Unless you consider the finer points of arranging prepared hummus and chopping vegetables to produce a fabulous meze plate cooking, you’d have to say I don’t cook much. I am very particular about grocery shopping because I mostly rely on fresh vegetables which I can easily put on the grill. I’m more than happy to make two or three stops to get exactly what I want, however the secret resides in knowing where to go for what. Seriously, Panama has it all—you just have to decide what is important to you and then where to stop and shop to find everything.
Three Major Groceries In Coronado
You can go to any one of the three major groceries we have in Coronado and get decent vegetables, or even to the specialty grocery which caters to expats, but I prefer to shop the fruit and veggie trucks or the farmers market. For daily fillers in my menu I stop and pick up whatever the trucks, which park on the main road coming into Coronado, have on offer. It might be avocados or a fresh pineapple, potatoes and red onions, but everything is always fresh and inexpensive.
Once a week I go to El Valle, about 45 minutes away and pick up lettuce, spinach, carrots and potatoes that still have the morning dirt clinging to their roots. It’s fun just go up into the cool air and see what the farmers have pulled out of the ground. They also have lots of herbs that enhance any type of food I might be serving. Chop, chop—not a lot of skill required.
Fish, Fresh Vegetables
When returning from El Valle, I often stop at Rio Hato and go to the little market there which carries plenty of everything you would need to make a fresh, fabulous meal. Think all types of freshly caught fish, vegetables, homemade jellies and baked goods. They always have broccoli, which oddly enough is a favorite in our house. Again, wrap it in foil, a little butter, seasoning and grill it right up.
Of course, I have to go to the regular grocery for much of the staples. Bread, milk, juices, condiments. Any of the three main groceries are fine for just about everything. El Rey is my favorite for no particular reason other than it is on the right side of the road when I’m driving out to the PanAmerican Highway.
The Basics 24 Hours A Day
In El Rey, which is open 24-hours, I can secure all the basics. They have a good deli section and they slice up any kind of sandwich meat. Their produce is acceptable, but it’s hard to measure up when you have trucks and farmers markets at your disposal. If I’m in a pinch, I’ll pick up some green peppers or lettuce which isn’t always available elsewhere.
I like El Rey for my wine. They have a good selection, it’s laid out in a logical manner and they have some of the best prices in town. In terms of wine, all three of the main grocery stores have wine priced similarly, but I find El Rey to consistently have a good solid selection, along with any kind of hard liquor.
The other two main groceries, The 99 and El Machetazo, offer everything El Rey does. The 99 is more similar to El Rey in that it only offers the type of items you would find in any North American big box grocery store, where the El Machetazo, has three floors of goods from groceries to a dancing Elvis, appliances and ladies dresses. It’s also a great stop for the kids’ school needs such as poster board, glue and lots of lined paper.
Chicken Necks, Pig Feet, Whole Animal Heads
The El Machetazo is a favorite among the local Panamanians and consequently you will find 50 pound bags of rice, a lot of protein you probably wouldn’t buy (chicken necks, pig feet, whole animal heads) and a big assortment of inexpensive canned goods.
Their meat counter is a sight to behold. It’s always busy and the team of cutters behind the counter scream everything in Spanish while throwing heavy knives into animal parts. I almost never buy anything in the meat section, because I can rarely recognize the cuts. I sometimes ask for a pound of hamburger but have to remember when you say “one” they only think kilos as opposed to pounds. More times than I care to remember, I’ve walked away with 2.2 pounds of meat.
Be Aware—$15.99 vs. $5.79
For the expats, who want the brands they recognize, there is the Riba Smith. In Panama City, Riba Smith is a full grocery like The 99 and El Rey, but in Coronado the store is a Riba Smith Select, which is a smaller store offering only top brands with top prices. For example, the other day I was in a hurry and grabbed Arborio brand rice to make risotto only to realize I paid $15.99 for the bag when I had just purchased the same bag in Canada for $5.79.
The meats are of higher quality in Riba Smith and they have a good selection of soft drinks which you can’t find anywhere else such as Diet Canada Dry Cranberry Ginger Ale or Pellegrino sparkling water.
If you really get in a bind, or just don’t want to leave the house, Riba Smith will deliver groceries to your door. You can go on-line and select what you want and for a $5 delivery fee and a purchase of at least $20, which is really easy to make, they’ll bring everything to you.
A Specialty Wine Store
Across the parking lot from Riba Smith is a branch of a chain of well-established Panamanian wine and specialty shops, Felipe Motta. Marcella manages the Coronado store and is always happy to help with a wine suggestion. The wine prices are a little higher than the grocery stores, but not by much and the selection is better. You can also purchases things such as Riedel wine glasses and high end bourbons.
Felipe Motta also offers Argentinean grass-fed beef (for a price) and a small selection of US brand groceries, crackers and condiments. Best of all, they have an on-site bakery where you can claim hot crusty mini-loaves to go with your wine and fresh vegetables.
Selection Smaller And Easier
In the same shopping center with the Riba Smith and Felipe Motta is a Novey store which doesn’t offer groceries, but does off a wide assortment of detergents, bleach and household cleaners. I find that I gravitate to the Riba Smith shopping area simply because the selection is smaller and it’s easier—plus it’s on my way to Rio Hato and El Valle for everything else.