Mario Castrellon is trying to do just that. After studying cooking in Spain, Castrellon returned to Panama in 2005 to work under Henesy. In 2009 he started his own venture, Maito, which now competes alongside a dozen other worthy places like Las Clementinas or Tantalo Kitchen, both in Casco Viejo.
Maito was nearly full when Fabrega and I found a table under paddle fans next to a window. Outside a gardener tended to raised beds that were bushy with Thai basil, cilantro and other herbs.
“No one knows what Panamanian cuisine really is,” Castrellon, who is 30, said later. “People can name maybe four traditional dishes, but we eat a bit of everything here — Chinese, French, African, Spanish, Colombian, American.”
Fabrega and I shared a sea bass hot dog — fine, flaky fish rolled into a sausage shape and lightly battered and fried — which was far more delicious than it sounds. We tore into an order of ropa vieja, a traditional meal of shredded beef and sauce that Castrellon has invigorated with spicy peppers, annatto and goat cheese salsa.
The crowning analogy came with the octopus. The creature had been candied, set upon a garbanzo bean paste, and garnished with cilantro flowers and other herbs. It was sweet, spicy, succulent.
“Chinese glaze, Spanish beans, local herbs,” Castrellon said. “Put all these elements together, and now you have a Panamanian octopus.”
Eager to explore more of the city, I said a hasty goodbye to Fabrega and met up with Jessica Ramesch, the Panama editor of International Living magazine. We piled into her Hyundai and fought our way out to a former U.S. military base called Clayton that sits along the canal in the northwest part of the city.
“All of this area was pretty much closed to Panamanians when the Americans were here,” she said as we crept through the Canal Zone, a former U.S. territory where Americans working and defending the canal lived a strange, cross-world existence. “Zonians,” as they were called, could get Guess jeans and Jif peanut butter just as on most military bases abroad, but then monkeys might walk with the children to school. Huge ships moved through the Miraflores Locks just to the west of the road.
“Many Zonians stayed and some of the bases have become these gorgeous neighborhoods,” Ramesch said.
While much of the city’s night life unfolds along Calle Uruguay, every full moon during the dry months hundreds of people head out to Clayton to bang on Tupperware containers, buckets and anything else that might make a noise. They do their best to follow the band — just a group of friends, really — which plays pop, reggae and whatever else it feels like.
“Who here can drum?” an announcer shouted into a microphone, and the pounding became a roar.
Over the next several days, few things I saw or did in the city had quite the same wow factor as this bucket band gathered under an old tree. I sipped cocktails at Barlovento, a new rooftop bar where slinky women and V-shaped men swirled around in a cyclone of perfume and cigarettes, and I shopped for tapestries made by Kuna Indians along a waterfront paseo. A hike on a steep, car-less road up a jungly hill in the middle of the city stood out, but that’s because an anteater crossed my tracks, and I’d never seen one of those before.
But here on the ground with wine and cheese and a fat moon hanging in the trees, I wondered if a city needs to add up to make sense. As absurd as Panama City can feel at times, it is certainly a lot of fun, too, and between the cracks of all the chaos, these mini-miracles are burbling through.
As if on cue, the bucket band’s disparate racket gradually fell into sync until — no way — The Girl From Ipanema emerged. It was messy and loud and no one knew how it would end, which made it all the more amazing, too.