In 1983 the idea of creating the El Trapiche Restaurant emerged. Alfonso Jaen, Domingo de Obaldía and Santiago Anguizola wanted to do a business and realized that there were no typical food options in Panama City. In September of that year they opened the first branch in Via Argentina. Those who visit Panama City today may find a wide gastronomic offer, but that was not always the case.
Alfonso was the only one with experience in the culinary world since he had founded another similar restaurant called ‘Tinajas’ that offers typical live shows. The second branch, in Albrook Mall, opened in 2011 and in 2018 they opened the third in San Francisco. The difference between the three branches is mainly aesthetic. They all open at 7 a.m. to serve breakfast and close at 10 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. weekends. The Trapiche of Via Argentina closes an hour later as it is still the most popular branch.
For many years the recipes of El Trapiche restaurant remained intact. Originally they offered rabbit, lobster and spider crab that were common dishes 30-40 years ago. But over the years these dishes stopped being consumed and there was a need to transform the menu without changing its essence. Domingo de Obaldia, son, told me that the idea was “to accompany traditional recipes with others that talk about Panama but have a slightly friendlier turn for people in general.”
Basically this allows visitors to try dishes without having to know about Panamanian cuisine. For example, they serve chorizo from Las Tablas in a croquette with a lot of culantro and achiote, accompanied with a chombo pepper jam. They manage to offer “a purely Panamanian flavor in a presentation that is not classical.” Another dish that is recommended for discoverers is chicken stuffed with bacon covered with a sweet ‘sofrito’ glaze that includes culantro, oregano, celery and garlic.
Only in San Francisco can they cook with firewood since they have a patio. This allows them to make a sancocho as it is traditionally done in the interior. They use hard chicken (after they finish laying eggs) which is not very commercialized. They also have about 10 dishes that they do not have in the other branches, including Las Tablas chorizo croquettes and a pork-belly sandwich.
All products are local, except few canned items. They know the exact origin of many, such as the culantro that comes from an estate in Bajo Bonito de Capira. The Natura Foundation had a project with producers in the Panama Canal basin to improve the sustainability of the area. Domingo says “it benefits me to have a quality product at a consistent price” that is why he believes in buying national products, creating a cycle of support among Panamanians.
Domingo did not study gastronomy but hotel, tourism and restaurant management. He loves to cook and today, that is practically what he does. Together with his sister Ximena, who went to school with me, they manage El Trapiche restaurants. When they took control as the new generation, they felt a great responsibility to preserve Panamanian cuisine.
Panamanian cuisine is internationalizing as chefs transform national products. That’s why they have a fixed menu and dishes that vary by season. When it’s mamey season, for example, they use it to make sorbets or jams that they accompany with toast or national cheese. They also make soup, patacones and flan of pixbae when available.
For a while they sold carimañolas and empanadas in Pixvae but the store closed and they decided to consolidate operations. A new production center to make fried goods just opened so they will continue to increase their capacity. The only products they continue to sell are two hot sauces.
One of the priorities of El Trapiche restaurants is to preserve Panamanian culture through food and folklore. That’s why the new branch in San Francisco is different. It has masks and devil costumes as well as musical instruments such as drums and wooden rice piles as decoration.
From Tuesday to Saturday they have a typical show at 7 p.m. It lasts half an hour except Thursdays and Saturdays when it is an hour long. The show changes every day as the artists rotate. All ranges of devils are shown including ‘espejo’ devils from Darien and ‘cua cucua’ from the Penonome mountains. They have montuna pollera as well as gala pollera. Drum, accordion, ‘tamborito’, ‘churuca’ are played and there is a singer. Visitors can learn about all folk traditions of Panama.
El Trapiche Restaurants
At the moment they have no plans to open more El Trapiche restaurants but you can always try a wide variety of Panamanian cuisine. And if you don’t know what to order, Domingo says his favorite dish is the ‘gallo pinto’ which was a Costa Rican dish to me but it seems that Panama has its own version. It is commonly known as ‘guacho de ratito’ and has pork, rice, beans and a Creole sauce in the best Chiriquian style.