Panamanian flag at Cafe con Libros
Latinos make up nearly 30 percent of the NYC population, ensuring no shortage of Latin American culture in the City. While neighborhoods like Washington Heights and East Harlem are famous for their large Latino communities—namely Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican and Cuban—there are plenty of corners of the City where the culture thrives. One less well-known group contributing to this, particularly in sections of Central Brooklyn, is NYC’s Panamanian community.
During the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s, thousands of Caribbean workers were summoned to Panama. These Afro-Caribbean migrants came from several countries across the West Indies, mainly Jamaica, Barbados, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Many settled in Panama, and many of those settlers or their descendants eventually made their way to the United States, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, and in particular to New York City.
The majority settled in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Flatbush and Crown Heights. Though just around 20,000 Panamanians currently live in NYC, they make up a vibrant community who are proud of their heritage—which represents an intersectionality of Latino, West Indian and African influences.
Here are some places in New York City to experience Panamanian culture and Panamanian-owned businesses.
Cuba Libre, Anyone? Head to
2294 Bedford Ave., Flatbush, Brooklyn
Frequently referred to by locals as “La Mi-Shell-E,” this bar is a staple for Brooklyn’s Panamanian community. It’s been around for ages and is one of the longest-standing Panamanian-owned businesses in New York City. Nestled in the heart of , the bar-restaurant serves as a hot spot for parties and events. Visit on a Saturday night to experience it at its liveliest. Order up a refreshing Cuba Libre (or a Corona) and people-watch as patrons dance the night away to reggaeton, salsa and dancehall music.
KC Gourmet Empanadas
Try a Spicy Chorizo Empanada at
38 Avenue B, Alphabet City, Manhattan
Who doesn’t love fried deliciousness? Empanadas are made in almost every Latin American country, and while everyone makes them differently, they are always tasty. KC Gourmet Empanadas, a small Panamanian-owned shop in Alphabet City, is known for its extensive menu of empanadas. Sample a few of the 40 different varieties, encompassing savory and sweet versions, along with traditional Panamanian dishes such as chicken tamales and caramiñolas (stuffed yuca fritters).
Partake in Tacos and Tequila at
1483 Fulton St., Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; 214 Parkside Ave., Flatbush, Brooklyn
El Jeffe, an incredibly popular Mexican restaurant in Bed-Stuy, is owned and operated by a tight-knit Panamanian family. The restaurant proved such a hit that the family opened a second location in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens section of Flatbush. Panamanian touches are evident in Afro-Caribbean–influenced dishes like jerk pork taco and coconut rice.
Plan a Dinner Date to
40 Avenue B, Alphabet City, Manhattan
This bar-restaurant offers a modern take on traditional Panamanian cuisine. The owner, Karla Cruz, who opened the restaurant during the height of the pandemic, shared with us that her inspiration was to bring awareness and recognition to Panamanian culture—especially in Manhattan, where there are not many Panamanian eateries (note: Cruz is also the person behind KC Empanadas, listed above). A diner favorite is the bistec picado (Panamanian skirt steak), which is served with a tasty rum reduction sauce.
Satisfy Your Cravings at
111-17 Jamaica Ave., Richmond Hill, Queens
Nimbley’s is a family-owned bakery that offers Panamanian delicacies year-round. The skilled bakers—who attribute their culinary chops to generations of passed-down family recipes—craft all kinds of delicious treats, from fruit bon (a classic Afro-Caribbean sweet bread) to mouth-watering fritura. These are typical Panamanian fried street food such as empanadas de maíz (corn empanadas) and hojaldres (fried dough). You can find other traditional baked goods such as a to-die-for caramel apple crumble pie.
Glow Forever Collection
Revamp Your Wardrobe with
1051 Rutland Rd., East Flatbush, Brooklyn
While many of the Panamanian-owned businesses in NYC are restaurants, this is a clothes shop owned by a Panamanian fashion guru. The owner, China, is popular within the community for selling fashionable, one-of-a-kind pieces. Customers can browse the wide selection of women’s clothing or hire China for customized styling services.
Cafe con Libros
Get Cozy with a Book from
724 Prospect Pl., Crown Heights, Brooklyn
Cafe con Libros, a woman- and Panamanian-owned bookstore and coffee shop, sells books that are written or illustrated by women. The name, which translates to “,” is inspired by the owners’ Hispanic heritage, her love of reading and an appreciation for fair trade coffee farmers. The vibrant but tranquil venue seeks to create a place of calm for all community members but is especially focused on people of color and female-identifying visitors.
Attend the Annual
A great way to experience Panamanian culture in the City is to catch the annual Panamanian Day Parade. The event typically takes place in October and serves as a reminder of home for many Panamanians. Thousands of people line the streets of Crown Heights to enjoy performances, a marching band, dance, music and food from numerous vendors.