Taste of the Caribbean - Bocas del Toro

QUOTE:  “I love Caribbean food.  It’s a great melting pot of so many cultures.”  --Bob GreeneBocas del Toro to me doesn’t exactly feel like Panama, but more like being on a Caribbean island in a different country.  It’s a “vacation from our life—the living vacation.”  The language, the food, and the lifestyle all have a different impact on our senses.Hotel and restaurant selections vary from the very cheap, to cheap, to moderate, and moderately expensive.  Some upscale hotels in Bocas are the Palma Royale, Tropical Suites, and Island Plantation, to name a few, but as mentioned, the selections fit any wallet.  The food here and on neighboring islands is a real adventure, with lots of good choices.  Depending on the time of year you visit, some of your favorites may be closed down for a month or so, and many change management frequently.  You can’t go wrong with most of the restaurants along the water in Bocas Town:  Buena Vista, La Maraposa, El Pirata, Maracuya, La Buga, Be Nice Nomad, Raw Fusion, and Lili’s (home of the “Killin’ Me Man Sauce”).   

These restaurants serve a variety of fresh fish, chicken, and beef. Most offer vegetarian choices, and there seems to be an increase in Indian and Thai influences.  El Limbo on the Sea is consistently good, and now they have the Indi Lounge, which features a small Indonesian menu.  The interior is completely different from the restaurant, with white washed wooden tables and chairs and hanging tin adornments along with mirrors and scarves.  On a recent visit here we sampled “Mie Goreng,” noodles with strips of tender beef and vegetables, topped with egg and served with a savory sauce.  Another choice was the “Nasi Goreng,” an Indonesian traditional dish of fried rice with chicken and prawns, with an exotic sauce.  Both were generous helpings for $11.50 each.  While you can order from the regular El Limbo menu in the Indi Lounge, you can only order the Indonesian dishes in the lounge.  As with most of the restaurants in Bocas; happy hours are offered with discounted drinks and snacks.

If you’re in the mood for a laid back, lip smackin’ meal, take a water taxi to nearby Caraneros Island to Bibi’s.  The two minute taxi ride should cost around $1.50/person each way.  You can tell your driver what time you would like to be picked up, or the restaurant will be happy to call a water taxi for you.  You will be dropped off at a long pier for a short walk to the restaurant, which is situated over the water.  While there, you can swim or snorkel, but we go for the food.  Their happy hour begins at 4, which is a great time for a discounted cocktail while you peruse the menu and blackboard specials.  If available, don’t pass up the whole lobster for $25 (cooked and sauced to your specifications) or the whole crab dinner ($18), served fresh and plentiful, with accompaniments of rice, homemade fries, and salad.  We can never finish it all, thus our return water taxi driver has a lovely meal to take home.  Bibi’s regular menu is great with soups, salads, sandwiches (fresh fish is awesome), pastas, filet mignon, and chicken.  It’s a popular place, as you may see local business people dining amid surfers, hippie types, and us old gringos.

While there are many different tours you can take, it’s always fun to tour Dolphin Bay and Coral Cay.  Most likely, your Captain will take you to one of a handful of restaurants on Coral Cay.  Our favorite is Restaurante Jazmin.  Usually, the captains take you here before snorkeling, so you can place your order in advance, specifying the time you expect to return.  Then, you go back out on the water to snorkel away your upcoming lunch, and head back to the restaurant for food and drink.  Jazmin has a nice selection; mostly freshly caught fish served many ways, and chicken, pastas and salads.  The food is reasonably priced especially considering where you are:  on a funky stilt house built over the water on a not-too-inhabited island in the Caribbean.

BUT---if you’re really up for an adventure, make a reservation at Firefly Restaurant on Isla Bastimentos (6524-4809 or 6025-4039).  Bastimentos is about a 15-minute water taxi ride (approx. $30 round trip for two).  You will have a 10-minute walk from the public water taxi dock—also known as “the park” to the restaurant, which sits off a little path from Old Bank to the ocean side, so it is 5 degrees cooler, usually with an awesome breeze. The restaurant is only open Thursday-Monday, but hours and days vary from high to low season, so be sure to check.   Reservations are mandatory.  The restaurant features Asian style dishes with Caribbean influences.  The dinner menu is made up of small plates to encourage you to try as much as you like.  If you have a larger group, with advance notice, the chef will prepare a tasting menu with as many as 10 courses.  Some possibilities include crispy beer battered popcorn fish with spicy coconut sriracha sauce, mango braised pork ribs with mango jerk sauce, and beet, watermelon, cucumber, and goat cheese salad with sesame vinaigrette.  This is a truly unique gastronomical adventure!

Back to Bocas Town:  Our Numero Uno favorite is by far Guari Guari (6627-1825).  This laid back restaurant is a five-minute regular taxi ride from Bocas Town, across the street from La Cabana beach.  Reservations here are also mandatory, as this restaurant offers a five course set menu and has limited seating.  When making reservations, they will ask if you have food allergies, foods you cannot or will not eat, etc.  The restaurant is staffed with Osse (from Germany), his partner, the remarkable Chef Monica (from Spain), and one local.  On our latest visit, we started with a salad of greens with apples, raisins, tossed with toasted almonds and honey/balsamic vinaigrette.  It was followed by a shitake mushroom croquette, swimming in a Béchamel sauce, garnished with feta cheese.  My partner said, “This is the first croquette I have eaten in my life, where the outside crust doesn’t overwhelm the surprise inside.”  After that, we were served lightly seared tuna with a tomato coulis spiced with a special paprika, accompanied with toasted Johnnycake.  The crowning glory was the tender pork loin, served with a mustard/Worcestershire sauce, a side of oven-fried potatoes and a carrot puree.  Dessert was light and lovely:  Lemon cream topped with fresh whipping cream and sprinkled with locally produced organic cocoa.  The price for five courses was only $23.  To put it in a nutshell, this is very inventive cuisine in a casual setting with delightful retro music, an efficient and eager-to-please waiter, and very satisfied diners.  Osse will be happy to pour a special cocktail or serve you cold Casillero del Diablo or Frontera wine.

A trip to Bocas is not complete without stopping in at Super Gourmet on Main Street, Isla Colon—the “store in a cool place.”

TIP:  If you decide to try Firefly, tell your driver to drop you at the Cholo Dock, where your walk to the restaurant will be shorter.  If going for dinner, be sure to carry a flashlight.
Epicurious Em always welcomes your comments and suggestions.  Feel free to e-mail me at em@playacommunity.com