Outside the canal, the average person knows little about the Central American country of Panama. Antonio Bailey and Maricela Gudino challenge this, bringing Chicago its only Panamanian restaurant: Conoce Mi Panama. Or simply put, "know my Panama."
Bailey says, "We want to present that Panama absorbs all communities. We want people to know that we're not just the canal, or soccer players; we're more than that. Come visit, and find out."
Bailey continues by depicting the dine-in as a "cultural restaurant," implying "you're going to learn something here." He carries on noting Conoce as one of two eateries in the entire country with a Panamanian focus. "We want to attract the Panamanian people who lost connections when coming to America," Gudino says, "with a little place to talk, laugh and remember, while teaching new faces about Panamanian food and culture."
Framed photos freeze life on the isthmus from colonial-era architecture to compact city dwellings filled with football dribbling youth. The range of backgrounds in these snapshots reflects the multiracial clientele, from the country's African, European and Amerindian influences. Personality wise, Bailey describes his people as friendly caregivers. Listen to them chatter at back, you'll find their tongue slippery with an agreeing tone void of enunciation. By the end of your conversation with Bailey, who chitchats with every layover, "You'll be speaking Spanish," he assures.
Flavorful plates charged with ingredients common throughout the Caribbean, like yucca, coconut and plantains, give Chicago's Cubans and Puerto Ricans a dose of something familiar. For example, take into account the ropa vieja and bistec encebollado (thin steak with onions) recipes. During the week, a Cornish hen or fried king fish platter appeases. Weekends, why not opt for the lomo relleno (roast stuffed beef, $12)?
Average cost: <$10
Centerstage Reviewer: David-Anthony Gonzalez