Panama is probably one of the most developed countries in Central America. It’s got paved roads, raised highways, a modern airport with a decent duty free shop, an airline (Copa Airlines) with tons of direct flights in and out, legalized prostitution, UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Casco Viejo, an underground subway in the works (it may never get finished, but an A for effort), a handful of Pizza Huts, a corrupt government, high-rise condominiums, the US dollar (USD) as its currency, a bustling banking industry, a widening gap between its few rich and many poor, giant multiplex movie theaters, rush-hour traffic, a few casinos, a wireless network that puts Sprint’s coverage in San Francisco to shame (sorry Sprint, but it’s true!) and most everyone speaks enough English that American tourists can get by without even trying. And it’s sad, because in some respects this last point probably carries the greatest weight for a lot of people. But even with all the comforts of infrastructural modernity, Panama’s still got a long way to go with regards to two things: it’s Taxi industry, and street signage; both of which almost prevented us from having dinner at Maito, one of the best dinners we had in Panama City.
We’d seen taxis racing through the narrow city streets of Casco Viejo all day. They honked their horns at us like prostitutes whistling for Johns, but Casco Viejo was better digested on foot. It’s a different story at night. Dressed to the nines, our group of five stepped out onto Avenue B in front of Hotel Casa Nuratti thinking a cab would be easy to find. And we were right, because they were everywhere. Zipping in and out of Casco Viejo; practically mowing pedestrians over. But none of them were empty. Apparently our intersection was bump’n. And when we randomly hailed an empty cab, the drivers usually slammed their gas and spun off once they heard we were a group of five.
- Lesson #1: Most taxi cabs in Panama City are compact or mid-sized vehicles that will only fit four passengers….and even with four, they’re not that comfortable. So only travel in groups of four or less. [This is probably a good lesson for life in general]
We were more than willing to take two cabs if we needed, but we weren’t 100% certain where the restaurant was and only one of us had a Wi-Fi equipped device with GPS; or at least one that had a decent international plan. Besides, finding two empty cabs at the same time was harder than we’d thought. After about 15 minutes, I stopped a cab driver in a beat-up Nissan Sentra. It had one flickering headlight, one that was completely burnt out, and all of its hubcaps were missing. This is what I get for flashing my sexy mosquito-bitten leg from under my linen pants, to get a driver’s attention.
“Our chariot awaits!” I said, laughing at the sound of its screeching breaks and tailpipe dragging on the road. And before I could explain that we were a group of five and find out if his clunker could physically accommodate us, Jonathan’ s sister yelled, “Get in! Before he drives away!” And so we did just that. To the locals we must have looked like clowns getting into an original Mini Cooper. From sunburns, our noses were bright red, and since we were dressed up, our clothes were frilly, billowy, and colorful….and half of us have curly hair, which isn’t natural in Panama. The four smallest squished in back; Jonathan’s sister on someone’s lap. Luckily I got the passenger seat in front. The pro to the front seat is obviously the space. In the back, people’s limbs went numb from a lack of blood circulation. Not to mention it’s hard to breath with 135-pound bony yoga bum poking you in your pelvis. The cons to sitting in the front seat are the unobstructed view of the crazy, death-defying, accident-taunting driving of our cabbie. And of course the fact that by taking the front seat, I was essentially admitting to being the fattest member of our group. [queue sad horn sound….or as I like to call it “audial frown”]
With the last door slammed shut, we introduced ourselves to Roberto, who spoke little to no English. With our broken Spanish, I asked him to take us to “Restaurant Maito,” but he’d never heard of it. So I showed him the restaurant address I’d written down on a piece of paper, and he studied it for a minute while cabbies honked behind us. I began scrutinizing my penmanship, and thought maybe he was struggling with my lower case a’s looking like e’s? But it’s hard to communicate those thoughts in sixth-grade level Spanish. Eventually he said, “Ok, I take you.” And we were on our way!
- Lesson #2: Cab drivers in Panama own their vehicles and set their own price. There is no meter. So you should always negotiate the fare of your trip before you get in the cab. And with more than the normal amount of people (IE: five fatty Americans) you might need to offer more so they’ll make the exception.
