Conoce Mi Panama
Chicago's, and perhaps America's, only Panamanian restaurant struggles to stand out from its Latin American neighbors.
Trained as an industrial diver and engineer, Antonio Bailey was doing fine for himself after moving to the States from Panama seven years ago. The native of Colón had little reason to put himself on the line by opening a restaurant. But faced with no Panamanian cuisine in the city, “my wife and I saw the need to bring our culture and our cuisine to the U.S., and now we are the only Panamanian restaurant in the country,” Bailey says.
We can’t officially confirm, but a Google search shows there might be more to Bailey’s claim than boastful pride. Regardless, Conoce Mi Panama is indeed the only Panamanian restaurant in Chicago, although a quick glance at its menu doesn’t reveal much that isn’t seen at Colombian, Cuban and Puerto Rican options around town. Where Conoce Mi Panama (“Know My Panama”) stands out is in Bailey’s warm, genuine hospitality and the simple, comforting, home-style cooking of his wife, Maricela Gudino. Bailey hesitates to call Gudino the chef, noting that “people go to school to learn to cook in the U.S. and they are chefs; in Panama you learn to cook at home and it’s just part of being Panamanian.” Apparently, in Gudino’s home they had a way with chicken, which comes through in dishes such as her sancocho soup, an oregano-kissed chicken stock filled with yucca and carrots, and a chicken thigh she cooks in turmeric-laced coconut sauce.
Gudino also learned a thing or two about the old Latin American warhorse: the empanada. In her hands, it’s nearly as flaky as a croissant, filled with oniony beef punched up with bits of culantro, a jagged-edged herb related to cilantro but more pungent and less soapy. On a busy night, those empanadas can disappear quickly. Unfortunately, busy nights are rare. “We are doing okay on weekends,” says Bailey. “But it was a tough winter and we are struggling a bit.”
The hope, of course, is that the summer will be better. With any luck, the summery Panamanian drink chichi de raspurada—essentially lemonade, but sweetened with brown sugar for a deeper, caramelly flavor—will draw some new folks in. And then more people will be able to say they know Panama just a little bit better.
3054 W Armitage Ave (773-252-7440). El: Blue to California. Bus: 52, 73, 82. Lunch, dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $12. BYOB.