March 02, 2014

by Stephen Jan in Panama City, Panama

My parents always ask me about the Chinese food in countries I’ve been. Like most Chinese parents, they expect their children to exclusively eat Chinese food no matter how far away from home they are. So far on this trip, I can count 3 instances where I tried Chinese food. All were mediocre at best.

Chicken Soup at Los Mochis, Mexico Vegetables and Mushroom at Mexico City, Mexico Wonton Soup off the Pan American Highway, Guatemala

Personally, I don’t think I set a very high bar. But the largest disappointment came from the mushroom vegetables dish served up by the Mexico City Chinatown restaurant, proudly charging a premium for authenticity. This classic dish is typically a simple combination of bak choy and black mushrooms. Of all things, this place decided that boiled lettuce was an acceptable substitute to bak choy. Back in college when the staple dinner was packet instant noodles, I threw in lettuce for nutritional and chromatic variety. But back then with low food standards, I could tell that boiled lettuce tasted pretty bad. Here I was, 10 years later, this Chinese Restaurant served it up on a platter.

I’m definitely not a Chinese food snob who thinks Chinese people have the monopoly on Chinese food preparation. In fact, I’m fairly certain that most New York restaurants, be it Chinese, French, or Italian, are powered by a Mexican kitchen work force. The problem isn’t the staff, it’s the clientele. Places with few Chinese people simply will not be subject to the complaining that comes with serving mediocre Chinese food to Chinese people. With the number of Chinese people walking the streets of Panama City, I was certain that they wouldn’t let a Chinese restaurant get away with offering up crappy Chinese food.

A Google search for “Panama Dim Sum” turned up the “Golden Unicorn”. If there was any relationship between Golden Unicorn New York, and Golden Unicorn Panama, i was in for a treat. Golden Unicorn New York has been around a long time, and was a mainstay in chinatown eateries going way back. Some people like it, some people are too cool for it. Either way, I consider it authentic. As a bonus, it turned out to be only 5 blocks from San Francisco Inn Hostel.

I arrived at Golden Unicorn fantasizing that I would be talking about this culinary experience for years to come. One reviewer on Tripadvisor even went as far as to say that this place’s dimsum was the best in the world, and pointedly mentioned that he had been to Hong Kong. From my experiences in NY, DC and San Francisco, a Saturday morning dim sum brunch starts with a long wait to enter dining hall. After that long wait, I expected to share a large round table with cantonese speaking strangers. When I strolled into the Golden Unicorn dining hall at 9:00am with zero wait i was surprised. When they put us at a table all for ourselves, I was shocked.

The food definitely did not live up to the hype. Half the dishes they served were cold from cruising the floor. One cart was pushed by a middle aged man in a full suit, looked like the restaurant manager. As the manager, he had the privilege carting the dim sum “specials”: roast port, roast duck, and lobster. He does an impressive job presenting the items in the cart, but what’s not so impressive ordering a plate requires him to take a trip back to the kitchen to reheat the dish.

Cold Chinese food isn’t inherently bad, but when someone touts Panama Chinese food as the best in the world, I think i’m justified to expect a little better than microwaved lobster tails. If I had this food at the roadside off the Pan-American highway, I’d be impressed and sing nothing but praise. Panama has too many Chinese people for this to be the best they had to offer. The search for good Chinese food on the rally goes on.