He slammed on the gas, and we puttered towards downtown Panama City. The weight of our group was almost too much for Robert’s car. At one point he was going so slow up a hill that he put his hazard lights on, but we laughed, because, like all the other lights in the car, they didn’t work. We were so low to the ground he had to go over speed bumps on the diagonal. We joked about kicking through the floors and kicking a la Fred Flintstone. Roberto laughed with us, because he knew his car was a piece of crap.
Eventually we made it to the main thoroughfare where the restaurant was supposed to be. I looked for street numbers, but it was dark, and by then, he’d turned on the radio, which burned out the other headlight completely. Eventually we found an intersection where he thought it should be, but there was nothing there but a bunch of homes and apartment complexes. Roberto rolled down my window and screamed to two strangers smoking on the sidewalk in Spanish. He asked them where it was, and they’d never heard of it.
By then, it had been about 15 minutes since we piled into the car, and the natives in the back seat were restless, and hungry, which, with Jonathan’s family I’ve learned is a recipe for cranky, short-tempered behavior it’s best to avoid.
Roberto circled the neighborhood a few more times. Some of the streets seemed really seedy, and it’s at that point I thought he might just pull over and rob us, and leave us there without continuing the search for Maito. Clearly we were damaging his car, the fare wasn’t that big, and he’d spent a lot of time, that could have been spent making money with some other fare. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, he offered to call the restaurant on his cell and figure out how to get there. I read him the number of the restaurant in Spanish, and he dialed while driving, which scared the shit out of most of us. Jonathan’s mother just kept yelling at Roberto, “I really don’t think you should be doing that right now,” and then she’d force out a laugh meant to conceal the fact that she feared this guy was going to get us killed in a car accident. “Eh-ló!” he screamed into the phone, and then immediately slammed it against the steering wheel to pull the battery out. He blew on the inside as if the phone were an old-school Nintendo cartridge that wasn’t working properly. “Battery dead,” he said to me with a smile. I desperately wanted to ask for the backstory on the few prominent teeth he was missing, but thought I’d focus on how we could call the restaurant instead.
Jonathan’s mother’s emergency survival skills had taken over, and she’d initiated a call on her cell. Since Jonathan’s sister’s head was practically in the front seat, she gave the phone to Roberto as soon as the restaurant answered. Roberto looked at it like he’d never seen an Apple iPhone before (which was kind of amazing). He held it in the palm of his hand, like it was one of the stones of Shiva Lingah from Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom, and stared at it while I could barely make out the sound of the restaurant hostess saying “Hello? Hello?” on the other end.
“Preguntale a donde el restaurante,” I said [I told you my Spanish was horrible], and he spoke to the restaurant.
- Lesson #3: Try to pick a cabbie who has a Bluetooth device, a car phone charger, and the ability to make local calls when he doesn’t know where the fuck he is!
Roberto hung up the phone and drove us back to the original block where we asked the locals on the sidewalk if they knew where Maito Restaurant was. Apparently it was literally across the street from where they were sitting. In some areas of the city, there are no street addresses, and that’s why we had such a hard time finding the place. The sign on the street was also blocked by a parked car, and from the cab Maito just looks like a private residence with a gated parking lot.
We knew the location would be hard for anyone to find, so we asked Roberto if he would be willing to pick us up in a few hours when we were done with dinner. He said “yes” and then crippled away for his next fare. I’m happy to say, he was reliable and picked us up at the end of our meal (he was actually waiting for us to finish dessert) and his unreliable car was just as unreliable as ever, but it got us to our next destination, the Casino!
- Lesson #4: Never judge a cab driver by the look and feel of his car, or by number of teeth he has, because you never know when you’re going to have an adventure with a Roberto!
