If you were asked to describe Panamanian cuisine, what would first come to mind? Chances are if you’ve never been to Panama, or only spent a little bit of time here, you’ll struggle to form an answer to this question. I asked several of my friends and family of the US, and everyone’s answer was “I have no idea.” The closest I got to an answer was “it probably involves rice.” However, even if you ask Panamanians this question, it could be a struggle to answer. My wife, who was born and raised here, couldn’t fully define it. Sure, a person can rattle off dishes like sancocho, arroz con pollo, and yucca, but would struggle to fully define Panama’s culinary identity. Donde José, a small conceptual restaurant located on the edge of Casco Viejo, aims to change that.
The first thing that Donde José’s head chef, José Carles, will tell you when you meet him (he speaks fluent English and Spanish) is the story and mission behind the restaurant. When talking with him, it becomes abundantly clear that Donde José is about much more than just serving people great food. It’s about telling Panama’s culinary story to the world. For José, Panamanian cuisine is still something that is developing an identity. We forget sometimes that Panama is a “young” country, gaining independence only a little bit over 100 years ago.
“We have typical dishes,” José told me, “but we don’t have a strong culinary identity.”
José and his team work to have their hand in defining that identity. They want Panama to be known not just for the things it’s already known for (the canal, skyscrapers, the beaches, etc), but to be known as an international culinary destination. A source of pride for the restaurant is that 15% of their reservations are made from outside the country. They want people to come from other locations and return home to tell the story of Panama’s culinary identity.
In fact, José’s latest menu, the 4th since the restaurant opened in January, is called “Echando Cuentos (Telling Stories).” José considers each course to be its own story, and his menu is 16 different stories of the history of Panamanian cuisine and all of its different influences. Every single ingredient Donde Jose uses comes from Panama. A good number of the courses are smoked, something José likes to warn guests of before hand, so they can anticipate it. They use this technique so frequently because the food in the countryside is traditionally cooked over wood. Panamanian cuisine also uses all parts of the animal, so expect to eat some feet, tongue, liver and heart. If you are the type of person who would get squeamish knowing beforehand, let José or your server know and they won’t tell you ahead of time, so you can enjoy the taste and flavors before you know what part of the animal it was. Every dish is a version of a traditional Panamanian dish, but with José’s unique style and flavor. In this way Donde José is an interesting contradiction. It is both traditionally Panamanian and completely unique at the same time.
“We are not trying to be the best,” José insisted. “We are just trying to be Panamanian to our core, expressing ourselves through Panamanian ingredients, flavor and traditions and not necessarily through the traditional recipes.”
Judging by the outside, Donde José is easy to miss. The restaurant is located in a small, nondescript building in Casco Viejo. There is no signage out front displaying the restaurants name, so it is easy to walk past. The only distinguishing characteristic is that the building is painted a fairly bright shade of yellow. It is located next to the national lottery and near the American Trade Hotel and the police station. Inside, Donde José sits a maximum of 16 people per seating, 12 at tables and 4 at a counter that is called the “chefs table,” which José cooks behind. If you eat at the chef’s table, you will get the experience of hearing all of the stories behind each of the courses directly from José himself. We had the opportunity to sit at the chef’s table, and if that is available for your time period, I strongly, strongly recommend you take it.
José likes to start his meals right on time, which may be the only things that’s not Panamanian about the restaurant. If you’re late, you’re missing out on courses. The restaurant is open for two seatings from Wednesday to Saturday, one at 6:00pm and the other at 8:30pm. The 8:30PM is often booked far in advance, which is a great shift for pre-booking special occasions. The 6:00pm shift often has availability within a week, so I would recommend this one for something last-minute. We decided to show up early to beat the traffic, and if you do, José will reward you with a Panamanian tortilla dish to start, so you end up with 17 courses instead of 16.
Don’t let the high number of courses scare you. It’s a tasting menu, so the courses are sized appropriately. In fact, José says that when people see the plate sizes for some of the courses at the beginning, they’re worried if it will be enough food. The meal will definitely fill you up. We went to the restaurant hungry, and left full and content, but not uncomfortably so. The courses vary in size, from a small bite to a small plate.
