So not only have I never had Panamanian food before, I never even knew we had a Panamanian restaurant in D.C. Actually, I’m not sure I even knew that there were Panamanian restaurants anywhere. Until last week, that is. Turns out Esencias Panameñas has been around for over a year here in D.C., and Panama natives from all over the DMV come to the small Georgia Ave. venue to indulge in the restaurant’s authentic fare.
The restaurant itself is simple but cute, with artwork hailing from the small Central American country. The Chef/Owner Yadira Stamp is from Panama, and the menu showcases her country’s traditional foods, which blend Spanish ingredients and flavors as well as corn-based foods developed by Panama’s native Indians. Stamp put together several plates for us to sample. The first featured awesome fried yucca, which tasted like starchier French fries, uber crispy twice-fried green plantains, stuffed corn fritters that are both sweet and savory, and vegetarian hickory BBQ riblets. These items were served with a sweet tamarind dipping sauce. I was not aware of this but apparently Panamanians love (really, really love!) fried food. But, I mean, who doesn’t?
Next up was more fried deliciousness. Another kind of fritter, this time filled with white cheese, ground corn patties, and fried bread made with coconut milk, giving it a sweet and savory taste. By this time I was stuffed, but was able to make room to try a sweet plantain bar that was so moist it was almost like a bread pudding, and cocadas, caramelized shredded coconut served in a pasty shell.
All of these items are available on the Guilty Pleasure weekend menu (seriously the best hangover food in town!). The regular menu, which I need to go back to sample, includes Panamanian dishes like split pea soup, potato salad with beets, tamal de hoja, which is stuffed ground corn wrapped in banana leaves, and beefless strips served over a bed of coconut pigeon peas and rice with fried sweet plantains.
Also fantastic are the beverages: tamarind juice, hibiscus and ginger juice which is sweet and spicy, and an awesome soursop juice (made from soursop, a Central American fruit that tastes like a combination of mango and pineapple). The venue also makes several cocktails with these juices, including a red sangria with the hibiscus juice. All I need in life is some of that sangria with a platter of the fried yucca and corn fritters and I’ll pretty much be set.