Maito Restaurant Panama City
Although it was nearly impossible to find, and they don’t believe in street addresses (in all honesty, there was probably a street number somewhere, we just couldn’t see it), Maito was worth the trek. The restaurant is set back off the street behind a wall of bamboo grass. It was originally a private residence that’s been turned into a quaint high-end dining experience. Its chefs and owners, Alberto Perez Rodriguez and Mario Castrellón, have put their blood sweat and tears into this gem of an experience hidden in deep in the heart of Panama City’s Coco del Mar neighborhood (which is nearby…the photo below is his front gate….notice the name on the tiles to the right) . Their food is inspired by some of the traditional foods they ate growing up, only now it has a professionally-trained-in-the-kitchens-of-Europe layer of classic technique and modern day sophistication thrown in.
As you walk towards the entrance, on a raised wooden deck, you can see the raised planter boxes of fresh herbs and vegetables the chefs use in the kitchen on site. We were greeted by the host at a podium just outside the front door, who welcomed us and brought us to our table.
The main dining room is warm and bright. The walls and floors are all very neutral creams, peaches, and browns. Hints of color really popped from the modern artwork throughout.
We were dining on the early side, and were some of the first guests to arrive. As the night progressed, we saw everyone who came in, and the people watching was great. Young men and women in ball gowns and tuxedos kept arriving, and we figured there was some Christmas party or winter formal dance going on. All the diners looked very classy and well kept. Roberto told us later that Maito was in the Coco del Mar neighborhood, which is known for being the wealthy Jewish area. This made a lot of sense, because we saw a Jewish Community Center as we drove around the neighborhood earlier in the night. He also gave us an explanation for why so few people (locals especially) had never heard of Maito, or known where it was….and it’s the fact that most people in Panama City don’t eat out at fine dining restaurants with table cloths. They just don’t have the money, and there aren’t that many restaurants of that caliber. Which was good to know.
So we got situated, and gobbled up some of their delicious bread and butter. We were starving!
As we all looked down at our menus, we each realized they were in Spanish. And not only that, but the descriptions and the word choices, were really obscure and not easy to just google translate. We asked our waiter if there was a menu in English, but he said he’d have to just translate it for us. So that’s what he did. He stood at our table and went through the entire two pages of menu, one item at a time, to not only describe the dish, but explain the preparation, the plating, etc. He searched for a few words here and there, and there was a moment or two when it was a little painful, but his English was impeccable as far as I’m concerned, and without him, we would have been ordering in the dark!
Naturally I started off with a passion fruit mojito. It was probably the best, non-original (aka flavored) mojito I’d ever had. From the substantial lowball glass to the perfect balance between rum, passion fruit purée, and sugar cane juice, each sip slid down my gullet; playfully reminding me that I was on a tropical vacation! Which in my opinion is why mojitos exist.
Then we ordered the following:
Molasses braised octopus served with some stewed garden vegetables and peppers. (Pulpo de la huerta y miel de caña). I’ll admit; this cut of a giant octopus’ arm (or is it leg?) didn’t look that appetizing at first, because the sight of it brought me straight back to Thanksgiving when I was elbows deep in a Turkey’s ass in search of its neck. But then we poked it with our forks and realized this piece of octopus –or “pulpo” in Spanish—was tender and perfectly cooked. And the sweetness of the reduced tomato-based pepper and salsa was subtle enough that it didn’t overpower the octopus and yet it balanced out their own acidity.
Roasted suckling pig in Panamanian tortillas (Cochinita pibil en tortilla panameña). These were more like wonton wrappers. These were basically shumai dim sum dumplings with the slow roasted baby pork filling and a lobster mousse on top. Delicious!
Empanada de sanconcho. It’s hard to describe this, but sanconcho is a traditional Panamanian dish that’s essentially their culture’s version of a chicken matzo ball soup. It’s a clear broth soup of stewed chicken pieces, with tons of veggies floating around, like: yams, squash, corn, potatoes, yucca, plantains, chayote, sweet corn, etc. This wasn’t that at all. As you can see, these were pretty much empanadas. But they were filled with a sanconcho purée, which we think was a purée of chicken, and startchy vegetables. The plate was drizzled with an umami reduction of peppers, and the dough of the empanadas was soft, a little crunchy, not at all greasy, and rich at the same time.
This was their version of the traditional arroz con pollo dish. At Maito, they fried the flavored rice in a skillet until hardened and got crisp and charred around the edges. The shredded chicken was underneath (sorry you can’t see it), with cilantro, garlic and pepper sauces on top.
Squid stuffed with black risotto, shrimp and cilantro aioli (Calamares rellenos de risotto negro con camarones y aioli de culantro). This was amazing! Not only was the squid ink risotto the perfect amount of briny, but the richness of each bite, really made us stop to savor the moment. The calamari rings were perfectly cooked, melting away with the softest of chews. Jonathan ordered this dish, and I tried to grab more than a few bites when he wasn’t looking.
Seared ahi tuna with glazed eggplant and thinly sliced pickled mango (Atún aleta amarilla braseado con berenjenas y en rodajas finas mango encurtido). The sliced mango was really unique here. The white sliced radish-looking pieces were actually unripe mango slices. I’m not 100% certain, but I think the pickling bleached the already pale yellow away from the mango, making it nearly indistinguishable. The fish was slight pink in the middle, and after a day of corvine, we were all happy to take a bite of their ahi tuna.
Casserole with garlic calamari, octopus, and shrimp on false conchuelas tamal (Cazuela al ajillo de calamari, pulpo, conchuelas y camaron sobre falso tamal). I’m not exactly sure why they used the word false in their description of this dish, because there wasn’t nothing wrong about it. Again, the essence of the ocean really permeated every bit of this dish, which is hard to do when you’re working with so many different textures, starches, and ingredients. Very comforting, and very good.
Guacho rice with seafood (Guacho arroz caldoso con mariscos). Pronounced “wah-cho” this is another traditional Panamanian dish similar to Italian risotto, only guacho is made with long grain white rice instead of Arborio. It’s soaked in water for a little bit before being cooked with proteins and spices, which in this case was a mix of seafood. The rice in guacho is stewed long enough that the starches develops into a creamy thick porridge.
I ordered the special of the evening, which was beef brisket over mashed potatoes in a honey glaze. As someone who prides himself on cooking a mean brisket (check out my brisket recipe here) I have to give Maito kudos for theirs. Maito cooked their brisket perfectly. It was moist and falling apart like braised beef cut off the bone should. But they didn’t then smother it in jus, barbecue sauce, or some version of a Lipton’s Onion Soup mix. Instead they let the meat really stand out on it’s own, and only countered some of the saltiness with the reduced honey sauce. The potatoes were fluffy, full of butter, and smooth with a few chunks like I like. This is about as clean a meat dish as I’ve had in a long time, and it was very refreshing.
For dessert we had the panamisu and caramel ice cream. This panamisu is Maito’s version of tiramisu, only instead of using marscapone, they use milk. The layers of cake were light in the areas where they hadn’t soaked up the sweetened milk mixture.
And we had the deconstructed flourless chocolate cake. The waiter had explained to us that this wasn’t a “traditional” flourless chocolate cake, but this isn’t what we expected. It looked like a pile of dirt, with a few pieces of fruit thrown in for good measure. That being said, it was awesome. One scrape of your spoon from left to right across the mound of crumbs, and suddenly your spoon had a block fudge on top. The slightest amount of pressure caused the flourless chocolate crumble to come together and it was just as good, if not better, than any other flourless chocolate dessert I’ve had.
And I saved the best for last. The traditional tres leches dessert. Maito served this in a ramekin with a whipped cream top. The cake was completely infused with the sweetened tres leches mixture. It wasn’t too sweet though. It reminded me of how good a cold glass of whole milk could be with just a little bit of sugar blended in. Since then, I’ve sweetened cream and drunk it out of the carton, and it’s also delicious, but not as good as Maito’s tres leches.
So if you find yourself in Panama City looking for a wonderful dining experience, Maito is the place to go. Not only is the food seasonal, fresh, and local….which isn’t the case in all of Panama no siree, but the service was impeccable. They were attentive, and really did anticipate our every want and need. Dining with Maito was a delight, and I hope to go back some day…..maybe when they have better signage!
Check out our previous post titled Well Hello Casco Viejo! or our next post titled The Cleavage of Central America
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Panama City
- Breakfast at Borough Market
- Marry me Joel Robuchon!