Also available with the dinner is a drink pairing, in which you’ll get 7 “tasting” sized drinks that pair with the 16 courses. I’ll be honest, the “tasting” sized drinks didn’t seem much smaller than regular sized drinks, and after 7 of them, you will definitely feel it. The drinks were a mix of wines, cocktails, sangria, and a local beer. Each drink was brought out by the staff to accompany the proper course, and they would explain the ingredients in each drink. If like a good drink pairing, this is definitely for you. If you are more of a one drink type of person, they also make an excellent Panamanian Mojito, which is not in the tasting menu, but you can order separately.
When I first agreed to write about Donde José for the blog, I thought I would just be writing a piece about a great restaurant with great food (seriously, it was one of the best meals of our lives). I had planned to document each of the 16 courses, and share each one with you so you could understand the entire menu. But after being to Donde José and understanding the mission, that doesn’t seem right. Part of the experience of Donde José is having Panama’s story told to you for the first time. If I was writing a movie review, I wouldn’t spoil the whole plot for you. Likewise, I don’t want to spoil Donde José’s story for you. So I’ll only be including pictures and a write-up of select “stories” from our evening. If you want more “spoilers,” I’ll link the full photo album on my wife’s Facebook page, and it will have pictures and descriptions of each of the courses. But for now, here were a few of my favorite stories that Donde José had to tell.
Story Seven: Tilapia ahumada en frío
This story was called “ingredients” and “history.” This dish was smoked tilapia topped with a garnish of puffy crispy rice. Tilapia was not originally native to Panama, but was introduced during the construction of the Panama Canal and the establishment of the Canal Zone. José created this course to tell that story about Panama’s culinary history.
Story Eight: Cangrejo y tajada
This was another story of ingredients, as both plantain and crab feature very heavily into Panamanian diets. This dish was a ripe plantain top with a crab bottom, mixed with celery, crab mustard, and smoked salt. The plantain on the top was torched using a blow torch. This ended up being one of my wife’s favorite courses.
Story Nine: Pato en palito
This was a story about waste, or rather lack of it. As I mentioned earlier, part of Donde José’s philosophy is that no part of the animal should be wasted. So in this dish, which a duck version of a traditional Panamanian beef on a stick recipe. he used 4 pieces of the duck: The breast, the tongue, the dark meat and the heart. The idea of eating duck heart is one of those things that can make some people squeamish, but it really did taste delicious and you would have no idea what part of the animal it was. The idea made one of our neighbors at the chef’s table too squeamish, so that meant an extra duck heart for me! This was probably one of my favorite dishes.
Story Eleven: Tributo al Caribe
Panama’s culinary story has always been partially influenced by outside cultures, and this course is a celebration of that. The course celebrates the influence of Caribbean flavors on Panama. This dish was a coconut rice patty topped with an octopus curry.
The other 12 courses that I didn’t profile here were also all great, and all had their own unique story to tell. But telling all of them would take away from the experience. Just know that after 2 hours, 16 courses, and 7 drinks, my wife and I finished what could only be described as one of the best culinary experiences of our lives. And as I sat down to write the story of our night, I found myself wanting to tell a story about much more than great food. I wanted to tell a much different story; a much bigger story. I wanted to tell the story of Panamanian cuisine to the whole world. Based on my experience, I know others will feel the same, and Donde José will play a crucial role in putting Panama on the global culinary map.
The 16 course tasting menu costs $57 per person at a regular table, and $67 at the chef’s table. The drink pairing is $38 per person. To make a reservation, please call 262-1682 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact them through their Facebook page.
If you would like to see all 16 courses as well as more pictures from the restaurant, please follow this link.
Authors Note: The food and beverage for our meal at Donde José was provided to my wife and I by management so that I could have the opportunity to write about the restaurant in the blog. My opinions of my experience are my own and are not in any way influenced by this.