Viva El Paisa!

If you’ve lived out West, chances are you miss Mexican food.  Not the Americanized dishes, which are already tasty enough, but authentic corn tortillas, seafood dishes, and meats which go well beyond ground beef. 

El Paisa is your place for real Mexican cooking.  Try several of the nearly a dozen taco options—carnitas, fish, it’s all delicious.  Piggy’s first visit was crowned by a chimichanga filled with a pineapple-laden shredded beef mixture; it was sweet, spicy, and salty, topped with a cheese sauce so light it tasted more of butter than of cheese. 

My companion tried the Texas burrito, which offers terrific taste and appealing value for those with a Texas-sized appetite.  The accompanying beans are almost liquid, delightful in their slow-cooked flavor.  A merry group nearby ordered a traditional stew, festooned with carrots, which looked appealing despite the hot weather.  Piggy will report on that in a future installment.

The menu also features egg dishes; there’s plenty for breakfast, and for those looking for meat alternatives.  (Vegetarians: check out the vegetable fajitas.)

Prices are more than reasonable; platters are as low as $5.95, and even fajitas are attractively priced.  Service is personable, and plates arrive quickly enough for those on a lunch hour schedule.  The building is brightly painted—a high-visibility yellow on the outside, and artistic murals on the inside. 

So, don’t pass by the yellow restaurant on West 15th Street.   Stop in for a taste of the Mexican countryside; you’ll be glad you did. 

Address: 1900 West 15th Street, Panama City

Open Tuesday – Saturday, 9:00-9:00

Phone: 850-215-5771

 

El Paisa on Urbanspoon

Zen Zone in Panama City Beach

While there’s a lot for vegetarians and natural food fans to enjoy when they sit down at the table in the Panama City area, there are very few places which cater to them. Lotus Cafe in Panama City Beach is an exception, although I hasten to note that it’s not exclusively veggie. You’ll find chicken and fish on the menu, too. It’s an alternative restaurant and “fluid lounge” (smoothie and juice bar) which will make you think of the other Laguna Beach out in California.

One of the most compelling things about the Lotus Cafe is its setting. It’s nestled in the Zen Garden, a lush landscape of ponds and plants. One side of the garden is a nursery, where you can purchase plants; we saw unusual cultivars local gardeners owe it to themselves to check out. There’s also a Market offering bulk spices, organic foods, health supplements, and fresh produce. Lunch at the Cafe, along with a stroll in the garden and a stop at the Nursery and Market, make for a pleasant afternoon.

The menu runs from appetizers (hummus and salsa are standards, but there’s also a vegan cheese made of almonds and seeds) to salads and sandwiches. The tabouli was a winning appetizer. Made from quinoa (an Incan grain with outstanding health properties which also happens to taste good) and fruits and berries, it’s satisfying, full of texture, and delicious.

The portabello philly sandwich is a good one to try, and we found the Alaskan Salmon sandwich with wasabi mayo especially lovely. Sandwiches are served with a choice of hummus, side salad, or beans and rice, and Piggy found the latter quite tasty.

The restaurant’s two specialties are a Macro Plate featuring legumes, grains, and kale avocado salad, and a curry plate. We tried the curry, which includes the day’s fresh vegetables and is served over brown rice. A diner at a neighboring table found it too spicy to eat, so those expecting a mild, Chinese-buffet curry should pick another option. The spice level was nicely toasty to our tastes, but the curry needed potato, chickpeas, or another starchy counterpart to make it really stand out.

Lotus Cafe has a children’s menu, featuring sandwiches with chips and salsa, and there’s a fine selection of freshly-blended juice and smoothie options. Smoothies use your choice of almond, coconut, and soy milk. Other cold drinks include iced teas, chai, and mocha, plus lemonade, and there’s hot French-pressed coffee and a selection of teas.

The Lotus Cafe and Zen Garden are located on Richard Jackson Boulevard in Panama City Beach.   See their website for hours and details.

