Food/Comida – a Central America overview
This post is dedicated to my friend (we’ll call her L) who sent me an email last week saying she loves the blog but wants to hear more about the food. L- I hope this satisfies your appetite.
It should be no surprise to most of you that Tyler and I describe ourselves as amateur foodies. We appreciate all types of cuisine at all prices, and when in Chicago, probably spend too much money on eating out. But we love to eat. Not just because we’re fat kids in disguise, but because we love enjoying someone else’s creative and culinary work. We like trying to identify exactly what we’re eating – spices, flavor profiles, cuisines of influence – and sometimes at home we try to mimic the combinations. The creative, mysterious, and (of course) delicious enjoyment we experience out of our culinary adventures is why we have been willing to shell out big bucks to eat at such venerable restaurants as Alinea and Next. I suppose it’s similar to what true art or literature aficionados feel when they see/read a new/great work, and if you consider what it costs to purchase original artwork or a first edition book, our chosen genre is a bargain.
However “polished” our appetite is at home, our hands down favorite meals when traveling are usually found at street vendors or tiny local joints. Yes, we eat the street food. Everywhere. We try to discern based on cleanliness, and if you aren’t supposed to drink the water in a certain country, we try to avoid blatant water consumption. But generally speaking, we will try anything and are especially encouraged if there’s a line of locals standing in front of a vendor. That makes it a “must-purchase” regardless of hunger level. We do also seek out recommended restaurants in the countries we visit – usually recommended by fellow travelers and sometimes by a guidebook. However, since we are traveling on a budget, we have not visited many “high-end” restaurants and have focused as much as possible on the local cuisine.
Central American food, to be wholly honest, is not the most interesting. A lot of rice, a lot of beans, and a lot of rice&beans. Now, the rice and beans (together or separate) have been delicious everywhere, but there’s only so much of it we can eat. I’m going to highlight specific dishes/meals that stood out in each country and describe them in as much detail as possible so you get a feel for the local flavor. I make no promises that the descriptions are complete – T&I have pretty good memories, but it’s been 10+ weeks, and we aren’t chefs.
Fry Jacks: breakfast street food in the form of a lightly fried flour tortilla wrapped around scrambled eggs & refried beans. Add hot sauce and mmmmm for about $1.50 (in Caye Caulker)
Belizian street cart lady on CC: Oxtail stew – oxtails braised in red wine and stock, with onions, parsnips, and carrots. Rich, hearty, and delicious. Best part? Served on the streets of a tiny island with a few sides for the low price of $5/plate.
Cake lady (pictured left): chocolate coconut pie on a graham cracker crust. the key- not too sweet (my guess, not a lot of added sugar to the milk chocolate and fresh coconut shavings)
Habaneros (nicest restaurant on island): frozen mojitos (my new favorite drink). It’s like a mojito slushie, and the mint was ground down to such tiny pieces that you could drink it up and get a more minty flavor. My dinner was a coconut encrusted snapper that was unbelievably delicious, mostly because of the liberal use of coconut. In the States, most coconut encrusted things don’t taste coconut-y enough because of lack of quality or quantity or both. Tyler had a seafood coconut curry stew with veggies, crab legs, snapper, shrimp, and lobster, and it was the best thing we’ve eaten on this trip so far. The curry stew was a West Indian influenced yellow curry that is sweetened with banana. Similar to a thai yellow curry, with less acid, no fish sauce, and less spice.
Street food everywhere – Vigaron: boiled yuca, cabbage salad, and pork rinds. Add hot sauce (notice a trend?) and delicious and hearty (and shareable) for $1. The pork rinds were fluffier than the ones at home – not sure how/why. As an aside, we love Nica cabbage salad- shredded cabbage & grated carrots set in boiling water for 5ish minutes, mixed with chopped tomato, chopped jalapeno, white vinegar, and salt. Serve chilled. Delicious as a side to almost anything. We made it without boiling (lose lots of nutrients when you boil veggies) and was still delicious.
La Bamba’s Taco Loco in SJDS: $3 for a giant flour tortilla wrapped around delicious rotisserie/gyro style beef, lettuce, tomato, onion, mexican cheese sauce, spicy red tomato salsa, and super-spicy green tomatillo salsa. The carne was tender and well seasoned and really made the dish. Tyler states this is the best burrito he’s ever eaten, and it was a desirable dinner option for him every night.
Nica chicken enchiladas (street food or local restaurant): homemade corn tortilla wrapped around well spiced chicken, onion, and sweet pepper stir fry, then deep fried (like an empanada). Serve with Nica cabbage salad and hot sauce.
Om Cafe (Indian restaurant in Bocastown owned by Canadian – Indian woman): delicious white fish coconut curry – spiced like a vindaloo but tempered by coconut milk. The fish was a local variety that we’d never had before – can’t remember the name but impressed with the heartiness for a white fish.
Stewed chicken with rice&beans&steamed veggies for $1.50-2: everywhere at the local restaurants and always delicious. Mostly dark meat (on the bone), clearly stewed for a very long time with garlic, curry powder, and mustard seeds, in a tomato/chicken stock base, with onions, cilantro, and bell peppers. Well seasoned, but we add hot sauce to everything.
Hot dogs. Super popular street food option in Panama City. See Tyler’s previous post where he does an onsite video review for The Great Hot Dog Project.
Ceviche in Panama City at the Mercado de Mariscos (fish market): Following in Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps, we trekked over a half mile from our Casco Viejo hostel 4 times to have a cheap/fresh lunch of various ceviche combinations (pictured left). Corvina is the local whitefish and is known in the US as sea bass. Sea bass for $1.25! Prepared with onions, cilantro, and lime juice, topped with the local chombo sauce (habanero based hot sauce) and served with crackers. The camaron was our favorite (so fresh and the perfect texture), but all deserved a taste. The cockteles are good too, but contain a mayo/cocktail sauce combination so aren’t as light.
Favorite drink: coconut lemonade (i.e. freshly made lemonade with coconut milk). Had it in Santa Catalina and PC – perfect blend of sweet, tangy, and refreshing. Best in slushie form. Haven’t tried it with rum, but can guarantee success. Best to make the lemonade with the small sweet limes only found in Central America/Asia (and maybe at Whole Foods? Or your local Asian supermarket).
La Rana Dorada: microbrewery in PC that only serves pizza. The veggie pizza was delicious – spinach & arugula, (but added very late so essentially raw), sweet corn, black olives, mushrooms, and onions. But the real winner was the beer – especially the porter. They brought out a free sample boat of the 4 brews: pilsner, pale ale, weiss, and porter.
This list is by no means comprehensive as we have only visited certain parts of these countries and are limited by budget and language (though people in the local joints are always super helpful in explaining to us what each dish is and what they recommend). But hopefully it gives you a better idea of Central American cuisine and maybe even inspires your next meal. And now that I’ve written all of this, I’m starving – time for lunch!