It may be unfair to write this, but I’m going to do it anyway: eating out in Casco Viejo is almost exactly opposite to eating out in New York. I don’t usually like to mention the two destinations in the same sentence or article because they’re almost nothing alike – New York City is a world-class destination and Casco Viejo is an up-and-coming ghetto.
In fact, it’s very disconnected: people in Casco Viejo don’t really want to be compared to people in New York City and people in New York City have no idea what the heck you’re talking about.
New York has one of the most diverse culinary landscapes in the world: if you were to throw a dart at the spectrum of dining possibilities, New York would represent both the target and the wall on which it is hung (as in, you could aim blindly and still find something great).
Casco Viejo is very much the opposite: we have very few restaurants, even fewer of which are spectacular, and even fewer of which are affordably priced. This is why when my friends from New York come to visit, I prepare them by saying “we’ll be eating a lot of ceviche.”
When eating in Casco Viejo, you need pin-point accuracy.
But just about any argument is made significantly more compelling when you throw a wrench inside. And my wrench in this story is actually a salad.
Sitting timidly on a 6th street – a little lane that has no real remarkable landmarks apart from a house infested with tons of cats – and identified by only their lipstick red door is Diablo Rosso, a café-cum-art gallery that is about as “New York” as interior commercial spaces in Casco Viejo get (whatever that’s supposed to mean).
Diablo is the brainchild of several Panamanian entrepreneurs who are rarely there.
The business is divided into two sections: on the right is the shop and art gallery, which is incredibly bright and incredibly cold.
On the left is their restaurant, Pony Rosso, whose mismatched chairs, oft bizarre artwork, and yellow seating embankment remind me of a picnic, an elementary school, and my grandmothers basement all at the same time.
That few tourists know Pony Rosso exists means even fewer know that it offers the best salad in Casco Viejo.
The “Mano que mece atun” is deceptively simple.
It comes on a big square plate that’s laid with fresh green watercress. (I very rarely see salads in Panama using this, an abundant and inexpensive resource, quite so resourcefully.)
On top of the watercress is a pinwheel of the following components, each carefully separated from one another like paints on a palette: charred baby eggplant, boiled and sliced Yukon gold potatoes, a mound of tangy pepperonata (stewed tomatoes, onions, and capers), one grilled and flaking fillet of fresh tuna, and a fresh lime wedge.
Just looking at Casco Viejo’s best salad, you know it’s going to be good.
I have taken more than 20 different friends to Pony Rosso (and have probably sent hundreds by way of mandate) to specifically order this salad alone. And every single person agrees it is definitely, almost confoundingly the best thing they’ve eaten in Panama.
It is important to keep in mind that everything on Pony Rosso’s menu is unfairly better and infinitely more sophisticated than just about all their competitors.
So it would be easy to laud the chef who created it or the quality of the ingredients that are used or the sheer simplicity of the recipe itself. But probably the most impressive thing about Casco Viejo’s best salad you never knew about lies in its consistency of preparation…
You see, in Casco Viejo, eating out is challenging like roulette. You may have a good meal one night and then order the exact same thing the next day only to have it pretty much suck. Seriously: sometimes this feat is done with the nonchalance of a magic act.
But at Pony Rosso, the mano que mece atun is the exact same thing, every single freakin’ time. This adds to its allure.
I’m partially worried that this article might just open up a floodgate of people wanting to taste what I’m talking about, in which case I will have to wait longer (until now, I rarely see any other diners in there) and I will have to find a new dish (until now, I like to think of myself as this salad’s primary ambassador).
But just as happens in a good food city like New York, the mano que mece atun will inevitably find its way into the mainstream lunch routine of Casco Viejo’s discerning eaters. Until then, it’s all mine.