Stop staring at me, KLM flight attendant cutout!

It’s 12:30 in the morning at the Houston International Airport, and I’m 10 meters from the locked door to the KLM crown lounge, staring wistfully at the “will return at 6am” sign being held in the hands of the smiling blue-suited cardboard cutout of a KLM flight attendant. I do remember agreeing and accepting that it was going to be a crappy night of sleep on the floor of an airport, and that the Priority Pass lounge probably wouldn’t be available….but really, terminal D of the IAH airport, do you have to play horrible, twangy pop-country nonstop? My headphones aren’t blocking the music nearly enough.

But what a great mini-vacation back home it was. The night of the 23rd, haggard after another all-day travel affair so soon after returning from Colombia on the 21st, found me back at my parents’ home in Brodhead. Not much changes in 5 months on the farm, except that their beloved Maine Coon cat, Omar, is slowly dying of kidney failure. Neither me, my parents, nor my veterinarian little brother were able to keep completely dry eyes over the days we were all together. Omar has always been the friendliest, chirpiest little show cat a family could have, and seeing him in a dazed, weakened state, barely able to walk steadily much less writhe happily on the floor, sing-meowing to us in hopes of being petted…it was rough.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Heise

Suleiman the orange tabby gives his sick brother a friendly head bonk.

That was the only sad part of the return home. Josh and Becca have moved to Chicago, which means my parents can see them far more frequently than when they were in the boonies of Ohio, my parents were happy to test new dinner dishes out on all of us, and I felt an unusual compulsion to butt in on my parents’ holiday task list. I can probably blame all that on Panama; when you spend your days sweeping, mopping, making food and washing dishes – for someone you love, not as a corporate employee – to do the same thing for different people you love just becomes automatic and instinctive. There was food prep and housecleaning to do; I did them without even thinking about it. I’m not trying to imply I was a spoiled little wastrel in prior years but my interest in helping out this Christmas even surprised myself. Who knows; perhaps Panama is making me into a harder worker!

My parents aren’t the ones to prepare unhealthy food, of course – that all came when my dad dropped me off at my beloved workplace of the past seven years, the SSCC at the UW. My dear friends Caitlin and Branden (of Dead2Red fame) had offered to put me up at their newly remodeled, newly purchased home and Caitlin, my coworker, had offered to buy the SSCC staff – including their leave-of-absenced friend Zach – a Glass Nickel Pizza lunch.

Oh, good pizza…how I’ve missed it in Panama. Pricesmart, much like Costco, can make you a $11 18″ pizza that’s pretty darn good for the price and the size, and Ciao Ragazzi will make you a thin crust that’s acceptable. But really, the only pizza in Panama that I can say I’ve truly enjoyed eating was up in Boquete, at the Neapolitan pizzeria owned by an expat. Sadly, the locally designed pizza in Panama City is lacking. Of course, USA chains like Little Caesars and Papa Johns exist too, but same as in the USA, their quality isn’t worth mentioning.

That night was pizza again! Not Glass Nickel a second time – although I’d have been completely fine with that – but the truly spectacular Grampa’s Pizza on Willy St. You’d have to pay quite a bit to truly fill yourself up on the small pizzas they make vs what people think of as a standard pizza size, but the combination of unique and extremely rich (i.e. gloriously unhealthy) toppings would probably make you pause after a couple.

Branden and Caitlin had a surprise for me – they’d gotten late night dinner reservations in Chicago at Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo restaurant for the next night and taken the week off work so we could all hang out and do the main thing I’d constantly been telling them I wanted to do: eat all the rich foods I’d left behind. We can’t just go to one restaurant after making the drive to Chicago though, they told me – we’re going to Little Eataly for a light lunch first, and we got hotel rooms for after the restaurant.

I’m usually a budget grocery shopper, but after paying punishing prices for groceries in Panama City, I was casting my eyes on the fine Italian pastas, sauces, and ingredients with new interest. Woodmans and ALDI prices aren’t possible due to the ballooning cost of living in Panama City, so if I was going to be paying so much for mediocre brands in PC, why not fill my empty checked bag with stuff to bring back? After a tasty tapas lunch of shrimp, bread, risotto, and fresh mozzarella, I took a few moments to smell the truffles (literally) and buy a half dozen cans of Italian-made tomato sauce and spaghetti noodles.

We killed a few hours before our 9:15 Topolobampo reservation by playing some pinball and Galaga at a barcade nearby, then it was finally time for the main event. We filed into the quiet, playful-yet-somber restaurant and were seated by a jovial waiter at an immaculately linen-ed table. A brochure for their limited time “Pre-Colombian” menu was on the table. I almost wanted to take a copy as a souvenir, it was so well written. Having just gotten back from Colombia, though, I was happy to try their Classic Menu which, according to Branden and Caitlin, had made the place famous. (Bear in mind I’d barely heard of Rick Bayless, much less the names of any of his restaurants, before yesterday. I sure was enjoying his food, though)

Much like Madison’s Pig in a Fur Coat, the next hour and a half was a dreamy, hazy blur of having dishes placed in front of me, and then me trying to consume the delicious food as slowly as possible and savor every bite, taking moments to re-read the menu with my mouth [partially] full and try to figure out which flavors I was tasting were which. Sometimes I burst into exuberant exultation regarding the food we were all eating at that moment, prompting Branden to laugh and say “keep it together Zach, use your Michelin Restaurant voice in here.” Oh but Branden, you can’t possibly understand how happy I am to not be eating a plate of chicken, rice, and plantains right now.

