Hats Off to Panama

Perhaps the last person you'd expect to be running the Panamanian eatery Las Molas, located on the site of a former Nicaraguan restaurant in the Hispanic enclave of Sweetwater, would be a woman with the Irish surname McNish. But then this is Miami. You can't necessarily tell someone's nationality by her last name.

In this case, though, there's some romantic juice to the familiar multicultural story. McNish is actually chef-proprietor Rosario Salas's married name. The Panamian-born Salas opened Las Molas in March 1997 with her son Julio, who helps cook, and her two daughters Erika and Nelida, who wait tables. Several months later Clarence McNish, an ex-cop from New York City vacationing in Miami, visited the restaurant. He never left. Originally from Panama -- his great-grandfather was Irish -- McNish was hooked like a corvina. "I thought anybody who could cook like that would make a great wife," he admits. "So I came every day. I ate, mopped, swept, washed the dishes. I showed her that I knew how to be a good husband."

McNish's housekeeping skills must have been impressive. A year later he's enjoying a steady diet of perfectly cooked bistec entomatado (steak in tomato sauce) and pollo asado (baked chicken). He's also been promoted from maid to general manager. Which is fortunate for gringos, because he speaks English. Salas and company don't; this is a problem only when universal gestures such as tipping an empty glass to ask for more wine fail.

A limited wine list of Italian and Chilean vintages is provided; when we visited, however, there was no point in ordering from it. Las Molas had no white wine at all in stock and only three bottles of red. The waitress brought all of them to our table, and we indicated our preference for a Chilean cabernet by pointing. Most of the items on the Spanish-language menu have English descriptions listed in parentheses beneath them, but a few seemed to have eluded the translators. Chicheme a la chorrerana and carimanola, for instance, are described only as Panamanian treats; turns out the former is a drink made from evaporated milk and hominy, the latter is stuffed yuca. Others, such as arroz con leche and "sundae boulevard balboa," are unhelpfully rendered as "arroz con leche" and "sundae boulevard balboa." Owing to the language barrier, we wound up with more dishes than we'd ordered. We didn't send any back, though.

Difficulties in communication, real or imagined, ceased to exist once the food began to arrive -- "mmm" is the same in any tongue. Salas and her son bake and fry their typical Panamanian fare with panache. Anyone familiar with Cuban and South American cuisines will recognize the reliance on plantains, corn, limes, chiles, rice, queso blanco, and beef and poultry. So appetizers such as tamales and entrees like churrasco have a built-in wide appeal. Ceviche de corvina, served in a cocktail glass with plastic-wrapped Saltines on the side, was one such preparation. Though a little chewy, the moist chunks of corvina, a white fish, were thoroughly saturated with lime juice and perfumed with a caviar of minced white onions. Ceviche "morir sonando," a chef's special ceviche, was an improvement. The fish was juicy and succulent, with chopped pink shrimp adding a satisfying textural contrast.

The "super tipico," a gigantic sampler platter of starters, also contained several universally Latin items. Pounded and deep-fried green plantains were as greaseless as the engine of a new car, not mealy and slippery with oil as they can be. Fried yuca, on the other hand, was rather soapy. And though identical hunks of fried pork and chicken leaned toward the dry side, chunks of beef marinated in lime juice and then grilled medium-rare were superb, while large rounds of pork sausage were pungent but not overwhelming. The staunchly Panamanian dish hojaldre stood out here. Essentially deep-fried bread, these puffy, bubbled triangles tasted like the sugar-sprinkled fried dough sold at fairs and street festivals.

Main courses come with a generous green salad and two side dishes, several of which we'd already tried on the super tipico. Other choices include crisp French fries, fried queso blanco, and fried ripe plantains. The restaurant had run out of the coconut rice we wanted -- an interesting state of affairs given that we were the only people in the place. We settled for white rice, some grains of which were rubbery and old.

A baked pork entree, masas de cerdo asado en salsa, wasn't available either, a situation we were informed of ten minutes after ordering it. Instead, the waitress recommended garlic shrimp, a house specialty. In the end we weren't disappointed. The four prawns were enormous, lobster-rich crustaceans, perfectly cooked and lightly seasoned with garlic and butter. A side dish of stewed lentils -- spooned over the rice -- was excellent. Nor were we let down by carne asada con queso frito, which was a longer, flatter version of the beef we'd sampled on the super tipico. This flank steak had been grilled to a crisp, lime-spiked finish. Half-melted cubes of fried queso blanco were piled on the side.

The shrimp and steak were terrific, but two other main courses impressed me even more. Pulpo a la costena, octopus in coconut milk, was mild and succulent. The chunks of octopus had give, yielding to the teeth rather than resisting them, and the creamy broth was resonant with curry. Wonderful. Pescado a la Tipitapa was also a delight. A whole snapper had been stuffed with jalapenos and onions, then battered and deep-fried. The coating split easily to yield sweet, firm white fish, heartily flavored and pulled easily off its skeleton. A ramekin of zingy tomato-onion sauce was provided for dipping.

We decided to try a real "Panamanian treat" for dessert, and followed our server's recommendation for the sundae boulevard balboa. A scoop of vanilla ice cream was buried under a plethora of candied cherries and pineapple, plus a froth of whipped cream. Arroz con leche made better use of white rice than the aforementioned side dish -- here the grains were evenly cooked and spiked with cream and cinnamon.

Wooden chairs and tables, booths, and a low-hanging roof give Las Molas, named for the applique designs of the Cuna Indians, a generic hacienda-like appearance. The decor could fool the customer into assuming that nothing special is going on in the kitchen. That would be a mistake. Maybe it's the name McNish that is keeping the place empty on weeknights. More likely, though, many folks don't know what to make of Panamanian fare, a lesser-known Latin cuisine here in Miami. My advice? Don't make anything of it. Just go.

Las Molas
10910 W Flagler St, Sweetwater; 305-221-8833. Lunch and dinner daily from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 1:00 a.m.

Ceviche de corvina
$4.95

Super tipico
$16.00

Pulpo a la costena
$10.95

Pescado a la Tipitapa
$14.95

Sundae boulevard balboa
$3.50

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