You will find Donde José in a yellow building on a corner of Casco Viejo in front of a traffic light on Calle 11. This famous restaurant does not have a sign, so it’s easy to get lost. As a reference, it is after American Trade Hotel, diagonal to La Concordia – Boutique Hotel. I had my appointment at 6:30 p.m. to eat in the first round. The second one is at 9 p.m. As can be seen, the space is so small, only 16 people can attend at a time. So it is essential to make reservations and arrive on time.
Taste the stories
The waitress came to my table with a worn book that really was the drink list. Usually I don’t order cocktails but the combinations sounded very good so I decided to try two different ones.
Hidden in your napkin you will find a small menu that says what you will be eating that night. First, you start with the bites, which are four small plates. Traditionally restaurants serve bread with butter and that’s why the name of the first dish is “neither bread nor butter”. Your waiter, also explains each dish with a story about its creation, will give you a ball of corn that you must cut to find cheese in the center. You must wet it with a sauce so that the flavors combine.
The next three bites are called “Caribbean flow” and speak of different aspects of the Panamanian Caribbean. The first is inspired by pickled fish. You will receive a leaf of arugula with cobia fish, homemade miso of pixbae and passion fruit seeds toasted on top. Then you have to roll it up like a taco and eat it. Next to it there is a pickled passion fruit juice.
Then, you will receive the second flow, a longorón or razor clam on the grill with lard over inflated rice that looks like sand.
The third sequence is inspired by Chinese influence. You will eat a dumpling stuffed with lamb cooked in coconut that has a chili paste with wasabi on top. After you must dip it in soy sauce with turmeric.
To change to the main dishes you will receive a “palate cleanser” that is a pineapple bathed in lime and orange juice. Above is an electric flower that grows in Boquete but is native to the Amazon. You should eat little since it numbs the palate.
In Panama, Carnivals are an important part of the local culture. Therefore, the first main course is called “Carnival in Penonomé 1986” which was the year that the owner and chef of Donde José was born. They bring a grill with fire to the table to make a different version of street meat stick. Beef tongue has been marinated and will be flamed with Sambuca for you to put on a yucca tortilla that contains a pate of mushrooms and edible flowers.
The next dish is a “Ceviche de Verano” which is not seafood, but chayote. It is accompanied with crispy baby corn, sweet potato and quinoa caviar. You must place everything around a lettuce and eat it.
“Fish & Chips” is a local version of a British classic. Therefore, they serve fresh fish with cashew nut sauce, local potato chips and moringa.
“Everyday Things” are ingredients that you always see in Panamanian food. With this intention, you will be served a small marinated organic chicken which was barbecued with sticky white rice in the center. This goes on a bean sauce with a sweet banana and as decoration dehydrated tomato balls and salty cheese. They give you a wet towel inviting you to eat with your hands, since “you are at home”.
When the desserts arrive you are already quite full but you have to keep trying. “Raspao for the Heat” is a sweet chayote preserve with crushed ice and saril powder. They pour a vinegar made of fermented banana on the top. The last dessert of the tasting of Donde José is called “Coffee with my Grandfather”. It receives its inspiration from the morning ritual of the coffee, that in the countryside is drank with fresh cheese.
When you go “Donde José” you are going to the kitchen of José Olmedo Carles. As a boy he liked to cook but it was not until later in his life that he decided to study the culinary arts at Le Cordon Blue in Sydney, Australia. He took advantage of his stay to acquire experience in Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, Lucio’s and Attica. As he was passionate about Panamanian cuisine, he decided to return to his homeland and opened Taller Artesano, which made dinners in houses. This was evolving until he decided to open his own space. As he had not named the place, people simply said “I’m going to Jose’s” and that’s how the place was baptized.
Despite being a place of haute cuisine, the atmosphere feels very relaxed and the people who work interact warmly with customers. Dining is quite an experience so it is not a place that you will frequent so often. The menu of Donde José is changed periodically, there is no fixed date, and the dishes are always evolving. Therefore, if you want to live a different experience it is advisable to call to check if there is a new menu since your last visit. Many of the diners are tourists who come to taste the food of what has become one of the most recognized chefs in Panama.
What I liked about the place is that they use local ingredients to make new versions of typical dishes from Panama. As a joke I said it was like eating at my grandmother’s but a lot more elaborate. But this is not surprising, since José uses his childhood memories as the basis of his inspiration.
Fonda lo que Hay
Fonda lo que Hay was originally the deposit of Donde José. Together with their new partner, Chef Fulvio Miranda, they decided to use the lower part to make a place that offered casual dining. Like Donde José the place did not have a name, it only opened and when people asked what there was to eat the answer was “what there is” and the name remained. A few months ago the fonda moved to a larger space on Calle 12 East before reaching Avenida B.
Fulvio is known for his food truck called “Esa Flaca Rica” that is now at the front in Espacio Panamá. But I met him years ago when he had a delicious restaurant in David, Chiriqui. As it was close to the airport, I always took the opportunity to stop when I arrived in the province.
When you visit you will see a blackboard that lists the dishes. Some vary while favorites stay longer. Undoubtedly, the one I like most is the yucca toast with fish carpaccio and onion ceviche. I could just go to eat that dish, but it’s worth trying the rest. This last time I went they had fried chicken with pure and gravy, concolón (the rice that is left on the bottom of the pot) with pork, guacho de short rib and chicken siu mai. The ideal is to order several dishes and share among friends.
For dessert, undoubtedly, you have to order the raspao. You have two options with blackberry or passion fruit. Apart it brings malted and condensed milk.
As a Panamanian, I have seen the evolution of our gastronomy and how, little by little, we are beginning to make ourselves known in an international panorama thanks to chefs like José and Fulvio.