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La Jarana - Peruvian Food in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 05 October 2009 07:20
La Jarana PanamaIt was summer about a year ago, click and my friend Nick and I were eating dinner at a fancy new Peruvian restaurant in Panama City. The décor was nice, viagra sale and, from the looks of it, expensive. We had just finished our first round of drinks when the waiter brought out my appetizer: a large white plate roughly the size and shape of a sombrero in the center of which sat a pile of glass and fabric scraps, at least that's what it looked like. "Disculpa," I said to the waiter, "but I was under the impression I had ordered the ceviche? Que es eso?" This is happening to me more and more often in Panama: new restaurants serving food so overly-thoughtful and artistic that it resembles not an item on the menu but rather a series of items that have been deconstructed then reassembled for disguise. At first I had trouble finding the actual fish in my Peruvian ceviche as it appeared to be hidden beneath a catacomb of puffed corn, sitting somewhere amidst a puree of a wild blue potato. While I cannot say the ceviche wasn't good, because it was, there was some disconnect, some part in me that, while enjoying surprises, simply wanted a familiar bowl of fish. No petrified cilantro sprigs or tortilla wafers. Just ceviche.

So it was the night that I found La Jarana, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it Peruvian restaurant near Atlapa Convention Center in San Francisco, that all my otherwise negative inclinations towards Peruvian food in Panama City were appeased. No fancy tablecloths, no carefully balanced edifices of food.

From the outside, La Jarana looks no different from the dozens of other mediocre cafes around San Francisco. The walls are painted a mustard yellow and adorned with fake vines: usually a really good sign that the food inside will suck. Once through the doors still, there's nothing definitively assuring about the La Jarana dining room: basic wooden tables, traditionally unfriendly waitresses...etc. We walked in to a full restaurant and, after standing in the entryway for about five minutes looking like stupid rookie tourists, decided to take action and wander to the kitchen/bar area where we requested a seat. "One should be ready in, oh, I don't know, twenty or thirty minutes," she said.

This is normally enough for me to leave the restaurant, walk next door, and eat something presumably equally mediocre. But in this case, I got a unique vibe from La Jarana. I grabbed two cold Cusquena beers and we drank them outside in the street while waiting for a table.

It's always a good idea, when trying a restaurant for the first time, to be vigilant in your snooping, peeking onto each table to see what the locals eat: what's the most popular. The portions were visibly enormous - literally like one dish could feed two people - so we chose the traditional Peruvian ceviche and a beef dish poetically and oh, so appetizingly named, Dry of Beef.

We sunk two more Cusquenas before the dishes arrived. The ceviche came on a football-sized platter and was piled high with discernible - note this, you could actually tell it was fish - strips of seabass as well as pickled red onion and hunks of sweet potato. It was among the top 10% of ceviche's I've had in Panama and while it used all the same ingredients as that artistic rendition back in 2008, it certainly looked more authentic and, well, like ceviche!

"The dry of beef," I said to the waitress. "It's amazing. You know, you should really think about changing the name. People would order more if you called it, something like ‘Peruvian Beef' or ‘Braised..." She turned her back and left before I could finish. The bad service here is comical and entirely forgivable considering the food and prices. The hockey puck sized beef steaks were set atop stewed white beans with some basic white rice and a small pickled onion relish. It was spectacular. And it cost $7.21.
This is one of the funny things about La Jarana. All the prices are set, to an almost nonsensical degree, at random numbers. The ceviche, for example, was like $6.07. The beers were around $2.84. At first I thought it might be to leave room for taxes but that didn't add up. "Maybe they're lucky numbers in Peru," my friend Dave said. "You know, like the Chinese casinos that don't have a fourth floor?"

"That's probably it," I said.

Dinner for two at La Jarana with drinks came out to about twenty bucks, which, in this day and age of Panama City dining, is a bargain considering the quality and portions. The ambiance is generic, the outside of the building is unremarkable, the service is blah. But maybe that's what I've been looking for all along. Most importantly, there were no dishes resembling miniature Punta Pacifica towers. This for me is a step in the right direction.

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Last Updated on Monday, 05 October 2009 07:24