Loaded with Scotch bonnet peppers, the searing green hot sauce might be Haitian or Trinidadian, while the tortillas ($1 each) mimic Colombian arepas, only coarser and oilier. Higado ($4) reprises the kind of liver and onions that parents once forced their children to eat, only the tender strips have been zapped with Jamaican-style curry powder, improving the dish 1,000 percent. Why didn’t my mom think of that?
Welcome to the wonderful world of Afro-Panamanian cooking, which adds a fascinating page to the cuisine of the African diaspora, incorporating Haitian, Trinidadian, Jamaican, Central American, Dominican, and indigenous Central American Indian elements, while being very much its own entity. It originated with escaped slaves called cimarrones (a derogatory Spanish term for cattle that was Anglicized in Jamaica as “maroons”) and improved by immigrants from the West Indies brought to the isthmus in the first half of the 20th century to work on the canal and in the banana plantations. Many hoped to return home to the Antilles, but never had the chance. On a Sunday afternoon, Kelso Dining is thronged with customers in their natty churchgoing finery, who table-hop, drink coffee with plenty of milk and sugar, and share snacks from the weekends-only menu column called, in the Dominican manner, frituras—a word more like the French “friture,” than the Spanish “fritada.” In addition to the liver and tortillas mentioned above, there are torpedo-shaped yuca shells stuffed with meat called carimañola, empanadas, and, best of all, ojalda, a free-form crown of fried dough magnificent in its inflation. Dip it in the hot sauce and swoon with pleasure.
Lunch on weekdays is clearly not the most important meal, because if you ask for any of the main dishes, the waitress will note, “They’re still cooking,” and offer you a bowl of soup. Luckily, the soup ($4) is excellent. One day it was beef soup, like a Dominican sancocho, thickened with disintegrated potatoes and yuca rather than pumpkin. The pieces of oxtail had the consistency of corned beef, and there was an additional attraction lurking at the bottom of the bowl: firm, finger-size dumplings of the kind served in Jamaica. More substantial fare is featured in the evenings, typically four dishes including a daily special or two. On a recent evening we enjoyed a flavorful stewed chicken, perfectly done pork chop with only a bit of sauce, and a special of curried oxtails served with white rice and a salad with the kind of orange French dressing you might have thought long ago extinct. But it was a side dish that most captured our imagination: a cup of curried brown lentils, savory and salty, and unlike anything we’d expected from a Central American restaurant.
There are also a handful of rotating specials associated with days of the week. Saturday is mondongo day, and if you expect the tripe soup found in most Latin countries under that name, you’ll be surprised. At Kelso, it’s a very thick stew of stomach and creamy butter beans, a combination made in heaven, with the occasional bit of cow foot thrown in as lubrication. Sides include a sweet plantain split and fried, a heap of perfect white rice, and a mayonnaisey coleslaw. I was so busy enjoying this dish a couple of Saturdays ago that I neglected the other special—that old Central American favorite, spaghetti and meatballs.