Welcome to Part 2 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages we had while traveling during the past year of our road trip through the Americas including where to eat the best of Colombia all in one place (thanks Anthony Bourdain), a mobile restaurant in Ecuador and shockingly good local beer and wine. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2013 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.
First, a few relevant road trip stats: In 2013 the Trans-Americas Journey spent time exploring Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador through which we drove 8,546 miles (13,753 km) spending US$2,400 on fuel, and crossing four overland borders.
That’s hungry work. Luckily, 2013 was another year full of some great eats and drinks. Now, in no particular order, here are our picks for…
Best Food & Beverages of 2013
Best patriotic restaurant: We’re fans of Anthony Bourdain and we often take notes as we’re watching his show. That’s what happened when we saw his No Reservations episode about Colombia a few years ago. This year we finally visited a highlight of that program. Queareparaenamorarte, near Medellin, was created to uncover, resuscitate and preserve the recipes and ingredients of Colombia. We sat down to talk and eat with the passionate owner, who has so far collected more than 200 recipes and located more than 40 artesanal food providers for his restaurant, then wrote about it for TheLatinKitchen.com.
Best mobile restaurant: Is it a tour bus? It is a restaurant? Eric calls it a bustaurant, so let’s just leave it at that. Whatever you call it, Casa 1028 combines the best of an after-dark guided tour of three top sights in Quito, Ecuador, including the legends and quirks attached to each sight, with and a rolling restaurant serving traditional Ecuadoran snacks and small dishes. Get on the bus with us in our piece for TheLatinKitchen.com.
Best hotel lunch experience: The thing that sets Hotel LM in Cartagena, Colombia apart from the other hotels in town is its home-like atmosphere. Okay, if your home is in a colonial era building with two swimming pools and a nice modern art collection. Anyway, part of that hominess is an open air kitchen which is exclusively for guests. Breakfast is superb, but the real fun comes at lunch when guests can get into the kitchen a bit by booking a cooking lesson with the hotel’s chef Javier Diaz Daza. Lubricated with plenty of wine, we watched and learned as Chef Diaz and a staff of smiling women took us through the preparation of beef in a traditional creole preparation involving onions and Coca Cola, coconut rice with caramelized sugar and coconut milk, and plantains softened and sweetened in Colombia’s impossibly pink Kola Roma soft drink which tastes like cream soda. Then of course, we ate.
Best local wine: Sure Chile and Argentina hog all of the South American wine spotlight and we can’t wait for our little road trip to get that far south so we can try it all. In the meantime, we found a more than passable Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc at Marques de Villa de Leyva winery in Colombia. This 25 year old winery, owned by a Colombian with a degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis in California (one of the best grape growing and wine making programs in the world), has the looks, facilities, and (most importantly) taste of wineries in Paso Robles, California wine country where Karen comes from. Read more in our story about Marques de Villa de Leyva for TheLatinKitchen.com.
Best new restaurant, best business card, and best ice cubes: In March of 2013 Demente Tapas Bar opened in the hip/artsy Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena, Colombia just a short stroll from the historic center. Check out our full review of Demente for TheLatinKitchen.com to see why we love the space and the food so much. Icing on the cake? Demente’s business cards are customized beer bottle caps in the restaurant’s signature turquoise blue and staff members make ice cubes by hand using special molds to ensure patrons don’t suffer from “watered down cocktail” syndrome.
Best boutique restaurant group: The concept of a boutique restaurant development and management company that operates a number of restaurants under one umbrella has yet to really take off in Latin America. One exception we found in 2013 is the Henesy Rodriquez Group (HRG) in Panama City which is nearly 10 years old and continues to gain fans at its restaurants including Market, La Posta and La Chesa. All are reliably delicious and good value (not cheap, but you get quality food, service, and ambiance for your money). A new HRG restaurant and a new HRG gourmet market were both opening after we left Panama. We await your reports. Bonus: co-owner David Henesy is a New Yorker who used to be an actor, most famously in nearly 300 episodes of the TV series Dark Shadows.
Best popsicles: La Paletteria in Cartagena, Colombia is an institution and for good reason. Though the historic center of this city is jammed with ice cream and paletta (Spanish for popsicle) shops, La Paletteria stands out thanks to hand-craftsmanship with the freshest all-natural ingredients from fruits to nuts to chocolate. If you’re lucky the owner’s precocious son will be there showing the world what customer service is all about. Don’t miss out on having your paletta dipped in chocolate before you dig in. The palettas here are almost too good to eat. Almost.
Best (and best value) authentic Italian food: Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows & Restaurant opened in 2013 just inland from Playa Las Lajas, a largely untouristed beach in northern Panama which makes a great break-journey stop for anyone traveling the long haul from David to Panama City (or vice versa). The handful of bungalows are stylish but the real reason to visit is the open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show. Everything from the pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy) to the pasta dishes to the homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage shines and the prices are very reasonable.
Best brew pub: It’s a tie between La Rana Dorada in Panama (below) and Bogota Beer Company in Colombia (above), but that’s not a surprise since the owners of both are friends and mentors. Both are pictured below and both offer a true brew pub atmosphere and menu, with some local twists (try the plantain pizza at La Rana Dorada) and, most importantly, the beer is fresh and delicious.
Best bread: We’ve happily given up many foods that were staples of our diet back in the US. Things like asparagus, baby artichokes and proper parmesan cheese are either crazy expensive or simply unheard of in much of Latin America. Good artesanal bread, however, is something we’re willing to spend both time and money to get. In Medellin, Colombia our search for crusty carbs lead us to the recently opened Eduardo Madrid Panadería in the Envigado neighborhood. The large sourdough loaf is pricey at US$5 but worth every penny with a flavorful, chewy interior wrapped in a proper crust. You will be sorely tempted by the cakes, pies, rolls and sweets in the display case as well.
Best supermarket: The Riba Smith mini chain in Panama is the closest we’ve come to a North American style gourmet market since leaving the US. Consider this one good side effect of all the expats living in Panama these days.
Best ice cream: Granclament, in the bohemian Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City, has been serving up homemade, all-natural, French–style ice cream and sorbet for years and it remains a must-visit. Be prepared to elbow your way to the counter (pictured below) and they do give out tastes if you’d like to try the more offbeat flavors (like basil) before you buy.
Best pizza: We expected many things when we visited Santa Catalina, Panama, including some great SCUBA diving around Coiba National Park (which made it onto our list of Best Adventures & Activities of 2013). We were NOT expecting excellent brick oven pizza but that’s exactly what we got at Jammin’ Pizza (located within Casa Maya). This was easily the best pizza of the year and not to be missed.
Here’s more about travel in Panama
Here’s more about travel in Colombia
Here’s more about travel in Ecuador