For Traditional Panamanian Food Head to Washington D.C.’s Esencias Panameñas

This native Panamanian chef celebrates her country’s unusual cuisine at this popular eatery
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Rey Lopez

Specialties include the rabode buey oxtail with onions and plantains.

On the outskirts of downtown D.C., in the Shaw District, Esencias Panameñas, an all-Panamanian restaurant serves traditional food and drink. Because of its unique menu, it draws big crowds, especially on weekends, when the chef/owner, Yadira Stamp, takes her patrons on a culinary tour of her country, as she says it.

For on Saturdays and Sundays, chef Stamp highlights special Panamanian festivals and cities, and also on weekends serves such native favorites such as Pa' Picá, a two-person spread of corn tortillas, white cheese, yuca balls, twice fried green plantains, fried yuca, ground corn patties, fried chicken wingettes, and fried beef.

Weekend meals with packed rooms and occasional entertainers are not the only draw to this unique, spiffy-clean place. People come to Esencias Panameñas because only one other Panamanian restaurant is open in the Mid-Atlantic and on the East Coast. Even native Panamanians will drive down from Philadelphia or up from Richmond for Panamanian Corvina fish cooked in garlic and butter; the classic arroz con pollo; and the saffron rice with chicken, peas, carrots, fried plantains, olives and capers, plus a house salad.

They also come for the unique Panamanian beverages, such as Panamanian coffee or tea (café or té duran), the orange and lime drink with cane sugar, or the hibiscus with ginger drink. They come, too, most assuredly for the Panamanian trappings and the overhead TV scrolling through Panamanian scenes. 

Although she is super busy, chef Stamp comes out from the kitchen and greets guests as she would long-lost relatives, and she will happily discuss and describe her food for all those who are unfamiliar with her dishes. But her staff will also pitch in to answer questions, as surely many North Americans or other nationalities may not understand how or what to order.

Even an assortment of appetizers will be ample to fill up the entrée side of the meal. Just imagine spooning (or forking through) some or all of the following: carimañolas, which is freshly ground yuca formed into balls and stuffed with a meat or soy filling, and are served with a sweetish tamarind dipping sauce; an order of fried green plantain cups stuffed with pickled fish (ceviche); and one of the delightful tamales, ground corn shaped into a cone and stuffed with chicken, olives, capers, peas, prunes, and carrots, and then wrapped in banana leaves before steaming.

While you are either scanning the menu or tucking into your meal, don’t skip past the beverages. Many sound really exotic—no Diet Cokes here—but the most compelling choice may well be the Chicheme frío, made from hominy corn, condensed milk, evaporated milk, coconut milk, all blended and chilled for a refreshing toast to the unusual foods.

And then there is dessert. The selections are short and literally sweet, with homemade ice cream mixed with Grape Nuts, rum raisin, ginger, mango, or soursop. If that seems too puzzling, try the plantita, a purée of sweet plantains in a puff pastry turnover, or the dulce de Ron Abuelo, a cake made with Panamanian rum. That plus a cup of Panamanian coffee (café Duran) will put an exclamation point to the meal.

Esencias Panameñas is open for lunch and dinner daily, except closed Tuesdays. For information, call (202) 688-7250, or click here.

More on chef Yadira Stamp

Taking D.C. by storm, or at least raising the culinary bar a notch or two, Panamanian native Yadira Stamp brings to the nation’s capital a unique cuisine: her native food. What makes this so unusual is that her restaurant, Esencias Panameñas, is only one of such eateries in the Mid-Atlantic, perhaps even in the Eastern seaboard. That explains why fellow Panamanians travel miles, even from Philadelphia, to enjoy her food and the restaurant’s native décor.

Stamp’s passion for cooking stems from her childhood in Panama City, where her mother worked as a caterer and food was an important part of her home life. When her mother passed away, Stamp was talked into taking over the catering business, resulting in intense culinary training.

Unsure of the restaurant business as her calling, upon moving to D.C., Stamp worked as an executive consultant for many years. But on her off hours, Stamp volunteered as a cook for schools, churches, weddings, birthday parties and she even pitched in to assist at the Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show, helping both Paula Deen and the Neelys.

Obviously the call of the kitchen kept beckoning her, and in 2010 she graduated with a culinary degree from the Art Institute of Washington (AIW) in Arlington. In addition, she took a job at the Italian restaurant, Pinzimini, also in Arlington. There she worked every aspect of the kitchen life, from dishwasher to line cook, learning every culinary angle possible.

Finally, in the summer of 2015, Stamp’s passion for the food world helped her open her restaurant, where she showcases regional Panamanian cooking. The restaurant’s location, she explained, is situated midway between Richmond and Baltimore. Foot traffic and easy accessibility to metro transportation adds to its plusses.

The big draw, of course, is the food. Stamp’s cooking skills are superlative, and even for patrons who know nothing of her native cuisine, what they sample will wow them. As she reports, the appetizer carimañolas (ground yuca stuffed with ground meat or soy) and the signature dish with chicken and saffron rice are immensely popular. Add to that the fried sweet plantains and the fried yuca, then plunge into a sweet conclusion. How about a Panamanian rum cake with one of the typical sweet drinks made with cane sugar or tamarind?

For more Washington DC dining and travel news, click here. Alexandra Greeley is the D.C. Restaurant Editor and a food writer for The Daily Meal.

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