“This is not a restaurant, it’s the time tunnel.” Interestingly I heard this phrase not once, but twice, and from very different people. Before going to them, I must say that the comment referred to the honorable, old Chinese restaurant named Kwang Chow, located in the original Chinatown of Panama, in our Casco Antiguo and a very short distance from Las Clementinas. The first to make the comment was our friend Esteban Cheung, a classic example of Chinese-Panamanian, who was born in Hong Kong and arrived in Panama 37 years ago. Kwang Chow was the first Chinese restaurant to be brought to Esteban on Panamanian soil and he told us that he felt in love with it for the first time and that he had recently returned to find some changes. But crossing the doors of Kwang Chow was unquestionably going back to the past, a rich and calm past, tasty in gastronomy and familiar in presence. The second comment, almost with the same words, came from the great Anthony Bourdain, chef and television host of excellent travel programs, among which No Reservations stands out without hesitation. Bourdain also referred to Kwang Chow, a restaurant he visited during the program dedicated to Panama a couple of years ago. “It’s like being in New York, but the New York of 1952,” Bourdain said with astonishment and pleasure, as he devoured dish after dish of Cantonese gastronomic examples made in Panama.
It’s true, in Panama there are a thousand Chinese restaurants to choose from, but Kwang Chow is special. And for many reasons. The first is that it is located in what was the original Chinatown of Panama and perhaps the oldest Chinese neighborhood in the Americas (yes, including the one in New York). Recall that the Chinese presence on Panamanian soil dates from the nineteenth century, more precisely in 1854, when on March 30 of that year, arrived the first contingent of Chinese workers to Panama, to work on the construction of the interoceanic railway, predecesor of the Canal. Not only the trip between China and Panama was long and tortuous; it was also difficult to integrate waves of Chinese workers, who over the years would be part (and to this day conform) the vibrant social fabric of Panama.
Today, the Panamanian Chinatown still keeps among its short winding streets what remains of many of its original treasures: teahouses that promise to relieve you of unnecessary fat, cleanse your body naturally, or rid you of various diseases. In addition, there are stores dedicated to the sale of Chinese products, spice stores, hardware stores, some temples, cheap restaurants; and of course the classic Kwang Chow. It is located on the vibrant and bustling Avenida B, the main artery of Chinatown. Do not expect luxuries. The decoration is very simple and as Anthony Bourdain said, it seems to want to take us to New York circa 1952. Here the value is in its food and in the feeling of being part of a tradition, of a taste molded and acquired through its many years.
Our firm recommendation is to go with a group of friends and share the dishes that are leaving the kitchen in the direction of your table. Ask for a bit of everything, but do not leave Kwang Chow without having eaten their delicious pork stews or their iconic duck. They seem simple at first glance, but they keep all the wisdom of a very old culinary art; a gastronomic art that is saved and kept alive in our Casco Viejo.