Sunday, February 8, 2015

Culinary Contrarian: Finding the Best Grub

cruiser activities cruiser destinations, food
Captain Jack's restaurant, bar and hostel;
a Portobelo hot spot for yachties.
In ignorance, we turned to our Panama Lonely Planet Guidebook for guidance for a rare date night dinner out in Portobelo Panama. 


The last time, I eschewed the guide book’s advice and we ate better for it.

It was my birthday.  We were in Panama's Bocas del Toro; tourist central, awash in restaurants.  I wanted to be spoiled, a little.  It was a rare occasion; we were willing to splurge.  I even walked into the most highly rated restaurant of the bunch.  Its food was as beautiful as its patrons.  The waterside view was lovely.

It looked far too hip for me.  Contrived perhaps, like a good silicon boob job or fake teeth – nice to look at but nigglingly unauthentic.  Or maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for hip.

local food, cruiser activities
We weren't the only ones attracted to this
spartan BBQ cart in Bocas del Toro.
I wanted food that exploded with flavor rather than subtlety.  I wanted fireworks, not a soft sunset.  I wanted….

Street food!

In my prior walks through Bocas, I was disappointed by the closed food carts.  I saw only coconut water and smoothie stands open.  But rapacious no-see-ums and a dearth of safe dinghy docks kept us away at dusk and dark, when the carts were likely offering up their tasty treats.  We slicked ourselves down with deet, but were hungry and ready to eat.

As dusk approached, the bicycle-based food carts led the charge.  A slim, salt-and-pepper gent caught my attention.  His cart was essentially a charcoal grill.  He was making shish kabobs, slathered in a heavenly scented sauce.  “Two,” Wayne requested.  After all, we didn’t want to spoil our dinner.  Wayne paid $3 for the pair.

food, cruiser activities
Smoky, sweet and spicy, the perfect BBQ sauce
slathered on generously.
They were good. Really, really good.   A little aria of flavor burst into song in our mouths, good.  They far outshone my desire for pampering. 

“Four more,” Wayne asked, gladly handing over $6 more dollars.  We devoured the kebabs joyfully and gave up our search for a restaurant, though Wayne did agree a rain check was in order.  I added the BBQ we split at Bocas del Toro marina later, while pleasant, still didn’t count as a rain check, even if it did serve a particularly yummy papaya carrot salad that begged deconstruction and re-creation.

Back to Portobelo...  I still was itching for my rain check and feeling uninspired about cooking that eve, a Saturday night. 

bocas del toro panama food
GTW poses with her Bocas del Toro "birthday kebabs."  One
of our best meals "out" by far, for the princely sum of $1.50 @. 
Captain Jack’s was highly rated, both by our guidebook and from other cruisers.  We lingered a bit at the colorful restaurant on the corner of the main drag, where we were to turn right and head up the hill to Jack’s.  It smelled good; smoky.  Its customers looked like locals.  My mouth watered a bit.  Wayne wondered if it was too risky a spot to order the octopus ceviche touted on its signs; it looked a bit dusty.  We walked past it, up to Captain Jack’s.

There, form trumped function.  Long wood tables with beautiful wood benches that were hard on the bum.  Lovely view overlooking the bay.  All the patrons were yachties or twenty something guests of Captain Jack’s hostel. One of the waitresses spoke only in English with a decidedly British accent.  I confess to being impressed the bathroom floor looked clean enough to eat off of, a level of cleanliness rare around here.

cruiser activities, food
Captain Jack's prettily presented yellow calamari curry.  It was
as bland as Captain Jack's bench seating was uncomfortable.
Drinks were tiny.  Mojitos were still not an option. Service was slow.  Our steamed shrimp rolls arrived in the form of fried pork rolls.  The octopus ceviche was rubbery and overly sweet.  The small main serving of calamari curry… artfully presented, but bland.  Wayne took just a few bites, and stopped.  Two small Cuba Libres, appetizer and a small shared main and the total for our wholly unsatisfying meal was $41 – nearly a whole day’s cruising budget. 

“It sucked, Wayne pronounced.  I was also disappointed, though found it more bland, than bad.

“Our kebabs were far better,” he added, reminiscing about my "birthday dinner" in Bocas, and I whole-heartily agreed.  Next time, street food, or someplace more along the lines of the locals place on the corner we passed by with some reluctance.  It still smelled delicious as we passed it on our way back.

My nose knows… better than guidebooks, and better than other cruisers, who are perhaps more comfortable with food and atmosphere catered to their tastes than local grub.  As for me, the search for an appropriate rain check is still on.

Tonight, though, the night after our disappointing meal out we had kebabs, ala "Casa Journey."  Wayne and I made them together.  And they were good.

fort san fernando overview of portobelo panama anchorage
View of Portobelo anchorage from Fort San Fernando.
Location Location
We're now in Portobelo PANAMA (N09.21.872 W79.53.611), near Colon, Atlantic/Caribbean side entrance to the Panama canal.  We're on track for our canal transit, beginning February 13th, 2015.  


  1. I have seen Captain Jack's before. Took me a while but in this blog. I wonder if the same folk are there. I think this blogger spent more time in the bar! He is somewhere in the SP now.

    Street food is good, but you do sometimes pay the price. That is what Imodium AD and Pepto are made for. I am glad we finally have more pictures of you guys. Makes the photos a bit more personal and interesting. My neighbor was over and I showed him and told him about your story. Can't wait to see you going through the canal. Ken and Debra

  2. Thanks, Ken for gelena's link. The same guy still runs Captain Jack's. He spoke to the other cruisers there but completely ignored us, though several of the cruisers there were happy to strike up a conversation. We enjoyed cheap drinks at a place on the water run by friendly Germans, Cafe Vela; they also do canvas work. Portobelo is indeed still garbage-y and the forts look more degraded in the few years since Galena's visit. There were some locals who offered to look after our dinghy for $1 at the public dock. We took our chances that was unneeded and were fine. We took our cue as well that no one seemed to feel it neccessary to hoist or lock their dinghies at night -- as opposed to Colon. As far as photos of us... Wayne gets annoyed at how much time I spend clicking my camera though I've gotten much better at sneaking in shots of him unawares. I rarely have photos of me as I'm the one behind the camera rather than in front of it. Will work on get more shots of us - if nothing else, to make my Mom happy;). Yeah, we're pretty stoked about the canal though I admit to feeling a bit intimidated as well. Really would like to go through with another cruiser as their line handler before we do though time is running out quick for that!