Chow, Baby: Wednesday, January 21, 2009
How Far Would You Go for a Nyah?

Chow, Baby had hoped to spend its winter international-cuisine-research trip in Lima, fact-checking the rumor that Yucatan Taco Stand started a few months ago — that cabrito means “lamb” in Peru even though it means “goat” in every other Spanish-speaking country in the world. But turns out, air flights to Peru are around $900, which even for Chow, Baby is a little too much for a nyah-nyah-told-you-so. However, flights to Panama — also a country that starts with P and speaks Spanish, and therefore a reasonable substitute — are about half that much. So that’s where Chow, Baby has been for the last week, in case you were wondering: sunning on an island beach, train-tripping along the Canal, roaming the cosmopolitan capital city. And tax-deductible dining-out, of course.
Alas: Panama City is not a food town. Street carts were mostly hot dog stands, and local dives featured bland beans, bland rice, and bland unrecognizable-meat stew. Other than daily pick-me-ups of superfresh ceviche de corvina — chunks of fresh-caught sea bass, chopped sweet onions, and that’s all: no cilantro, no peppers, no tomatoes, just a glistening bowl of white — Chow, Baby had its best meals at immigrant-run eateries like Jimmy the Greek’s (souvlaki), Chinni Chinni (Korean barbecue), Mama Chan’s (shrimp chow fun), and a Peruvian place called Machu Picchu (cabrito [goat] [nyah]).
On the upside: You know how Panama native Cef Zambrano, proprietor of Zambrano Wine Cellar (910 Houston St.), is so gracious, serene, melting-pot handsome, and island-spices-aromatic? Well, the entire country is like that! Chow, Baby has never met such tolerant, kind, helpful-but-not-pushy folks, not even in Lubbock. Of course, when just-off-the-plane Chow, Baby rushed over to inform Cef that (1) he’s not as exceptional as Chow, Baby thought he was and (2) his country’s cuisine sucks, he just laughed graciously. He already knew this, which is why his menu reflects not his Panamanian upbringing but his young-adult years in Spain: pesto bruschetta ($7.95); rich-sauced gourmet pizzas with lovely caramelized cheese and dense crust ($18.95); serrano ham on everything. Cef has added a few entrées since Chow, Baby’s last visit: a gorgeously seared ahi tuna with caper cream sauce ($17.95) and a grilled chicken breast in a sparky dijon cream ($15.95), both with mashed potatoes and vegetables of the day, and both miles better than any Panamanian meal Chow, Baby had.
Chow, Baby did eventually find its yuca, plantains, and other mouth-watering Central American nibbles in a colorful, family-run, hablar-Spanish-only spot: back home at Market Latina (3309 N. Main St.). Stick with the pupusa side of the Mexican/Salvadoran menu for the real taste treats, piled high on the plato tipico ($7.95). First thing to attack on this sampler platter is the splendid chicarrón, fried chunks of pork meat and fat, a dish best eaten hot so the juice can run down your chin. The chunks are tossed with yuca frita, which are like steak fries only with flavor. The sampler also includes an extra-juicy tamal enclosing slabs of chicken; a lightly grilled sweet plantain with crema, simple yet very tasty; and a crisp queso-stuffed pupusa, the street food of El Salvador. Sigh: delicious street food. Maybe we should have gone to El Salvador instead? Nah; Chow, Baby looks awfully spiffy in its new Panama hat ($18 in the touristy areas).

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