Casco Viejo is, without doubt, home to some of the city’s best culinary treasures in Panama. The chefs shaping the movement are young and abuzz with creative energy. They studied and worked outside Panama, and on returning to their native city, applied their world-class experience and skills as they rediscovered and redefined the tastes and traditions of the Panamanian tropics. In this way, they’ve been creating a cuisine whose quality and inventiveness is constantly born anew.
We’ve narrowed down our list to four truly outstanding — yet representative — chefs from a long and growing list of Casco’s culinary scene.
José Olmedo Carles, Donde José
José has become an indisputable presence on Casco’s gastronomy scene and is, today, one of the most powerful voices on the scene nationally. His restaurant occupies a small space for 16 diners and, from there, reinvents traditional Panamanian cuisine with a fiery imagination. Many of his flavors delve into Panamanian collective memory. To find a mango on the street, to enjoy the popular food from street vendors, to rediscover what our grandparents cooked us: José Carles’ kitchen is the exploration of a child in search of his past.
Donde José offers a tasting menu of ten courses, each of them preceded by a short story. And, given José’s insatiable energy, he also opened a fonda in Casco, naming it Lo que hay. It’s a title that can be read literally, since, as a fonda that’s open Wednesdays to Sundays, the primordial rule of the game is to let the diner be carried away by the chef’s daily imagination. One day he might offer up a delicious re-reading of the popular Panamanian seafood guacho, on another, a tasty, crunchy and threatening head of baked pork, teeth intact.
Alejandro (Alejo) Fábrega, Casa Bruja Casco Antiguo
Another explorer of childhood consciousness is Alejo Fábrega, chef of Casa Bruja Casco Antiguo. Fábrega is both a thorough researcher-scholar and a passionate seeker of Panamanian traditions and creations through personal recollections.
Casa Bruja’s most intense memories are expressed through Panamanian products, allied with a generous opening to all the cultural influences that coexist in Panama. His favorite dish has a humble name and origin: simply, rice and eggs (arroz con huevo). Its origins reside in the sunny afternoons of his childhood — returning home from school, Alex prepared his own dinners. Now, the chef transformed and elevated the original simple dish by including unexpected elements, such as a succulent chorizo tableño laden with powerful local spices. He also added lentils intense with flavor, creating a kind of risotto that his guests come back for night after night.
Andrés Madrigal, Laboratorio
A native of Madrid, but a Panama and Casco local extraordinaire, Andrés Madrigal’s genius mixing of flavors, innovative presentations and culinary quality have made him one of the most outstanding chefs in Casco. Launching his career in Madrid’s famed “El Olivo” in 1989 landed him his first Michelin star just two years later, and another at Alboroque in 2009 together with the “Best Restaurant in Spain” mention in 2008 by the Gourmet Guide. As we write, Madrigal is about to inaugurate his new culinary adventure in Casco, called Laboratorio — to huge acclaim (and expectation).
Felipe Milanés, Tomillo
Very close to Plaza Herrera in Casco Antiguo lies Tomillo, a gastronomic space covering four floors, surrounded by colonial ruins on the ground floor. An ideal evening starts with Tomillo’s signature cocktail, Gin Thyme: an infusion of gin and thyme, ginger, lemon, cucumber, honey and simple soda.
Under the informal concept of “Just Cook Bro”, Milanés offers a menu in which the protagonist is the national product, composing dishes that successfully bring sophistication and rustic elegance into harmony. Tomillo’s flagship dishes might appear to be a ceviche or a tiradito, but instead, they’re a surprising combination of tastes and textures: prawns in pieces, chips, green papaya, a remarkable pink sauce and citrus fruit segments.
Start your Casco culinary tour with our small sample of four of the city’s most noteworthy chefs: all expressing a part of the extraordinary and talented gastronomic vitality of the Casco. It’s an offering that continually grows, inviting us all — visitors and locals alike — to explore, savor and open up our own experiences each day.