Off the Beaten Path: El Valle Restaurants

“I am not a glutton, I am an explorer of food.”  --Erma Bombeck It’s always refreshing to escape the heat of the beaches and venture to El Valle, be it to shop in the market, experience the zip line, take a hike, or just to have lunch where it’s cooler.  We all like to frequent our favorite dining spots, but it’s fun to get out of the box once in awhile and experience some place different.


As you enter El Valle, there is a lovely Italian restaurant called L’Italiano, directly across from the Gourmet Coffee Shop.  The restaurant has several tables on the terrace, and there is a large dining area inside.  L’Italiano offers many spaghetti dishes with different sauces ranging from $10-$13, along with fettuccine, gnocchi, bruschetta, and crostini.

The menu also contains pork, chicken, and baby beef dishes as well as salads and pizza, of course.  The atmosphere is homey with friendly staff.  Dessert choices are flan, tiramisu, tarts, and cheesecake, and wine, beer, and soft drinks are served.

As you keep heading towards the market on the right in the Pekin Plaza is Restaurant Pekin, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Pekin’s menu offers Chinese style dishes such as spring rolls, fried rice, chow mein, chop suey, egg foo yung, stir fried noodles, and vegetarian choices as well as pork, beef, chicken, seafood, snapper, and sea bass served Panamanian style.  There are several ceviches and soups, and a lovely selection of soft drinks, beer, and wine.  Prices are reasonable.

Past the market, right after M/S Pueblo and Cano Bakery, you will see a sign for Buono Appetito. Take a right and drive about a block and you will arrive at this cute little restaurant.  Mainly a pizzeria, Buono Appetito has 28 varieties of pizza, 15 types of foccacia, as well as calzones.  The thin crust pizza is not too saucy, full of goodies, with the perfect amount of cheese.  Pizzas are served on wooden platters and accompanied by olive oil and crushed red pepper.  Pizza prices range from $2-$10.50 and foccacia $5.50-$8.50.  They have a Caprese salad on the menu and four different homemade spaghettis.  The Portofino (tomato, pesto sauce plus a secret ingredient is $10) and Bolognese (meat sauce for $11.50) are the favorites.  Many of their dishes are named after family members, such as the Didi, a dessert similar to Tiramisu except lighter.  Another dessert is the Chocolate Sausage, chocolate rolled in crushed cookie.  The restaurant is open Thursday and Friday from 6-9, Saturday from Noon–3 and 6-9, and Sunday from 1-8.  Seating is limited to the terrace.

If you don’t take the right turn at the bakery but keep going straight, you will see Carlito’s on the left and Bruschetta on the right.  Both restaurants are staples in the community and are great places to dine while watching locals and tourists go about their business.

Everyone knows of Carlito’s Restaurant in San Carlos because, by reputation, Carlito’s food is fresh, good, and quality.  Carlito brings 30 years of restaurant experience to his establishments and is complimented by his wife, Omi, also an experienced restaurateur.  They serve excellent Argentinean-style pizza and empanadas.  Both are hand made daily.  You can’t go wrong with their salads, burgers, lasagna, smoked pork chops, grilled chicken and steaks.  They serve a killer picante and delightful chimichurri, both sauces made in-house.  If you can’t linger over a meal, grab a bag of their delicious empanadas for a mere $1.25 each.  It’s hard to decide between the curry, spicy, chicken or beef, beef with raisins, sweet corn with onions, or cheese.  Carlito’s serves soft drinks, wine, sangria, and beer.

Bruschetta has a varied menu, including clams, ceviche, soups, salads, sandwiches, spaghetti, roast chicken, and Panamanian style beef, fish, and seafood.  Of course, always popular are their namesake, bruschettas, fresh bread with a variety of toppings.  Chef Mario never fails to deliver.  Beverages include coffee, tea, lemonade, juices, soft drinks, wine and beer.  The food is consistent, the service is friendly, prices are right.

Do stop by the bakery, Panaderia y Dulceria Cano, if just to take in the great smells.  They have a luscious variety of sweets and fresh bread and rolls.  If you want more of a budget dining experience, try Santa Librada, Restaurant Tierra a Mar, Don Pepe, Dona Nella, Restaurant Massirel, or Fonda Bambu.  The food at these fondas is similar to something you would experience in a los home.  Prices are cheap, and you will have a true Panamanian experience.

If you’re in the mood to go “up town,” by all means visit La Casa de Lourdes.  Chef Lourdes Febrega de Ward studied with Martha Stewart and Paul Prudhomme.  After years of running her own restaurant in Panama City, she decided to build this elegant Tuscan-style manor house.  Meals are served on a covered terrace with views of the gardens and pool.  The innovative menu could be described as contemporary Panamanian with a well-honed flair and technique.  First courses might include Creole seafood gumbo or a roulade of fresh tuna with a seaweed/tempura crust ($5.75-$9.75).  Main courses might be grilled blackened chicken in tamarind sauce, linguini with Portobello mushrooms, asparagus and goat cheese, Spanish fabada (savory pork and bean soup), or sea bass in a crust of cashew nuts ($14-$29).  Always on the menu is the “21 Club” hamburger ($10.50).  One of the most popular desserts is “The Heart Attack,” a chewy brownie topped with ice cream.

The expert staff is friendly and attentive, and Lourdes usually makes it a point to stop and chat with diners.  It would be wise to call ahead for reservations, as this is a popular spot for weddings and special occasions (983-6450).  Follow the signs to Los Mandarinos, approximately 1.2 km north and 800 meters west of Super Mercado Hong Kong.

Adjacent to Lourdes is O’Pedro’s Pub, which is an Irish-themed bar featuring sausages, shepherd’s pie, and potato soup along with other bar-type offerings.  The Los Mandarinos boutique hotel and spa, also adjacent to Lourdes, recently opened Tasca de Triana restaurant.  Triana features paella, tapas, and other Spanish-inspired dishes and international cuisine.  As of this writing, they are only open for dinner and require reservations (983-6645 or 6808-2743).

HINT:  On your way up the road to El Valle sits a fabulous wood carver, Melvin.  Melvin’s learned the craft from his father, and his carvings are works of art.  Depending on the day, he might have wall mountings, chests, sometimes even doors.  He will also do custom carving.  He is about 12 km from the main highway in the middle of the pottery sellers, on a curve, right before the last one.  His gallery is a work in-progress and is starting to resemble a Swiss Chalet – kind of.