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The Beauty and The Chinito

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Written by Matt   
Wednesday, 06 December 2006 11:16
There are a lot of Chinese immigrants in Panama and their hard work ethic manifests itself on nearly every corner of the country in the form of small grocery stores selling anything from sliced pineapple to salt-encrusted honey nuggets. These shops, salve or chinitos as they're called, top my list of guilty pleasures in Panama: shopping in them an experience that, like Jell-O wrestling, is about as gross as it is gratifying. These little shops are usually no bigger than the size of a gorilla transport cage, floors of dirtied linoleum, ceilings of foul flimsy tiles, and walls that are hidden due to a shortage of storage room. All of Panama's chinitos appear to have used the same interior decorator, each sticking to themes of maximization and clusterization as though the amount of items you could fit in your store directly reflected a shop's annual revenue. Cans of old vegetables balance on the edges of metal shelves, bananas hang from makeshift hooks, and swinging refrigerator doors hinder your ability to shop. Getting your groceries here is similar to avoiding a laser beam security system in that you have to angle yourself just to grab a bag of Cheetos.

One funny thing about chinitos is the amount of things they sell for under five cents. Every time I buy myself a piece of penny bubblegum, I realize Americans are missing out on one of life's little joys, because at home nothing, not even a french-fry costs a penny anymore. Buying an old-school glass bottle of Coke for a quarter gives me this tingly warm feeling inside, not unlike the one I get when I do a good sneeze. And the fact that a complete three-course snack can be had for under a dollar—in my opinion—simply makes everything taste better.

While all serve similar purposes, there are three distinct tiers of chinitos in Panama in my book, three quality levels if you will. The lowest-tiered chinitos are characterized by their crammed spaces, funky smells, and unpleasant cashiers. It is in one of these gutter-like confines that life appears to stand still, like a congealed bowl of day-old gravy. Don't expect any J.Crew salutation when you enter one of these pigsties as the people working there are usually unfriendly, appearing, against all laws of business, not want your business.

You may be asking yourself, why in the world would you want to go in one of these places? Well, the answer is because they have every product known to man, and you'll see what I mean when your toilet paper runs out mid-movement or when you find chunks in your morning milk.

The people who run the second tier shops (because it's a Friday and I'm feeling mischievous) we'll call the Elves from Middle Earth. They uphold decent standards of cleanliness and have something that is very much of a status symbol in chinitos: a TV. It's sort of like a Rolex in the sense that while it doesn't have to work well, the bare essence that you have one makes you cool. These middle-class cats sometimes have a small kitchen that produces what I can only describe as edible slop. Chunks of meat eternally stewing in crock pots are a favorite as are variations on traditional Chinese dishes (made fattier and less healthy to appeal to Panamanians). And of course, these are all served alongside the obligatory rice and bean double act.

Meals in these sorts of places are usually no more than two dollars but don't expect any of that fu fu presentation or vertical stacking. You won't find any brandy-embossed peaches or wild baby artichokes. No, they keep things very simple here. Remember, these are the Elves from Middle Earth we're talking about.

The top level (and most prestigious) chinitos are few and far between. These are leading role-model establishments much like Le Bec Fin—in a league of their own. A well-run chinito is a thing of beauty, functioning without snags or draws similar to a well-rehearsed ballet. Counter areas are clean, shelves are always stocked, and the food can actually pass as civilized. The locations of these chinitos are usually very central and convenient, perfect for the walk home or a post-meeting pit stop. Air conditioning here is a must and for the most part, being in one is a relaxing experience.
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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 23:28