Fast Food restaurants in Panama have nothing to do with fast, quick or speedy. On the contrary. There is always a line and service is extremely slow. Of course there are exceptions but only when you get lucky enough to get serviced by a not-sleepwalking, tired or apathetic person. In many of these places personnel have no idea how to treat their customers and while you are waiting they hang around and chat. The customer can wait.
Panama has lots of nice restaurants with – most of the time – an excellent service. But when you have little time, an empty stomach and you are not in a shopping mall with a food court, you want to find a place where you can get a healthy meal or snack without having to wait for more than 30 minutes.
So you don’t want to go to a Mac Donald, Taco Bell, or KFC because you want a soup, a salad or a small sandwich. You can go to one of the Panamanian restaurants where they serve typical Panamanian food AND international dishes.
The Panamanian emparedado (sandwich) is huge and carries heaps of cheese, ham, pork and mayonnaise with a side of french fries. Not exactly a light cholesterol-friendly snack but you might want to try the traditional Panamanian soup “sancocho.” Sancocho is a chicken based soup that gets its distinct flavor from cilantro, cassava, vegetables and sometimes corn. It is served in a large bowl with a big hunk of cooked chicken. It’s a great soup: nice and flavorful.
In these restaurants you get served at the table and you don’t have to wait in line but service is equally slow, it might take some time before you get something on your plate.
Then you have the buffet-style cafeteria restaurants like Niko’s cafe. The food is Panamanian style and good at inexpensive prices. Service from the counter doesn’t take much time as long as you don’t order an emparedado.There is always a line for those and the preparation of just one of these sandwiches takes so long, you might sprout roots on the spot.
THE VEGA CHINESE
On the other hand you have a healthier (and much quicker) choice if you like vegetarian food. There are some Chinese vegetarian restaurants: very small, no ambiance whatsoever. The interior consists of mismatched metal chairs and tables but it is clean and the food is absolutely fresh and tasty.
Yesterday I walked into one of those. You can make a choice from an enormous counter full diverse vegetable dishes, salads, fried veggies, cooked veggies, and noodles. I had fried eggplant and something that looked like a steak but it was tofu. Wonderful flavor! Freshly cooked spinach, freshly cooked, crisp broccoli and some noodles. “You want juice”? Yes I did. And some water too. The latter is self-service, so you just grab a metal cup and pour it from a huge plastic container.
While I arranged myself and the food at a wobbly metal table a guy came by with a tray full of mugs and asked if I wanted soup. Free of charge. The soup turned out to be a vegetable broth. Tasty. Nice.
The restaurant is small, maybe 12 tables and it was crowded. One of the walls holds a greenish flickering TV screen, soundlessly broadcasting a dramatic telenovela and on the other wall you find a crash course of the Chinese language so you can brush up your Chinese in the process!
When I finished my meal, the color of the TV screen had changed into a fierce orange and the guy with the soup was doing another round for new customers.