Like the Puerto Limón Legends Calypso Band once sang “give me some of your rice and beans”, this month’s featured dish is none other than…arroz y frijoles. Rice and beans truly is a staple dish in Bocas, in Panama a whole and in most Latin American countries. Panamanians will tell you a meal is not complete without them.
Here’s a nutritional fun fact for you: rice and beans have essential amino acids that synthesize into complete proteins when consumed together. This is to say that when you eat rice by itself, there are incomplete proteins that are wasted and would have otherwise become useful protein if you had combined the two foods.
Well, our mission was to find the best typical “rice and beans” restaurant on Isla Colón. The winning restaurant was to be based on the overall experience, taking into account the taste of the food, price, service, atmosphere, menu combinations, consistency and overall style. The restaurants considered were Chitré, Tom (#1 and #2), Beso de Dragón, Tropical Birds, Olga, El Buen Sabor, the Blue House, Candi Flor and Don Chicho. Ten days of eating nothing but rice and beans for lunch and ten siestas later, here are the results.
First of all, honorable mention goes out to Beso de Dragón, Chitré and The Blue House. If the contest were based on taste alone, Beso de Dragón (aka Nataly and Gao’s) would win, hands down. Chitré scores points for always providing the customer with a variety pack on their plate. You have to respect a place that will serve you meat, rice and beans, with the 4th option being anything from cole slaw, macaroni salad, or potato salad, to spaghetti, mashed potatoes, or patacones. The cheapest “comida corriente” is found at The Blue House, which is just $2.50 for rice, beans, salad, juice and a piece of meat. However, this contest is about all of these factors combined and more. All restaurants considered and mentioned before are reasonably priced and an authentic experience, however the winner in my opinion has to be…(drum roll, please) TROPICAL BIRDS!
Tropical Birds might be my favorite place in the world and I shall declare them the rice and bean champions of Bocas. The establishment is family-owned and operated by the sweetest, hardest working Colombian brother-and-sister team you’ll ever meet: Nuri, Yina and Leo. Nuri and Leo first arrived to Bocas 6 years ago and began working as chefs at a resort in Bastimentos. When their sister Yina arrived with her daughters in 2009, they decided to open up their own restaurant. First it was called “Sabor Caribeño”, however wanting to change the name to something more unique they solicited advice from a Tourism Industry professor from the Universidad Latina. “She would bring her tourism students to the island after every term and all 50 of them would eat in the restaurant. We asked her what to call the restaurant and she suggested the name ‘Aves Tropicales’ because she had never heard of a restaurant called that before,” recalls Nuri, the eldest sister. Thus, they changed the name to Aves Tropicales, but in the English language: Tropical Birds. The restaurant is currently located directly in front of La Bar Iguana (part of the same building) and is open Monday through Saturday, noon to 9 pm. However, in a recent interview, they disclosed that they will soon be moving to a new location; so look out for their new spot! Now on to their mouth-watering rice and bean treats…
What you want to do here is explore the “menu del día”, which you will not find written anywhere, so you either have to ask about it or already know what you’re doing beforehand. Each plate costs exactly $3 and is worth all 300 pennies. More often than not, you have your choice of chicken (breaded, grilled or stewed), beef, fish or pork chop, along with rice and beans (of course) and either cole slaw, pasta salad, spaghetti, or potato salad (sometimes combined with beets and known as “ensalada de fiesta”).
What sets Tropical Birds apart from most rice and bean joints in Bocas is that your meal includes a fresh squeezed, ice-cold chicha (juice). The juice is pineapple, orange, tamarind or passion fruit and absolutely perfect for washing down a proper rice and bean-age. The hot sauce is more on the vinegar side than pepper but absolutely rocks and is highly recommended. The food is consistently tasty, you can sit outside with a cool breeze and street view and the service couldn’t be better. Tropical birds, I think I love you.
So why come to Tropical Birds? We asked Nuri and she is proud to stand by her product: “The food is always fresh. We start cooking at 10 am to open for lunch at 12. We only prepare food for that exact day. We never sell reheated food.”
Aside from the rice and bean set menu, they also offer pizza, seafood specialties, salads and tacos, which I imagine they make a lot better of a margin on. God bless them because I often sit there and stare at my plate in awe wondering how they even make a profit off my personal favorite dish of theirs, the $3 pollo a panado. Whatever, it’s good for them and it’s good for me, but don’t take my word for it. Go ahead and “bird” yourself…immediately!