My taste buds are becoming pseudo world travelers. Soon they’ll take on that know-it-all attitude some world travelers have. Yeah, they’ll say, I’ve been there. I’ve tasted that. Do your taste buds need an adventure? Take them to Conoce Mi Panama.
Conoce mi Panama, which in Spanish roughly translates to get to know my Panama, is a little hole in the wall BYOB restaurant on Armitage Street where Humboldt Park meets Logan Square in Chicago. It’s not much to look at, but you’ll forget about the musty smell, the metal framed vinyl chairs, the jumble of faded Panamanian pictures, and the leftover New Year’s Eve decorations as soon as you taste the food and feel the warmth and enthusiasm of the restaurant’s owners.
I’ve Got an Automatic Wine Opener and I’m Not Afraid to Use It
My guest Pam and I walked into the restaurant at 6:00 on a Thursday evening, with a bottle of wine in hand, ready to celebrate her recent job interview with a week night dinner. There were few other revelers. Just one other table was occupied, so we quickly picked a spot on the opposite side of the restaurant and sat down. One of the owners came to our table immediately with a goofy, high tech, automatic, neon blue lit wine bottle opener in hand, opened our bottle of wine and welcomed us with a big smile.
The Panamanian couple who runs the place delights in introducing Chicagoans to their native country’s food. As the name of the restaurant indicates, they want you to try the food of Panama, and they’re full of friendly suggestions. I had already decided I was going to order the arroz con pollo even before we got to the restaurant, so I was set on an entrée, but my friend Pam was stuck and we needed to pick an appetizer. With no hesitation, the owner suggested that we order the tamal as our appetizer, and that my friend order the Roasted Stuffed Beef, or Lomo Relleno.
A Panamanian tamal, flat, rectangular, and about the size of my hand is steamed in a banana leaf. For those of you familiar with tamales, the Panamanian tamal is different from the Northern Mexican style and is more like the Oaxacan or Central American tamal. The dough is smooth, almost creamy, and savory, spiked with little pieces of meat. One was perfect for two people to share.
Pacing of the courses was leisurely, though I’m not sure if that was planned or coincidental. When the restaurant is full, as it tends to be on weekends, time between courses may get longer, but I’ll chalk the leisurely pace up to a culture focused on enjoying the company of your companions, as well as your meal.
When our entrees arrived I was ready to dig into my Arroz con Pollo. In Conoce Mi Panama’s version of this dish, the seasoned rice is mixed together with the chicken (without bones), almost like fried rice, and it is formed into a neat mound in the center of the plate. Like a lot of food from that part of the world, it is well seasoned, but not hot and spicy. The Arroz con Pollo is served with creamy potato salad, apparently a typical accompaniment, as well as firm and sweet fried plantains. This is a dish to order.
The roasted, stuffed beef, kind of like pot roast, was fork-tender and served with white rice, a small bowl of beans, fried plantains, and steamed vegetables. The beans were excellent poured over and mixed together with the rice. Pam’s opinion about her entrée was clear when at the end of the meal her plate was wiped clean of all food.
For dessert we ordered the traditional bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. We were curious about the oganic bean pies on the menu, but unfortunately, they were fresh out. Bean pies are not my idea of dessert anyway and the bread pudding was delicious if a bit ordinary.
Should I Stay (Home) or Should I Go?
If you’re squeamish about neighborhoods in transition, or if you must have a certain level of ambiance when eating out, skip this one. But if you do, you’ll miss out on one of the few Panamanian restaurants in the country.
Definitely go to Conoce Mi Panama if you’re looking for good food and friendly service at a reasonable price. Our bill was $40 for two people.
Conoce Mi Panama is at 3054 W. Armitage, where Humboldt Park meets Logan Square in Chicago.