I was excited to find out that a restaurant showcasing Panamanian food would open in Washington, DC. My boyfriend and I were just in Panama in early July, and we immediately set a date to visit this new DC restaurant.
Panamanian food is based on a few staples: rice, corn, and beans/legumes. Many dishes use sofrito as a base. Sofrito is made of tomato, onion, garlic, and culantro (Eryngium foetidum). In the proteins department, there is a lot of seafood, cured beef known as tasajo, many chicken dishes, and a few types of chorizos. In my effort to be succinct, I may be oversimplifying a bit.
Esencias Panameñas opened in July 2015, and it is located at 3322 Georgia Avenue, NW in the Petworth neighborhood. It is evident that great care was taken to renovate and decorate the space. My first impression was positive; the restaurant is immaculately clean and welcoming. The hostess/waitress was friendly and welcomed us in in Spanish.
I opened the menu, and I was a bit surprised to see the somewhat high prices. I understand the dynamics behind opening a restaurant and setting a price, but these prices seemed outrageous for food that uses basic staple ingredients and very few, if any, expensive specialty ingredients. In addition, I was sitting in an establishment located in a mostly empty block of Petworth. In my head, I kept thinking about all the excellent local joints in my AU Park neighborhood that I could have visited instead, and gotten a solid meal at much lower prices: a sushi place that serves fresh crab, a Neapolitan pizza joint that makes one of the best pies in DC, a dive bar with the best bacon grilled cheese sandwich I’ve had… Sticker shock aside, we proceeded to order.
The restaurant has not obtained a liquor license yet, so alcoholic beverages were out of the question. There are a few traditional Panamanian non-alcoholic beverages available, but at $6-7 each, I decided against ordering one.
For an appetizer, we ordered the carimañolas—fried yucca dough encasing a ground meat filling. It took 30 minutes for us to get our appetizer, but the carimañolas were worth the wait. They were perfect. The yucca dough had a great consistency. Since carimañolas are fried, a lot of times they can be really greasy. These were not greasy at all. The filling was savory and succulent.
For my main dish I got the Plato Tipico which, according to the menu, included: saffron rice with chicken, olives, capers, peas & carrots—arroz con pollo in Spanish, potato salad with beets, ground corn chicken tamal, fried sweet plantains, and microgreens. The rice was good, despite the fact that it included not one thread or taste of saffron. And my chopped iceberg and red cabbage salad with non-descript dressing could hardly qualify as micro greens. The potato salad had a mushy consistency, but was flavorful. The tamal and fried sweet plantains were really good and comparable to their counterparts in Panama.
Tamal de Hoja de Pollo
My boyfriend ordered the fried “corvina” fish fillet in garlic and butter sauce over yucca and sautéed spinach. Corvina is seabass, which is plentiful and inexpensive in Panama, when compared to US prices. I found it odd that it was only $21 when other things on the menu seemed overpriced, since most of the seabass in the US comes from Chile and is quite expensive. I asked whether the corvina was indeed seabass, and our waitress stated that “despite the fact that the internet may say that corvina translates to seabass, that is not the case in Panama. The fish served at the restaurant is another very good type of fish that the owner imports directly from Panama.” Despite my efforts to find out what kind of fish it was, I received no concrete answer. The mystery fish arrived, sautéed and not fried. I’m still unsure of what it was–tilapia? Perhaps cobia? It was flavorful and the garlic butter sauce was silky and delicious. We also had fried patacones–green plantains, which were golden brown and crisp (not pictured).
Some of the food did not quite meet my expectations, but I think that the restaurant is on the right track. Many Panamanians, myself included, will be happy to visit a local restaurant to satisfy their Panamanian food cravings. My recommendation: go on Saturdays when they offer a variety of traditional fried foods.
I hope that Esencias Panameñas updates their menu to reflect exactly what is being put on the plate, and irons out the few kinks that any new restaurant is bound to have. I’m eager to go back and try more of their dishes.
Here are some pages from the menu: