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The new place in town...Amarillis in San Carlos
by Eric Jackson
Restaurante Bar Amarillis is so new that the signs that have been ordered haven't yet arrived, so it is well hidden in plain view. As you drive on the Pan-American Highway toward the town of San Carlos, you will get past Vista Mar, the entrance to the Assemblies of God church camp, the bus stop with the overpass, and be barely past the turnoff to go the back way into the town. There, on your right, there will be a sign that says "Bienvenidos a San Carlos" and this place that sells tiles, flagstones, decorative stones and other such building and landscaping materials. Restaurante Bar Amarillis is adjacent to that establishment. If you get to the main entrance to town, you have gone about a kilometer or so too far.
I don't know Amarillis as a bar. I'm not much into the bar scene and came in with my nephew for lunch. I get a hunch, however, that this will be the more sedate, mature bar alternative to the high-testosterone El Cevichito just down the road. No hip hop blasting you here: the music was a laid back mix of Mexican rancheras, Spanish ballads and the like, at least at lunchtime.
And for lunch?
First of all, on their limited menu they didn't have everything on their limited menu. Are you still afflicted with these gringo consumer attitudes? Then you might find that annoying. But if you know restaurants, and particularly small Panamanian restaurants, that's a good thing. That means that they don't store a lot of food on the premises, as in what you get will be fresher than if their aim is to have everything at all times.
Alas, no green beans with almonds, and they were fresh out of the Cuban-style arroz congri, too. Oh, well --- some other day. There will be another day.
Between my nephew and I, we ordered seafood soup, grilled chicken, fried eggplant, patacones, fried yucca and this massive mixed salad. That meant passing up a lot of yummy-sounding seafood, pasta, poultry and meat possibilities this time around. But notice: if someone in your party doesn't eat meat, Amarillis can deal with that, as many other restaurants can't.
Also notice that if you or someone in your party hasn't yet learned to read Spanish, Amarillis can handle that, too. She lived for many years in Chicago, and her kids are so assimilated to the Windy City that they're not particularly eager to visit their mom in Panama very often because they say it's too hot here. (Ah, well --- we dual citizens have choices to make and varying criteria to make them, and we come up with all sorts of answers.) She speaks perfect Midwestern English, and her restaurant's menus are bilingual.
First came the garlic bread, buttery with hunks of real garlic and green flakes --- were those chives --- a simple thing, but done well, which is always a good sign in the restaurant.
Then came the soup, and with it a tiny pitcher of their aji chombo sauce. I didn't ask if it was something they make in-house, but it was a bit different from the standard D'Elida's, thick and flaming.
(They say that on the campaign trail Barack Obama committed a gaffe by putting hot sauce on something that by local tastes it was heretical to so adulter. But understand to whence the bulk of Chicago's black people trace their roots: Louisiana, the Mississippi Delta, the cotton and rice growing areas of East and South Texas. Over the years I have known a number of African-Americans from Chicago, and they all put hot sauce on everything. Surely there are some exceptions to this trend, but Obama's assimilation to the hot sauce habit is a Chicago thing whose geographical and historical origins can be rather precisely traced.)
Me? I'm a Colon buay and over on the Atlantic side there's also an appreciation for the picante, a cultural trait that can be traced to the West Indies and Kuna Yala.
So anyway, if Barack Obama ever visits Amarillis, he'll probably do what I did --- put a dollop of hot sauce in his sopa de Mariscos. It also went well with the chicken, patacones and yucca.
I won't put any superlatives on the soup, or the chicken, or the salad or the yucca. These were all, however, very good. There's a lot of competition out there, and this place holds up well.
The fried eggplant, however, is far better than anything I have found in the Interior, and if in this country I have found any fried eggplant dishes to rival what Amarillis has to offer, they're different, Arab-style things that really shouldn't be compared.
Fried eggplant, Amarillis-style, is lightly and crispily breaded little slices, quickly fried in hot clean oil so that it's neither greasy nor mushy. It comes with a tomatoey, pasta-type sauce on the side that's good enough, but not all that superior to a dab of the hot sauce or a sprinkle of salt by my measures --- I tried them all of those ways and liked it all. So there you have it --- at the top of her appetizers page there's the eggplant, and there's a good reason for that place of honor.
Have you noticed that, with the possible exceptions of the patacones and the yucca and the garlic bread, I'm describing a lunch fit for someone looking both for an excellent meal and not too fattening? It's another of this place's attractions.
But then, if one is into a major pig-out, maybe dessert is the thing to do at Amarillis. The menu lists just two things: flan, and crepes with ice cream. This time around there wasn't room for dessert, but one of these times when I come back I'm going to try the crepes.
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