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Panama City in Central America has a wealth of good food at very cheap prices (so definitely our kind of place). Combining Latin American love with the fast food flavours from the United States, you can eat very well here for very little money. From one of the best burgers we’ve ever eaten anywhere in the world to fresh seafood straight off the boat for only a handful of dollars, these are the very best budget bites and reasonable restaurants that Panama has to offer (with some ‘free’ popcorn’ thrown in for good measure)…
Panama City Cheap Eats
Packed with locals and one of our favourite cheap eats in Panama (sooo good, we went here way too many times), El Trapiche serves affordable and authentic cuisine (soul food) with several branches to choose from. Most dishes cost around $5 to $10 and we’d recommend their mixed meat combinacion hojaldre (sandwich), sancocho chicken soup (amazing and surprisingly good for hangovers) and their Fiesta Panameña platter for a delicious mix of local specialities.
Pollo a plenty! With several branches dotted around Panama City and many locals saying this is better than KFC (and cheaper), could this be the best fried chicken in Panama? You can order several different combos for low prices, the most popular of which is combo no 1, (a fried chicken breast, fries and a soft drink). Pio Pio also offers very popular breakfast combos and regularly changing specials and promotions – not exactly haute cuisine but kind to the wallet.
Nice nibbles at not too high prices, Niko’s is a chain of cafeterias where you select from an array of huge food items from hot plates (a bit like a savoury pick and mix) – for instance, you can have a huge hearty breakfast (eggs, meat, corn bread etc) for around $5, including a coffee or juice – always busy with a steady stream of workers lining up for their lunch or snacks, it basically reminded us of a huge work canteen. They also have a bakery onsite selling cheap as takeaway coffee and savouries pastries and sweet treats.
Raspao / Helados De Pipas Carts
Shaved iced slushies (raspaos) for $1 are always welcome, especially when Panama City can be so hot and humid – watch the vendors shave the ice from a massive frozen block and then choose your syrup flavour (usually very bright colours full of sugar – who needs Red Bull to stay awake when you can have raspao?).
If ice slushies don’t appeal, similar carts (helados de pipas) also sell ice-cream cones and sandwiches for a dollar. We saw plenty of these vendors along both Amador Causeway and Cinta Constera, plus at festivals (sometimes the vendors may change prices depending on supply and demand / festival pricing but they should generally be around $1).
Mercado de Mariscos / Fish Market
Just across from Casco Viejo, this seafood and fresh fish outdoor market has a long line of stalls and kiosks, selling super cheap ceviche (a local Panamanian speciality of raw fish, ‘cooked’ cold in lemon juice) for $2, alongside $1 ice-cold Panama beers.
Although it can be a little overwhelming at first as each stall tries to entice you in with a menu card, it is well worth a visit as you can enjoy your seafood dishes in the harbour, and watch as the fishing boats return.
Another one of our Panama thrifty food favourites as we’d often go to Mi Ranchito after doing a long walk along Amador Causeway (check out our top 5 Panama City walks). With panoramic ocean views of the ocean and an onsite swimming pool (just in case you want to take a dip afterwards), this is a cheap eats restaurant that is the whole package – affordable authentic food with awesome views.
We visited several times for breakfast, lunch and dinner (on separate days, just in case you were wondering). We particularly enjoyed their set breakfast menu which includes a coffee, juice, cooked breakfast (veg, meat or fish with eggs) and a bowl of fresh fruit, all for around $6 – $7.
Flaca Rica Burgers
Fact – this is the best burger we ever had in Panama so much so that we went back a second time. Whilst not as cheap as say McDonalds or some other burger shacks, we’ve included Flaca Rica as we think $10 for one of the most juicy and flavourful burgers we’ve ever tried isn’t too bad – a simple set-up usually consisting of a burger van, picnic tables and street-art, they have several locations now including one in the heart of Casco Viejo.
The Plaza Paitilla Inn
We stayed at this hotel during our first trip to Panama City and enjoyed it immensely as the pool was welcoming and had incredible views of the water and downtown Panama. We also liked it as their lunchtime offering was a 3 course set menu (with drink) for around $7.99 – definitely one of the best value lunches to be had in the city and perfectly placed at the end of Cinta Costera, meaning you can have this as a long post walk reward (and then indulge in one of their Happy Hour buckets of beers afterwards, if you are so inclined).
Riba Smith Cafes
More a cheap eats recommendation if you are staying outside of downtown Panama, we regularly visited Riba Smith supermarket cafes for their bargain breakfast buffet. Like Nikos, you choose your food cafeteria style and then pay at the till based on what you’ve chosen – you can eat really well here (chorizo, huevos rancheros, beef steak etc) for around $5 including a drink, depending on what you opt for.
A great deal of dim-sum for not too many dollars, the Golden Unicorn is one of Panama City’s most popular Asian restaurants. Their Sunday morning brunch specialises in dim-sum and is always incredibly busy so book in advance.
American Trade Hotel
Now bear with us on this one – we know the luxury American Trade Hotel isn’t generally classed as ‘cheap eats’ or budget bites, but did you know they have some inexpensive lunchtime set menus and brunch, which you can enjoy in their opulent surroundings? Dine ‘in style’ with a special brunch menu for two, including drinks for around $20 per head
Finally, whilst in Panama City, remember to regularly check the very popular deals and discount site OfertaSimple. They have daily dining deals, often up to 50% discount from a range of restaurant and fast-food joints. For instance, whilst we were there, we enjoyed a really good half price breakfast combo at Tantalo in Casco Viejo using an OfertaSimple deal – highly recommended but you must buy your vouchers in advance.
And finally, a slightly cheeky way of getting some free snacks. Well, kind of. If you are on a tiny budget or already visiting one of Panama’s numerous shopping malls, you can also get free popcorn at the Do It Centre and Novey stores – just eat ‘responsibly’ and save some for the actual customers.
With thanks to David Hordern, our friend and Panama partner in crime for helping with some of the pictures and recommendations (his top cheap eats pick in Panama would be El Trapiche!)
Other Panama City blog posts
- Free and cheap things to do in Panama City – budget travel
- Casco Viejo in Panama City – top things to do
- Taboga Island guide, Panama City
- Panama City Pride Parade 2019
- Ancon Hill and Mi Pueblito in Panama City
- Panama City’s Rainforest Walks and Activities
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