A pretty terrible picture of the main course (seared foi gras with carne asada in mole) but to be fair, it’s really dim in the restaurant and I was trying to not to be gauche with avid photography

Caitlin contemplates the priciest sprinkles-coated dessert any of us are likely to ever consume

Filled to the brim with Oaxacan-inspired, American-designed food, we were Ubered back to our hotel where we all immediately bid each other goodnight and dropped into food comas. But how to follow up a place like Topolobampo the day after? In the morning’s grey and drab Chicago light, how could a Mole that rich, and mushrooms so spiralized, ever be matched? But our friend Dan with us, called by Jude “all four horsemen of Zach’s bad-decision-making” nudged me and said “have you ever eaten Au Cheval’s burgers? They’re pretty amazing burgers.” He knew my weakness.

After biking with Branden, Caitlin, and a more or less steady group of a dozen other people for the past five years, they know I love burgers. And Panama’s local burger scene, sadly, is just as weak as their local pizza scene. I don’t hold it against them though, because there seems to be a constant underlying push towards healthier diet choices in Panama. Vice foods are more highly taxed, I barely ever see anyone smoke cigarettes, and sadly, meat with fat in it, including the meat you’d be grinding to make a burger patty, is simply not popular or common. Lean meat is not just a craze or an option in Panama, it is THE option. If you have cow meat, it will be lean. The fat is removed and spirited off to wherever it is flavorful byproducts go when they’re not allowed to go into my mouth. In Jordan I could get a tasty, spiced up and delightfully greasy schwarma for 80 cents, only a couple blocks from my house. In Panama I can barely find hot sauce in a restaurant to spice up my $3.50 plate of rice and beans. It’s just a very different food culture.

Needless to say, Branden and Caitlin were amused by my immediate agreement with Dan that yes, a burger would be quite nice thank you very much – but apparently several hundred Chicagoans and our fellow tourists decided that Au Cheval would be a great place to go on a Friday morning, too…and we weren’t willing to wait 2 hours for a table, even if Dan said it was the greatest burger ever. So instead we all got the Ultimate Burger at the nearby quaint, hayloft-styled Grange Hall. I got the burger medium rare (so did Dan) and it dripped tasty juices onto my tray, which I sopped up with Dan’s french fries. All was well.

Why can’t I find burgers like this in Panama!?

Not to be outdone with just “fancy” food, we stopped by Dan and Branden’s weakness on our way back to Madison – Conejitos in Milwaukee. Probably the exact polar opposite of Topolobampo’s Mexican food, Conejitos’s $4 4-pack of tacos and $10 pitchers of margaritas could finally fit my budget to buy my friends lunch!

Apparently having me in their house had put Branden and Caitlin in a nostalgic mood, for we’d only been back in the house for a night when they announced they’d be cooking me and our friends a Middle Eastern dinner worthy of the ones we’d had two years ago in Jordan. The menu was kufta lamb meatballs, hoummus, and fuul – the latter of which Caitlin created, but had me personally inspect several times during its creation to see how it compared with my go-to restaurant down the block from my old house in Amman, Abu Jbara. Everything was delicious, even though Branden’s kitchenaid meat grinder attachment went on the fritz and he had to hand-chop everything instead!

The well-fed creators and consumers of the Middle East Feast 2017

Thankfully it wasn’t just unhealthy food on the menu for me; although I’d heard of it in NYC and DC many times, it was my friend David in Madison who introduced me to his new favorite food – Poke bowls. Man cannot live on burgers, pizza, and vastly different forms of Mexican food alone, after all. I was initially a bit skeptical but since I love sushi, I figured poke couldn’t be that different. By the time I had powered through my albacore bowl at the new Miko Poke restaurant, I was exceedingly glad he’d decided to take me there – not only was it tasty and unlike anything I’d seen offered in Panama City (yet, although I’ll admit I haven’t looked for Poke) but hopefully it gave my arteries a chance to recuperate. Slightly.

Because then, for my second to last night in town, it was off to the aforementioned A Pig in a Fur Coat for their New Years Eve tasting menu. I’ll be blunt: as much as I enjoyed my first and so far only visit to Topolobampo, when I think of the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at, it’s always the Pig. I like the variety of styles and options and to not be held to a particular region for cuisine when I’m paying so much for food, and in the end, it probably helps that the Pig is probably only known to Madisonians and other people in our area, whereas a Rick Bayless restaurant is known to orders of magnitude more. The chefs and owners here in Madison are probably under a lot less pressure, and it shows in the more comfortable, friendly ambiance of their restaurant and the menu itself.

They all wish I’d stop taking pictures, but I need something to look back nostalgically over when I’m eating an arepa for the thousandth time

Honorable mentions go to the always delicious Mickey Burger (with the pink-orange giardinera sauce) that Branden and I brunched on one morning, and to my last burger of the vacation, the Tip Top (my first time eating that one but hopefully not my last).

And of course thanks to my awesome parents who took me to Bonefish Grill on New Years Day!

Now here I am in the airport, waiting for the lounge to open and wondering whether I’m tired enough yet to nod off in these uncomfortable chairs. Sadly, the TSA back in Chicago found 3 of my cans of tomato paste I had put in my carry-on luggage (too much weight in the checked!) and they were disposed of. I hope the agents enjoy that tasty Italian flavor I was trying to import back to Panama.

It’s a good thing it’s “always summer” in Panama City; I need to get jogging or back on a bicycle as soon as possible to work off all these burgers, tacos, and pizza! Right after I visit Little Caesars on Via Espana…