Panama tasting tour with chef Castrellón

TP Panama Tasting Tour

©Getty Images  ©Portrait Gonzalo Picón andJuan Lee

Panama tasting tour with chef Castrellón

07 October, 2019

Mario Castrellón - 36 years old - is a pioneer of the Panamanian food movement and has put his country on the international food map.

For 14 years, he has been travelling around Panama, through jungles and into the most remote regions, to discover and gather ingredients used and produced by the indigenous communities.

In the heart of Coco del Mar, a residential neighborhood of Panama City, Maito is Castrellón’s flagship restaurant, which has risen to number 29 on last year’s list of Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants.

In the dishes he serves at Maito, Mario is influenced by the flavors drawn from Panamanian immigration, the result of the colonial history of the region and workers brought in to construct the Panama canal, with Chinese, Indian, Arabic, North American and African origins.

Restaurant Maito

Photo Amélie Vincent @thefoodalist

 

In addition to being a chef and entrepreneur, Castrellón is involved in helping isolated communities to become economically sustainable: “At Maito, we try to have a positive effect on the economy of outlying communities, who are too far from the city to sell their produce here. These isolated people live in extreme poverty. That’s the reason we’re trying to showcase their products and use as much as we can in our cooking: to spread their knowledge to the world.”

Condoto community is an example of the chef’s solidarity with the isolated farmers: "Condoto community produces 21 varieties of rice, so I am buying their whole production… This commitment requires us to be creative in our cooking. To use all the rice we had promised to buy, we had to really stretch our imaginations, as for example, the vegan rice sausage on the menu…”

At the moment, the chef spends most of his time on the La Fonda La Sexta projecta City program working with at-risk women, taking them of the street to reintegrate them into society. Learning thanks to this the programme everything from serving to cooking, pastry making and baking, those women can reintegrate society with dignity and work through the food industry.

As one of the most prominent chefs and business people on Panama's food scene, Mario shares with us his favorite places in Panamá, from fine dining tables to more traditional street food, revealing its full multicultural richness.

Café Unido

Cafe unido hotel

Amélie Vincent @thefoodalist

Located in the American Trade Hotel in the heart of Casco Viejo neighborhood, Café Unido is the coffee place in Panama city, selecting beans from around the country, through direct trade.

“I have a strong coffee addiction that makes it hard for me to travel out of Panama. We are very lucky to have one of the best coffee beans in the world: the Panama Geisha bean. I love stopping at Unido at any time of the day for a breakfast sandwich or a comfort pepperoni mozzarella with my cup of coffee,” says Castrellón.

Lung Fung

Lung Fung

Amélie Vincent @thefoodalist

Panama has a mix of cultures thanks to the canal. Chinese settlers date back 4 generations, and Dim Sum has become a traditional Panamanian breakfast. “When I go out for breakfast in the city, I always go for Lung Fung. When the dumpling trolley passes by, I would choose ginger beef dumplings, rice balls and a ching cuing fon...” recommends the chef.

Intimo

For fine dining, chef Castrellón is a regular at Intimo, an open kitchen restaurant where chef Carlos Chombolín Alba creates a daily menu featuring Panamanian ingredients with an international twist, with a menu based on Panama’s seasons.
"Carlos is one of the creative chefs on the scene right now. We share the same philosophy, helping the local producers, and promoting Panamanian diversity" Castrellón says.

El Chorrillo

Panama El Chorrillo

© Garrison Gunter / Flickr 

“For traditional food, I like to head for the heart of a district called El Chorrillo, specifically to Calle 27 (27th street) where you can find Ceci Pescaothe Afro street food vendor who only opens on Fridays.” Mario finds there a lot of inspiration: “ My favorite dish there is a curry-calamari dish. I created a dish on my menu at Maito directly inspired by its Afro-Antillean curry sauce.” 

Fonda Lo Que Hay

Lo Que Hay

Amélie Vincent @thefoodalist

In Panama City, Fonda Lo Que Hay is the must-visit for the chef in the heart of the Casco Viejo, to feel Panama vibrant creativity
In an open plan kitchen and industrial design, young chefs Jose Olmedo and Fulvio Miranda cook there Panamanian comfort and street food with a modern twist and a cool atmosphere.
“Lo que hay means what is available at the moment. The chefs are writing down the few daily dishes on a board on the wall. The crispy yucca pancake served with the raw fish of the day is a delight you shouldn’t miss” says Mario.

Panga

Panga

Amélie Vincent @thefoodalist

If you want to experience Panamanian natural landscapes and gorgeous beaches, Playa Venao is the ideal off-the-beaten track destination.
In this region situated south of Panama City, Guatemalan passionate chef Andres Morataya has created the perfect farm-to-table experience: Panga. The chef travelled the world before settling in a 140 hectare (346 acre) reforestation and permaculture project of Eco Venao, with lovely bungalows on the beach facing the wild sea.
On the large wooden table, Andres serves his daily changing menu based on seasonal food, and fresh, locally caught fish. “If the Pargo Fish and Chips wings are available, make sure you order them - they’re deliciously crunchy and delicious” says Mario.

Tacos La Neta at Selina Hotel

Tacos La Neta

Amélie Vincent @thefoodalist

Known for its skyscraper skyline, Panama City is also famous for its rich and attractive nightlife in Casco Viejo, the older part of the city.
Mario likes to end his day on the rooftop there at the Selina hotel at Tacos La Neta, overlooking the lights of the Panama Canal. “The view of the city is stunning. I feel relaxed there, getting some fresh air and sipping nice cocktails. I always go for tacos de cabeza (pig head tacos), carnitas and the cochinita pibil… and add a coctel de camarones: the perfect match!"