Zen Garden Market and Lotus Cafe on Urbanspoon

Delicious D-I-Y at Panda China Buffet

It’s always worth checking out another Asian buffet restaurant, so Piggy and company made a visit to Panda China Buffet on West 15th Street in Panama City. We’ll be back, especially for a Cantonese delight we haven’t found elsewhere in town– a buffet version of da bin lo, where diners dunk their favorite ingredients into hot broth. While you can’t sit around the table dropping fish balls into soup like you could in a California Chinatown, you can choose among seafood dainties (mussels, clams, shrimp), beef and tendon, and an assortment of mushrooms and fresh vegetables, and cook it all up in baskets dipped in a slow-simmered hot broth right on the buffet line. Piggy lived up to her moniker by taking up two baskets…

Panda China also offers an appealing Mongolian Barbeque array, as well as standard buffet entrees and sides. It’s much smaller than Chowtime or Royal, so don’t look for the same variety, but there’s plenty to like. Quality of sushi was high, and the dumplings were also quite nice. The cook makes the soup broth fresh daily, and other dishes showed the same attention. Desserts were limited to the usual Asian buffet fare: cake squares, banana pudding, fruit, or ice cream.

Service at Panda China went beyond the drop-off of drinks; friendly staff help visitors through the soup-making or Mongolian BBQ process as needed. Panda China offers the choice and value of a buffet, in a less mass-market atmosphere. We found it a good combination.

Cost is typical for the local buffet market: $7.55 for lunch.

Panda China Buffet on Urbanspoon

Pizza plus at Red Elephant

Time to take a look at some pizza places… Red Elephant, part of a small regional chain of eight restaurants, is one to try if you’re in the mood for more than pizza.

Red Elephant’s atmosphere is a bit upscale compared to most pizza-oriented restaurants, but still remains relaxed and comfortable. There’s a wide selection of sandwiches and salads (some quite hearty), plus pasta and grilled chicken, fish, or steak. The grilled entrees come with interesting complements, like a Mediterranean mix of artichoke hearts, capers, red onions, tomatoes, kalamata olives, and feta cheese. Piggy and companions also appreciated that sides aren’t limited to potatoes, much as we love ‘em; there is also a choice of cole slaw, saffron rice, fruit, or steamed veggies.

This is the kind of place where it’s hard to decide what to try. Crispy fries and vegetables were equally delicious, so those are some veggies! Pizza had an uneven crust which showed it was crafted by hand, with nice bread flavor and fresh cheese. The sliced beef on ciabatta included mushrooms and onions, like a Philly steak sandwich, but with the traditional au jus dip– an appealing combination. For starters, diners can choose between the delightfully heavy (loaded fries) and the healthy-yet-tasty hummus dip.

Portion sizes are on the small side by contemporary US standards. It’s not a fast-food place; you’ll need to allow some time for your pizza to be crafted. A lunch special offers some favorites and a beverage for $7.99, so this is a good choice for lunch if you’re in the Panama City Mall area. The restaurant serves beer, wine, and cocktails.

There’s a small gameroom to keep the kids happy while dinner is in the oven. There’s also a kids’ menu, with prices in the $4 range. Takeout is available.

Red Elephant on Urbanspoon

Thai delights at Oishi

It’s hard not to like a Thai restaurant, from Piggy’s perspective; that southeast Asian blend of crisp ingredients and alluring spices is always tempting. The Panama City area is now home to at least a half-dozen enjoyable Thai eateries, but there’s one on the Beach which stands out: Oishi. It’s not the the most elegant, but the kitchen produces a Panang curry sauce which nearly reduces Piggy to licking the plate.

In addition to the Panang offerings, try the Tom Yum soup. Instead of being merely peppery, the soup base is subtle and complex. The fresh rolls (a summer roll wrapped in lettuce) feature finely diced apples, sweet and crisp against the shrimp. Massamun curry is likewise a pleasure, more for the sauce than the beef or potatoes. Spice and heat levels are adapted for typical American tastes, so don’t be afraid of the curries! For those who prefer mild fare, there’s a lovely chicken and glass noodle soup. Its clear broth is full of slow-cooked flavor, and it’s a good option for children.

Oishi is located in a small octagonal building near the Panama City Beach city offices, and the interior is simple and calming. There’s no outdoor eating space, but takeout is available for those heading back to beach condos. Service is always friendly; diners will feel appreciated. The owner seems to keep a careful eye on the kitchen quality, and a mistake in our order was favorably resolved. Prices are reasonable, without the upward creep you often see in Thai restaurants; most entrees are under $10.

Oishi Thai & Sushi on Urbanspoon

Friendly Family Steakhouse

Here’s the kind of family steakhouse you may remember from nights out when you were a kid. Despite the cowboy theme, Roughstock’s menu offers as much seafood as steak, including local specialties like fried mullet. The crab finger appetizer is worth a try; it’s available broiled or fried, and the taste is light and fresh. The portion is enough for several diners to sample.

