Dining on the cheap in Panama

ISLA CONTADORA, Panama The Panamanian cop directions to the restaurant had me confused. That not easy when he tells me the best Panamanian cuisine on this tiny Pacific Island is only 50 yards from his storage shed of a police office.

But the sign above the restaurant merely said Free. I walked into a store as dimly lit as your aunt storage cellar and wondered what duty is free on cellophane wrapped cookies, plantains and Balboa beer. The bored, indifferent clerk behind the dusty counter motioned me to an adjacent space that looked like an abandoned mechanic garage.

On a crude cement floor stood seven glass top tables with cats scurrying around table legs that looked like thick tree branches. World Cup highlights flickered on a small TV. Out from the kitchen, the cook plopped down a plate of white rice and Panama version of bistec salteado, beef chunks mixed with vegetables and a rich, tomato sauce plus a side of lentils in lime sauce.

I never see a menu. It just happened to be what Pacifico restaurant served that day. At $3.25, plus 90 cents for Panama lip puckering green apple soda, who was I to argue?

Welcome to Panama, Central America long overlooked tourist cousin. Hidden in the shadows of Costa Rica real estate boom, Guatemala Mayan ruins and Belize tropical reefs, Panama is known best for giving us the world highest profile drug dealer in Manuel Noriega, and Panama hats that don even originate in Panama (they from Ecuador.).

However, the quality of dirt cheap food in Panama is unmatched anywhere I ever been. Cambodia comes close (but they serve fried insects). So does communist era Hungary.

The cuisine isn especially unique. Panama is part of the rice and black beans belt that stretches from Tijuana to Colombia. But in little holes in the wall, I barely dented my wallet past what I usually spend at my local 7 Eleven.

My favorite dive in the world is now Restaurante Benidorm. Located in the half bustling, half crumbling Bella Vista neighborhood downtown, this Panama City mainstay is open 24 hours and has a nine page menu.

The walls are plastered with bright murals of pretty Panamanian women in native dress. Picture Pete Kitchen with plantains and you have Benidorm.

I ordered salchichas guisadas, small tidbits of lightly fried sausage drenched in a sauce of tomatoes, celery and green and white onions. Topped with a thick, cakelike corn tortilla called a tortilla de maiz and accompanied by a freshly squeezed cheap jerseys papaya juice, it a great, cheap ($2.50 breakfast, $1.25 juice) way to start a day chasing toucans and watching cargo ships slip through the Panama Canal. Vacation for them isn eating whatever a Third World cook puts in front of them or rubbing elbows with the Central American working class.

However, you can also put on your best Tommy Bahama shirt and linen pants and step out in the town in Panama City. The town of 800,000 has a reputation as the most cosmopolitan city in Central America.

No, that not like being the most cosmopolitan city in Nebraska.

Panama City skyline is one long jagged row of high rises and cranes. That testament to the government and nouveau http://www.cheapjerseys11.com/ rich investment in tourism and style. Upon closer inspection, however, many cranes, like dinosaurs in a museum, don move all day.

That testament to Panama growing $12 billion debt and what locals told me are drug money laundering schemes by Colombian is not a fa is Panama City plethora of high end restaurants. This is high end in ambiance only. No need to alert Visa before you go out.

I went to Plaza Bolivar in Casco Viejo, the stylish colonial district where the capital nerve center stood until the construction of the Panama Canal began in 1914.

At Casablanca, in a courtyard illuminated by candles and 19th century street lamps, I dined on small pork chops called chicharroncitos and also champinones mozzarella, fresh mushrooms drenched in mozzarella and garlic. Even with fresh ceviche and the two best mojitos I had outside Miami, my bill came to $29.40.

I later went to La Posta. Built in one of the oldest homes in Panama City, La Posta is right out of a Sidney Greenstreet movie. Rattan chairs line a long, wooden bar. Big fans slowly rotate over a tile floor. Black and white photos of old Panama City adorn the walls.

Waiters in white guayabera shirts, the original Tommy Bahama, served rich Panamanians and fat cat expats. So what if my goat cheese ravioli verdi wasn exactly what they served the workers on the canal? It was excellent, and so was the goat cheese with membrillo, kind of like a guava puree. Including two mojitos, it came to a reasonable $34.

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