Taboga cuisine. Photo by the author.
Avid readers of Bananama Republic of course know that our newsroom is located in one of the most impractical places we could find: The island of Taboga, off the coast of Panama City. There are hardly any cars, the ferry service to the mainland sucks, and there is only expensive internet service which fluctuates with the tides. No ATMs either. The good thing about all that is that it is one of those few places near the capital - a mean and evil place full of scammers, corruptos and juega vivo - that doesn't feel as if it's near the capital. On Taboga, you're removed, outside of all the Panama nonsense. The Taboganos are generally very nice people. There is a Senan station here with guys who dress up like soldiers and they have one prison cell - which is almost never used. The toy soldiers are tolerated, but not more than that, because everybody knows that all they do is check bags of tourists while they are never there when you really need them. On Taboga, people take care of themselves and of each other - being islanders, they don't count too much on anything from the outside.
Our government doesn't know this, but Taboga is really a kind of an independent state, ruled by happy anarchy. Rabiblancos - who own many a fancy beach house here - are tolerated as long as they don't try to get any kind of political power. The last one who tried was laughed out of town and never heard from again. Instead of creating political divisions, Taboganos will simply sabotage anything they don't want on their island. On the flip side, if they do want something they will make it happen one way or the other. The local doctor and chef de clinique, for example, had to commute from the city every day. "Unacceptable," it was decided. So they built her a house.
SO NOW YOU WANT TO VISIT?
So, let's say you've decided to visit Taboga. Maybe you've read that error-ridden "report" on something called "Panama for real" by an "expert" who spent a whopping 6 hours walking around here. Or you read about this former pirate den in the New York Times. Or, you read that much praised piece of Panamanian literature, La Isla Magica, by the late Rogelio Sinán, who was born here, and you decided that you had to see for yourself. Or you wondered why the famous French painter Paul Gauguin never painted anything while he stayed here. The next question is then, maybe, where to eat?
DINING IS A DIRTY BUSINESS
Well, let's make one thing clear here and now: Taboga is not about great food, fine dining, or any of that.
Of course, restaurant reviews are by their nature corrupt. You serve a great meal offering great service; you get a great review. Throw in some freebies and it gets even better. On the other hand, if your food sucks and service is rude, forget a good review. Good evaluations, in other words, can be bought - we might as well be honest about it - it is a dirty, rotten, yet simple business indeed, which makes you wonder why so many restaurants don't do a better job. So let's move on to the list. We start with the worst, and work our way up:
7. Donde Pope. We used to like this place for its simplicity and the friendly lady who worked there, however, the owner has moved to the city and the restaurant is closed. We're only mentioning it because the signs are still up.
6. Vereda Tropical. This hotel/restaurant is a great example of how looks can deceive. The owner has done a splendid job of decorating it in a Spanish-tropical style, and it has probably the nicest terrace on the island, on a hillside overlooking the ocean all the way to the city. Years and years ago, the food was also good, and the kitchen experimented with different dishes instead of the same old fried red snapper with patacones. That, however, has dramatically changed. Last time we ordered fish, we got a thin slice of defrosted tilapia filet which they claimed was corvina, and instead of the home made maracuya sauce it was drenched in something indeterminable that seemed to come from a can. From then on, the only thing we trusted there were the pizzas, which were prepared in a newly purchased stone oven. Then they routinely didn't have the pizzas. Prices did go up and up while quality went down the drain. The final straw with this outfit was when we ordered pizza and after one and a half hour waiting and watching later arrivals getting their food, they told us it would be another 20 minutes. No apologies, no, "can we get you an entree in the meantime," no drink on the house, nothing. Quite the contrary: They insisted on charging us eight bucks for a glass of wine and an instant fruit juice when we told them we'd not be waiting any longer. Long story short: We will not go back there, and neither should you. Lousy, expensive, and rude.
5. Cerrito Tropical. If you want to have drinks or dinner there, you need to make a reservation. Last time we did that, or rather, friends did that, we drove up to this place and there was nobody there. 'Nuff said.
4. Calaloo Beach, Fishbar. First of all, other than the name suggests, this is not on the beach. It has the same (Canadian) owner as the aforementioned Cerrito Tropical. If you truly enjoy sitting inside and look at the sea through the open windows while paying a lot for small portions of mediocre food, this is the place for you. It is one of those annoying examples of a place that pretends to be hip, while winging it on their actual product and service. Sometimes they have a terrace on the sidewalk, behind the only real beach bar on Taboga (see below), so you can watch golf karts drive by.
3. El Mirador. The local Chinese joint, serving standard Panamanian fare like arroz frito, fried fish, plantains - the works. There is nothing fancy about this restaurant and snacks from the display on the counter with chicken legs and hojaldres are probably best avoided unless you want to improve the bacterial resistance of your stomach, but we like it because it's totally unpretentious, not expensive, and Maria, who works there, is cool. This is where we go to get takeaway for a last-minute beach picnic. At the end of the day, after the boats with the tourists have left, the locals gather here, usually outside, for a beer and a chat.
2. Mundi. The name is short for Edmundo, the friendly owner, who works tirelessly to keep his hotel and two restaurants going. The busiest one is right next to the pier before you get to the aforementioned Mirador. It has a nice small terrace over the water, the staff is friendly, and they serve breakfast. Mellow place, we like it there. Too bad they close early - generally right after the tourists have left.
1. Playa Honda. Best place in town. And of course there is a story: Do a Google search on "playa honda taboga" and you will see that the owner of Calaloo and Cerrito Tropical has done a lot of work to make it appear as if this is actually part of her joint. But it's not. She tried to piggyback on the concession, until the concession holder decided that there was no need at all to work with/for a Canadian lady who only visits Taboga on weekends. Call it island scheming, but the result is that Playa Honda is doing MUCH better than most other places, even without a website or wacky SEO. Super-friendly people who always seem to be in a great mood, normal prices, a really nice terrace on the beach, okay food (though nothing special), and they even allow you to bring the drinks they don't have for a small fee. Plus they stay open as long as there are customers. You can also rent beach chairs here, and they are currently expanding the terrace. Our favorite hangout.