Steaks were cooked properly to order, and sides were tasty; options included sweet potatoes and several veggies. There are enough menu options to keep diners interested for multiple visits. Piggy found the service friendly and prompt. There’s nothing fancy here– this isn’t a special occasion or date-night place– but it’s an enjoyable night out.

Roughstock caters to families, and there’s a children’s menu with meals in the $5.00 range. There are also burger options for hungrier kids and teens. Entree prices are mostly under $20, so Roughstock is a more budget-friendly choice than the steakhouses along the beach. With its location in a strip mall in Lynn Haven, this isn’t a typical tourist destination, but you’ll find good food in a friendly setting.

Roughstocks Steakpit and Seafood on Urbanspoon

Best fish sandwich

Piggy delights in finding family-run restaurants which have stood the test of time. Jimmy’s Diner, open since 1946 on East Sixth Street, is just that kind of place. It’s a friendly, order-at-the counter kind of place where both staff and regular diners step in to hand you a menu if you’re a first-timer.

The menu offers fish, burgers, and sandwiches, and there are some surprises like fried pickles. Many items are available in a standard or jumbo size. The standout at Jimmy’s is the fish: whether as a fish sandwich or fish and chips, it’s fried to perfection.

What’s so special about it? It’s fresh, of course, and the breading is crisp and hasn’t been sitting in a soggy basket all morning. There’s no taste of stale oil. Jimmy’s serves homemade tartar and cocktail sauces, which firms one’s resolve never to bother with the commercial version. The cocktail sauce comes alive with horseradish flavor and complements the simplicity of the fried fish. The fries, on the other hand, are ordinary crinkle-cuts.

Next time you’re up for a platter of fish, set sail for Jimmy’s. Piggy would love to see your comments on this or any of the other restaurants on this blog.

Jimmy's Diner on Urbanspoon

Black Angus Restaurant

The Black Angus steakhouse is a local landmark, and the restaurant enjoys a longstanding reputation for its prime rib. Sometimes, though, even a classic needs a facelift, and that’s the case with Black Angus. The décor is dim, droopy and dingy, and silverware was mismatched and sometimes not too clean.

There’s a massive aquarium as you enter, and a friendly hostess with lots of local information on offer. Her sunny outlook should be matched by a brighter, cleaner atmosphere so that this restaurant can restore its original appeal. Wait staff were also good-natured and attentive, but our server was new to the job, and management needs to make sure everyone gets adequate training. Tables could use a makeover; baskets of fast-food style condiments don’t set the right scene at a sit-down restaurant.

The kitchen does a respectable job at Black Angus. The prime rib specials are good values, and steaks are capably cooked and presented. The sourdough bread deserves its good reviews.

There’s still a need for restaurants like Black Angus, which offer lounges, meeting rooms, and plenty of space for local or vacationing families looking for traditional steakhouse fare. I hope that we’ll soon see Black Angus emerge as a fresh, updated classic.

Black Angus Restaurant on Urbanspoon

International delights at Kabob House

Piggy loves this place!

Kabob House is a delight to discover: a family-operated restaurant where food is freshly prepared and well-presented, and where you can enjoy something out of the ordinary.

As the restaurant’s name suggests, there are kabobs, and that’s what brought us in. Lamb, Beef, Chicken, or Shish Kabobs are all nicely grilled and served with a thick pita and a small serving of rice, complemented by lovely pickled onion slices and a lively marinara-type sauce. The Combo Kabob also featured one kabob of fresh vegetables, and it comes highly recommended.

Other plates hail from the owners’ native Uzbekistan and from Greece. I appreciated the rice pilaf, an Uzbek national dish made with shredded beef and currants. There are also moussaka, roasted chicken, gyros, and dolmades.

Appetizers at Kabob House are an excellent value. Try the Uzbek Somsa, a stuffed pastry that’s almost a small meal in itself. Pelmeni, a Russian dumpling popular in much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, is another fun choice; I don’t know of another local restaurant which offers it.

We heard high praise from another diner for the homemade baklava, and it looked ample and enticing. I look forward to trying it on my next visit.

Lunch specials are available for $7.95-$8.50, and entrees run from $9.95-$19.50, with most in the $11 range. You’ll find the Kabob House at 1405C West 15th Street (15th at Lisenby). It’s worth the trip.

Kabob House on Urbanspoon