“Vamos a El Dorado, Chinatown?” I mumbled with self-consciousness and a smile as we piled into the taxi.

We were sun-drenched touristas back in Panama City; a combination of old and new friends thanks to a rambunctious camping trip in the San Blas islands the evening prior. San Blas: a peppering of 365 remote islands off the Caribbean side of Panama. Subsisting just fine on a liquid diet of Ron Abuelo rum and Coke (the real kind), we enjoyed a carefree and uninhibited time in the islands with nothing more than a lone Guna Yala family, the swaying palms and the mega-sized starfish to judge us.


One of the San Blas islands, off the Carribean side of Panama.

It was divine, though back in the mainstream we were hungry for something more substantial. Dinner in Chinatown, in Panama City’s El Dorado neighborhood was supposed to be an easy fix. Placing an order at a restaurant was second nature compared to the acquired taste that camping can be for those of us who prefer the comforts of a real bed, a hot shower (or a shower in general) and a working toilet.

Then the menu arrived and redefined my digressions of “roughing it.” Our collective knowledge of the Spanish language – intermediate to advanced conversational at best – deteriorated with the cacophony of descriptions printed on every page. We must have thumbed through those pages several times over, front to back and then back to forth before we eventually teased out a selection of shrimp wontons, sautéed vegetables, sweet and sour pork and a platter of mussels in what later must have been a garlicky oyster sauce.

Standing expectantly before the four of us, our waitress must have been simultaneously amused and exasperated as we did our best to communicate our order. Ordering the mussels was the most absurd – queue clamping gestures, palms opening and closing with enthusiasm and wide pleading eyes. I prayed our charade wouldn’t be lost in translation with our waitress as we muddled through the process.

“Y el arroz…,” one of us continued.

Instead, we lost her patience. By that time each of the round tables were completely full and likely had a better grasp on her accent; a blend of heavy Chinese intonation, her Spanish was fast and slurred and therefore incredibly difficult to understand. Back to the drawing board: should we write it down on the order pad she dropped at our table? No, she was writing in Chinese.

The rest of us watched the most fluent of our group (the young, bubbly German) intently as she proceeded with the second attempt at our order. There seemed to be nodding and pointing, and laughing! Maybe that was a good sign.

“Did you get the rice too?” I asked.

“I think so,” bubbly German replied.

As it turned out, the house was out of several ingredients and substitutes were suggested and with that our meal was in the kitchen’s hands. We popped open an Atlas and hoped for the best. We passed the time eyeing our neighbor’s dishes with jealousy and prepared ourselves for the worst. I hoped that the wonderful smells wafting from the other tables wouldn’t deceive our taste buds.

A parade of steaming dishes finally made its way to us. Surprisingly, nearly all were an accurate representation of our desired order except for one – a tempura-battered fried fish smothered in too-sweet orange sauce. We shoveled the symphony of delicious flavors and textures into our cavernous bellies with triumph. It took a few tries and a bit of faith, but we did it. Was there MSG involved? Who cares, we were full and satisfied.

Our dinner in Chinatown, Panama City.

Our dinner in Chinatown, Panama City.

As we exited the now empty restaurant and piled into one of the city’s ubiquitous yellow cabs, we faced a new challenge: dessert.