Monday, January 11, 2010


Yesterday I decided to venture out and see some new places outside of Boquete. Boquete is very crowded now because of the annual Feria de Las Flores y Café (Fair of Flowers and Coffee). This is actually a good thing, with my visit timed to coincide with it, because it combines two of my favorite things in one place.

I headed south toward David, intending to take the Volcancito loop that would bring me back to Boquete by the back way, thus avoiding traffic and the apparently permanent police check-point on the main highway. The turnoff is opposite the Visitors Center on the David highway between Boquete and Alto Boquete.  This proposed route is shown in red in this map:

Credit:  Google Maps

Darn – somehow I missed the turn, not realizing this until I was practically in David. Very foolishly, I had forgotten to bring a map. So I turned around and tried the turnoff for Potrerillos instead, heading west in the hope I could pick up an alternate route to Volcancito.  This is shown in blue.

But no…this was a dead-end road. I turned around and headed back to the David highway, thinking there might still be enough time to take the loop. Strangely, the sights along the return route did not look familiar. I started to panic. It was impossible to make a wrong turn, but why isn’t the scene familiar? Could this be the same reason I missed the Volcancito turn?

Being in a foreign country can play tricks with one’s mind. Thankfully, I remembered that my cell phone has Google Maps on it. Sure enough, it showed my location with great precision as well as the missed turn to Volcancito.

By the time I reached the turn, it was almost dark and was raining to boot. In a rare moment of lucidity I decided to go straight back to Boquete and treat myself to a restaurant dinner.

I pulled up at The Big Food Grill, which is just on the other side of the Naböbe Buglé neighbors. Two doors down from the casita, in other words.

The Big Food Grill is an open-air bamboo hut with ten tables or so, on the banks of the same stream that runs through our back yard. The kitchen is about 4 x 5 feet (no, this is not an exaggeration) with a pass-through in the back wall to the “dining room”. The gas grill is in a stone fireplace just outside the kitchen, in the dining room. I didn’t stop to see if the grill was clean because I didn’t want to know. There was no way it would pass a restaurant inspection in the U.S., but I suspect there is no restaurant inspection here. The wind was blowing furiously, so much so that I was glad to be wearing two layers of shirts.

When the waitress/cook/hostess came to take my order, I quickly realized that she didn’t speak English. Nevertheless, she told me that they were out of ribs with a long explanation that I didn’t get at all. So I ordered a hamburgesa con mozzarella y bacon, “con la carne roja” (with the meat red - my best attempt at saying “rare”).  I also took the plunge and for the first time in my life ordered patacones (twice-fried plantains, which is their French fry). They also had exactly the same wine I was used to drinking at home, Concho y Toro Merlot. As it turned out, this was the only wine they carry.

Ahh, another good sign of divine intervention.

I had to wait for the grill to heat up, which took about 15 minutes, before they could start cooking my burger. Remember, this is not fast food, even by Panamanian standards.

What followed was one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever eaten. The meat was lean and flavorful, and cooked exactly to my liking. (Which, come to think of it, they can’t do in the U.S. because of those pesky restaurant inspections.) It reminded me of the beef we used to get in my childhood, raised on grass long before the advent of industrial animal farms and corn-fed fatty beef. The patacones were delicious too, with no taste of banana – only a pleasant mild taste with an interesting texture, made perfect with a modest shake of salt.

When I got up and stopped by the kitchen on the way out to ask for the check (“La cuenta, por favor.”), the cook/waitress/hostess thought for a moment and said “Siete dollares” after adding it up in her head. There was no written check and no need for one.

Total price for a half-pound burger with cheese and bacon, pantacones and a glass of wine: $7.00. I highly recommend The Big Food Grill when you come here.

This was a good lesson in suspending judgment until all the information is in, an important thing to do wherever one might be.

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