When my husband and I moved to Panama last January, we were looking forward to a slower pace of life. Considering that we were only 30 and 32 at the time, we weren’t looking for retirement. We knew we were interested in business opportunities available in Panama, but the last thing we ever thought of opening was a Mexican restaurant in La Chorrera, Panama (a city about 30 minutes outside of Panama City).
So how did this whole crazy idea come about? When we lived in Texas, we could get Mexican food anytime we wanted. Our favorite Mexican food is the taco…the ones on the soft double stacked corn tortillas with grilled meat. Since I mainly cook Mexican food at home, the hubs, being the entrepreneurial man that he is, naturally suggested that we take my recipes and open a Mexican restaurant in Panama about 3 months after we moved here.The work began. I adapted all my recipes to use fresh local ingredients so we wouldn’t import anything (even our margaritas are made from scratch!). I also had to make sure the recipes weren’t spicy. Panamanians detest spicy food, but not to worry, our kitchen staff can make your dish especially fiery just for you.
Our first venture, Paco’s Tacos, was a taco stand to see if the locals would accept Mexican food. The 34 square meter stand was packed. Locals were constantly asking when we would be providing more variety. Our teeny tiny kitchen couldn’t handle anymore output. We knew we had to move. Thus began Paco’s Mexican Restaurant.
The restaurant is right outside of La Chorrera’s town center on the main road heading to Panama City. No, it’s not in a touristy area. We wanted this restaurant to be for the locals. All the menus are in Spanish and our employees are not bilingual. However, they are very well trained to provide the type of customer service we are accustomed to in the states. We are extremely proud of this facet in regards to our restaurant.
If you’ve dined just about anywhere in Panama, the service is atrocious. Why? Because the locals don’t demand impeccable service and Panama doesn’t rely on tourism dollars. Little things like being greeted within a short time frame, bringing your beverages right after you order them, delivering your appetizers before your meal, and checking to see how your food came out are just a few of the things we taught our employees. (And to think, at the time I never thought working in a restaurant throughout college was doing anything aside from paying my bills!)
Another commonality with local restaurants is that your food usually doesn’t come out consistently and it can take forever. To circumvent this, I personally trained all of our kitchen staff and they use my recipes with engineering precision. This helped us two-fold. I don’t live in the kitchen anymore and your food will come out within 15 – 20 minutes tasting the same every time you visit us.
The restaurant opened at the end of September and our official grand opening was in December. Reservations were back to back grand opening night. Mariachis played for our guests. Americans and Panamanians dined. The restaurant was packed and full of life late into the night. Ever since, we’re typically busy and have even extended our hours!
There are plans for expansion, both with the facilities and the menu. We currently have our “Sunset Bar” under construction in the outdoor patio that will open at 5pm every night, cabanas being built, and custom tables and chairs ordered for more places to sit outdoors. We will be adding a Tex-Mex menu with the addition of our homemade flour tortillas in the coming months (there are plans for a burrito bar too!).
You can keep up with all our happenings via our Facebook and Twitter pages. You’ll find our lunch and dinner menus, happy hour specials, and special events. We even have Spanish classes that we’ll have especially for expats in the area starting soon.
We hope to see you soon and remember, practice your Spanish so that you can enjoy “Lo Mejor de Mexico, Hecho en Panamá!”
Stephanie Angulo became an American expat in Panama at 30. She didn’t go to Panama to retire. She writes about her experiences starting a restaurant, exploring her new country, traveling, and assimilating into Panamanian culture at Xpat Escape. You can also follow her journey on Twitter.