Panama's 6 Types of Street Food

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 23 October 2007 01:00
We sat in the most enviable table of the night: a corner booth, rounded to afford views of the entire restaurant as the waiter refilled my glass with a Rioja that was, as he said, "as close as I've found to perfection". The meal was impressive, the service was spot on, and the ambiance like something out of a movie. But what I really wanted, was to tear off the blazer I was wearing and go buy a few kebabs from the street vendor outside.
Kanye once said, "have you ever popped champagne on a plane?" Well no, but I have had meat on the street?

Panama's innovative restaurant scene is quite impressive, but I believe it's the down-home street food and personalities serving said street food that truly able a visitor to connect with the country in an special way.

1. There are a number types of vendors you'll find wandering Panama's streets. In the mornings, stop at one of the ubiquitous fruit salesmen who push shopping carts filled to the brim with whatever fruit happened to look good that morning at market. Ripe, juicy pineapples. Golden pads of mango meat. Giant hunks of perspiring watermelon. Just about everything costs a quarter and you can top your purchase off in the traditional Panamanian style of vinegar, salt, and pepper (yes it sounds odd, but it creates this great symphony of sweet, salty, and sour in your mouth).

2. Especially on hot days, you'll see hoards of snow cone vendors. You'll know them because they're the guys with hundreds of small children enveloping their cart. These men of genius lug around giant bricks of ice, off of which they use a razor-like tool to scratch the surface. The result: a light, fluffy snow cone topped with whatever flavoring you fancy. (There's one I try to stay away from that looks a lot like egg nog.)

3. Later in the day, you'll find the steak dealers: hilarious old men and women who set up on busy corners and fire up the barbeque out of old trash bins. Pork, beef, chorizo, chicken: they'll serve just about anything as long as it can be fitted on a stick. The customary accompaniment is a log of freshly-steamed yucca (a very starchy potato-like root vegetable) doused generously in a chimichuri-type sauce.

4. Alongside these steak dealers you can find the taco people who are artists in their own right. Martha Steward does not know "a good thing" until she's tried one of these tacos after a good night of clubbing. (Before I go on, might I pause and speculate what a wonderful sight that must be.) They'll lightly toast the flour tortilla and load it with the seasoned meat of your choice and a number of neon-colored salsas. Spritz it with a wedge of fresh lime, grab a cold beer, and you're in business.

5. At sporting events or parades, the specialty purveyors come out. These are the ones I'm talking about: pickled quail eggs in a bag, stagnant tubs of ceviche, and the all-too-nebulous buckets of sao which, in layman terms, is raw pork feet pickled using vinegar and onion slivers. These guys were taken directly from the pages of the CDC handbook, more specifically, the chapter on what not to eat in hot tropical environments with no refrigeration. They're awesome!

6. Not quite as high up on the totem pole as the snack vendors, but still important, are the road-side hawkers. They sell mostly things you have to prepare before you eat, and specialize in things like dried peas (common in Cocle), baby crabs skewered on strings (Chiriqui) and even whole iguana by the tail (various spots in Azuero). These are the true "holy crap what the hell is that guy selling" citizens and I like to stop and buy anything I'm not familiar with.

So there I sat, with fine silverware and the best view in the house. The waiter had just delivered the starters: baby lobsters set atop the type of baby greens you might find in an art museum. And with each bite, with each delicious morsel, I wanted desperately to get outside and eat on the street.

Have you had any great street food in Panama? Have you ever been amazed, excited, grossed out by the stuff they serve on the street? Use the comment section below to contribute...
Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 23:46