For the past couple of months, I’ve been on a never-ending mission to find a Panamanian restaurant in the city. Not even an authentic Panamanian restaurant, but an actual place that serves Panamanian cuisine. Some of the ones I’ve been to carry certain touches of Panamanian food here and there, such as Panamanian empanadas, while others, simply serve Cuban food disguised as Panamanian. Still, none offer the breadth and quality of what you find in Panama: a melting pot of ethnicities, flavors, and influences, specifically, Afro-Caribbean and Spanish influences. So, after several disappointing experiences in some of New York’s “Panamanian” restaurants, I was hesitant to try out Brooklyn’s own Panamanian eatery, Kelso Restaurant.
I was pleasantly surprised. “Finally!” The food I found at Kelso comes very close to the real deal in terms of ingredients, selection, and taste. Located in Franklin Avenue, just a couple of blocks away from The Brooklyn Museum, the place, unadorned and ordinary, may not be the most appealing as you walk in, but once you sit down, it’s a whole different story.
Open for more than 30 years, Kelso Restaurant is one of Crown Height’s most popular restaurants. As you walk in, you immediately get this “make yourself at home” vibe as Veronica, Kelso’s third owner, greets you with a cheek to cheek smile on her face. Born in Colón, a province on the Atlantic coast where the Zona Libre/Free Trade Zone is located, Veronica came to New York over 30 years ago. Even though she loves living in New York, Veronica goes to Panama almost every year to visit her extended family and friends. This coming and going from New York to Panama definitely gives Kelso an even more authentic touch, as she brings traditional ingredients, spices, and even drinks, such as panamian coffee, from Panama. After you sit down, the first thing you notice is a handwritten, relatively blurry sign that reads, Chicheme. Simply seeing this took me back to Panama in a flash, as chicheme is a very distinct Panamanian drink which combines milk, corn, vanilla and cinnamon. But if you’re in the mood for something more summery and refreshing, then Veronica will happily and quickly offer you a variety of fresh juices, such as tamarind, nance (a small sweet orange-colored fruit widely distributed around Latin America), and even, Panamanian Kool Aid (yeah, that’s right… Kool Aid.) For some reason, Kool Aid is very popular in Panama and you can find it in a varety of flavors, from strawberry, cherry, to orange…but basically, it’s exactly that, Kool Aid.
But, the things I crave most when I think about Panamanian food are the fritters, especially, the hojaldres and the carimañolas. So obviously, as soon as I sat down I was ordering them as appetizers. The hojaldres and carimañolas are the prototype of food you’ll find in the interior of Panama, from Colon, to Chiriqui (Panama’s second largest province located in the western coast) to Bocas del Toro (an archipelago of islands surrounded by bright blue water, at the border of Panama and Costa Rica). Carimañolas ($1) are small rolls made with tropical yuca, stuffed with chopped ground meat (can be either porc or beef) and boiled eggs. After the yuca is fried, it turns out to be exquisitely crunchy, while the stuffing stays warm, soft, and bursting with flavor. At Kelso, the carimañolas did not include eggs, however, the seasoning and spice of the chopped meat gave it an outstanding taste, while savoring the perfectly fried, golden-brown, crunchy yuca. The hojaldre ($1), which is simply deep fried dough, was outstanding! The hojaldre by itself is salty, but if you’re in the mood for something sweet, then you can add a little bit of sugar on top, and voila! You’ve got yourself an amazingly sweet, generous size, appetizer. Both of these are highly recommended and though they’ll leave you space for the main course, you’ll feel very satisfied.
The entree, however, was not as satisfying as the magnificent appetizers. I ordered the famous Bisté; Picado (Pepper steak $5) acommpanied by some essential items of Panamanian food: arroz con guandu (rice and pigeon peas) and platanitos (fried plantains, like tostones). Bisté; Picado (although Bistec is the correct word for steak, Panamanians prefer to say Bisté;) is meat cut up in small threads, seasoned with garlic, tomatoes, onions, and pepper. It was an okay meal, however there wasn’t much flavor to the bisté;. The arroz con guandu-white rice mixed with guandu, a type of small pea, was nowhere near the arroz con guandu you find in Panama (maybe because the guandu at Kelso did not taste anything as the guandu from Panama). It was tasteless, and the texture of the rice did not hit the mark as it was a bit too bland. The only part of the meal that was worth it were the platanitos-platanos verdes or unriped bananas, sliced, deep fried, and salted! This was actually superbly prepared, just the way they make it in Doña Tere, a tiny, unbelievable joint, literally found at the borderline of the road from David to Boquete, two towns located in the second largest province of Panama, Chiriqui. However, I found that if you pinched the left-over holdadres (that is, if you had any left, which was not my case) with pieces of the pepper steak, the taste was dramatically better.
I didn’t have space to try their desserts, but they offered a Bizcocho de Frutas ($3) and Yuca Pone ($1.50)-grated yuca,with cocunut, milk, melted butter,sugar , vanilla and egg, all mixed up, baked, and then served in square pieces, that looked pretty enticing. I could not leave without having my costumary cup of coffee, so I ordered one, and to my surprise, they carried one of Panama’s best and strongest coffees, Cafe Durán! Now this is definitiely a gem to find in New York, or even in the United States for that matter! Still a way to go from providing the complete range of authentic Panamanian cuisine, Kelso should be proud of what it has accomplished so far, providing New Yorkers, and more specifically, brooklynites with a peak preview of Panama’s traditional food.
684 Franklin Avenue (b/w St. Marks Ave. and Bergen Steet) Brooklyn, NY 11238
(718) 817-4137 at the 2,3,4,5 to Franklin Ave. Station