“Do you sell food here?” was the question on everybody’s mind as a group of ornithologists (bird scientists) devoured the delicious food Juany had prepared for her daughter Yarisbel’s birthday. There was arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), crabmeat infused macaroni salad, fried bread fruit, guacamole and agua de pipa (coconut water). There had been quite the spread, that is, until Ligia Paget and friends came and ate up all the birthday treats!
“I invited them to eat with us. They loved the food and wanted to know if I had any to sell. Ligia suggested that I should go into business and just like that, a restaurant was born,” recalls Juany.
Flash forward 22 years later and Restaurante Yarisnori is now famous in the archipelago for its seafood specialties. Juany named the restaurant after her daughters, Yarisbel and Nora. Naturally, as it was Yarisbel’s birthday party spread that ultimately became the inspiration for the restaurant.
Originally from the Pacific side of Panama in Santiago de Veraguas, Juany came to Bocas in 1980 with her husband Willy. Willy’s family owns a farm in Boca del Drago, nowadays the sleepier side of Isla Colon, off the grid with few residents and businesses and known for its breath-taking unspoiled beaches. Willy’s mother first fell in love with the place after visiting the cemetery. “When my mother came to the cemetery she saw that everyone had lived between 90-100 years, more or less. She decided that it was a good reason to live here,” says Willy.
Reading the tombstones in the Drago cemetery you can find Henry Ellis, who lived from 1800 to 1906, which if I have done my math correctly is 106 years! It must be something in the coconut water. But seriously, why did the people live so long? “Tranquilidad” is the key if you ask Juany, Willy and family. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about 100 years of solitude, well this is 100 years of tranquility in Drago. It must be the stress-free environment of Drago where there is not much besides the restaurant, a few people, the jungle and the sea.
That’s why I would have never guessed that only a century ago what I know today as the quiet beaches of Boca del Drago was actually a bustling a town of 5,000 people with bars, shops and electricity. Electricity?! No way.
Juany seems to believe that there might have been electricity in Drago. She tells me that before her husband’s family bought the farm (literally purchased the farm, nobody died in the transaction) that this part of the island was where the employees of the Chiriqui Land Company (now Chiquita Banana) lived. They were mostly of Jamaican and French descent and worked harvesting bananas across the channel from Drago on the mainland in the Soropta Canal. Juana and Willy have found iron rails on both the farm and on the mainland, which they believe may be old electrical structures. For this reason they have considered the possibility that they used to run electricity from the mainland underneath the sea to Drago, which interestingly enough is the current plan being debated to get electricity to that part of the island.
At first, this whole idea of an electrically powered town of 5,000 people in Boca del Drago idea blew my mind; Though after doing some research, it seems that an electrical plant in those days is not likely and that the iron structures were actually telegraph lines and/or tram rails used for transporting cargo from the mainland to Drago. However, a town of about 5,000 people with plenty of buildings is accurate.
At any rate, electricity either never existed or is now history in Boca del Drago and Restaurante Yarisnori is running off 2 generators as its only one of the only structures on the beach. In fact, Yarisnori is located right on the beach in Drago, some 30 paces from your table to the water. There is every bit of truth in this statement, which is found on their website, www.yarisnori.com : “You can dive, snorkel, swim or simply relax on the beach while you wait for your food.”
Snorkeling while I wait for my meal is a bit ambitious for me, unless it involves snorkeling into an ice cold balboa, which is where I find myself today, waiting to dig into a massive pargo frito, or a “fried Red Snapper” for you fans of the English language out there. Now I’m suddenly curious as to how big the biggest pargo Juany has ever served in her restaurant. I was in the mood for a fish tale.
“How big was that fish on Saturday?” Juany calls to the kitchen, inquiring her favorite chefs Florencia and Ofelia. Apparently, Yarisnori history had just been made last weekend. “It was 5 pounds and the man tried to eat it all by himself but couldn’t.” Five pounds of fried fish! Imagine that, and yes, the fish is that good that it drives some people to try and eat five pounds of it in one sitting.
Juany recommends a fish of half that size (2 or 3 pounds) for two people, served alongside salad, coconut rice and fried breadfruit; which is what we did and now I can say I totally recommend the same! Well, this pargo frito was quite the tasty fish. It’s served with only lime as there’s no need for sauce- perhaps some hot sauce if you’re so inclined. It comes un-breaded but is still perfectly crispy and the meal is as Caribbean as it gets being served alongside arroz con coco y pan de fruta.
Pan de fruta, or breadfruit, is an interesting specimen. It looks like a fried pineapple on your plate, but actually makes for a nice chip to put the rice and fish on. It is a large green potato-like fruit and you can fry it and eat it with fresh seafood at Yarisnori from February to August when they have breadfruit growing in the jungle right behind the restaurant. When there is no breadfruit to pick, there’s always bananas, so in that case expect some patacones or platanos maduros in your face.
Speaking of plantains, today’s lunch was fried pargo but Sunday’s is patacones rellenos (stuffed plantains). Before I ever even sat myself down in Yarisnori, I had heard mouth-watering tales of a restaurant in Drago with amazing plantain filled with Lobster. The plantains are fried and shaped like shot glasses and filled with seafood goodness, with your choice of lobster, octopus, crab or shrimp. This has to be one of the most unique dishes I’ve sampled thus far in Panama and is absolutely recommended.
The whole menu is very typical Caribbean fare and is renowned in Bocas and worldwide by tourists for its seafood specialties. Juany is not afraid to admit it either: “Everybody says it’s here that has the best food in Bocas.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about 100 years of Soledad, well this is 100 years of Tranquilidad. Life is good in Drago, under the sun, surrounded by the jungle and sea, with fresh seafood in your plantain cups.