but these places tend to mash up all the different nationalities and call the mix Thai or Chinese. Nowhere, though, for example, is serving authentic Cambodian cuisine. Hotel Anachoreo is.
Using fresh produce from the hotel’s garden, the owner and his Cambodian-born wife know what they’re doing. The menu features fish amok, stir-fried ginger chicken, curry, beef lok lak, spring rolls, salads, and soups.
Just be sure to make a reservation in advance, as the hotel’s operations fluctuate according to tourism flows.
3. Casa Amarilla, Punta Chame
Casa Amarilla is the best place to eat on Punta Chame, one of Panama’s top vacation destinations (and the closest white-sand beach to Panama City). Given its tourist location, the cost of a meal at Casa Amarilla isn’t much lower than you’d expect in the city, but the quality is worth it.
The menu is a blend of French, Mediterranean, and Creole foods prepared by a professionally trained chef. The atmosphere is pretention-free fine dining. During my visit, a projection screen was playing music videos from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album.
4. Taco Surf, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro
The vibe is relaxed, and the young owners’ welcoming hospitality makes you feel like you’re eating at a friend’s or family’s place.
Chances are, though, that your family doesn’t serve the best tacos south of Mexico. Taco Surf does. Be sure to try one of the milkshakes.
5. Sugar and Spice Dulces Gourmet, Boquete
This is the place to be for breakfast in Boquete. Sugar and Spice is jam-packed on the weekends, and not only with tourists but locals, too.
The breakfast burrito is a generous size, and the coffee is local and good. The aroma of baking bread, muffins, cookies, and other pastries is a pleasant greeting as you walk in the door.
6. King’s Table, Colón
Colón’s restaurant scene is mostly confined to the establishments in and around the Colon2000 cruise terminal. Tucked away in the corner of that terminal is King’s Table. Louis, the professional, European-trained chef, and his wife Ursula know how to run a restaurant, even in a depressed location like Colón.
7. Casa Cultural Congo, Portobelo
Aiming to promote local culture and artists, the Congo Cultural Center offers handmade arts and crafts for sale, hosts music, dance, and art classes for local children, and operates a hotel and restaurant for tourists.
The menu features a mix of local and international flavors, with a variety of wraps, salads, and ceviches. The price isn’t super cheap, but it helps to know that a portion of the proceeds go to promoting the center’s nonprofit work.
8. Boquete Brewing Company, Boquete
OK, so they don’t serve food. That shouldn’t keep the place from receiving the praise it deserves. Their craft brews (coconut-infused pilsner, chocolate stout, watermelon and mango ciders, and nonalcoholic ginger ale and sodas) stand above any I’ve had in Panama City.
If you get hungry while you’re enjoying your pints, they’ll let you bring in take-out.