Pollos Jap Jap
Several Locations in Panama
Avenida 1AB Norte, El Cangrejo (Location visited)
Panama City, Panama
Around 20 or so years ago, a small food revolution occurred in Panama. Before that revolution, if it was late night (heck, even in an afternoon), and you wanted some snacks, aside from some 24 hours places (how Panama have them while we barely have one here in Vancouver is beyond me…) most likely you would end up in some shady, run down place with some mysterious characters running it. I know this quite well, as I used to live near one of these shady, run down places and knew those mysterious characters well! The food was usually fried: fried fish being the main staple, other frituras (fried food) like chicharrón, empanadas (fried savoury pocket pies) and hojaldras (similar to johnnycakes), yuca (cassava root), patacón (fried plantain) were usually found along. In some “special” days, morcilla, the local version of blood sausage could also be found. In the afternoons, I usually end up buying $0.50 of fried chicken heart (I was given about two dozen small morsels). Of course there were the legit ones and those that open only after 6:00 p.m. *cough**cough* In the later case, they had other sides to go along: potato salad (made with mayo from a jar and no fridge nearby!), arroz con pollo (chicken rice) and so on. Feel free to call it, “the old times”…
The revolution came in the form of chicken. But not any chicken (we already had KFC and similar local chicken shops): It was grilled chicken. People took 55 gallon barrels, cut it in half, added some hinges, a rack and you have a grill. What to cook in a grill? While pork is not that popular in Panama compared to beef (and this one not being cheap in Panama to being with), grilling fish is always a tricky business (besides, fried fish tasted a lot better), it left one small bird as an option: chicken. So, suddenly, in almost every other corner had one of these selling grilled chicken after 6:00 p.m. However, there was a precursor, somebody who triggered this chain of events. From what I can remember, the precursor of this is Pollos Jap Jap. (Oh, just in case, in Spanish, the “J” has a soft intonation, similar to how you would usually pronounce the “h” in English. However, in this case, despite its spelling, “Jap” would be similar to jab, as in the punch).
The picture above is not from their main flagship store, instead, it was the one of the several expansions they made afterwards. However, this was the closest one to my parent’s place, where I was staying during the trip, and the one I used to go more often. Their main dish is chicken, or rather part rotisserie chicken, part grilled chicken: they would cook their chicken in the rotisserie and the chicken would be charred slightly before serving. On top of that, some chimichurri sauce would be smothered. What is chimichurri? No, it is not a local sauce rather; rather it is an “invention” from further south (Argentina, Paraguay), made up of herbs – usually parsley, garlic, pepper, olive oil, mince and mixed together. Other dishes in their menu include souvlaki sandwiches (meat cooked in a skewer and put into a baguette), choripán (grilled chorizo in a baguette), chicken sandwiches (made from the rotisserie chicken) – all of these smothered in the chimichurri sauce; corn cobs and so on.
For this trip, my parents did not put any constrains on what I could bring home to eat. In fact, they even encouraged me to get some frituras for breakfast… (“Since you came all the way down here, you might as well have some things you can’t have there!” was their logic) However, I wanted to bring something I knew my mom would eat without saying a word (if you think I am critical about food, now you know where I got that from!). And that one thing was rotisserie chicken. Heck, way back then, if she did not want to cook, I knew she meant “go to Costco and get two rotisserie chicken for dinner“!
Anyway, when I arrived to Jap Jap, it was in the early afternoon and the shop was quiet, a bit too quiet for my liking. You know, when business is slow, it usually means most the food has been sitting there for a while, which means it might not be that good. Still, I relented: I wanted to reminisce some old memories. So, I made my order and took it home. At this point, I must add this side note: this is not the first time I have made reference to this chain. I wrote about it once before, on my post about Nando’s Chicken. So, in a way, I had one additional incentive…
Business was so slow that day, the employees even had time to chat with each other! Also, check the charcoal to grill some items.
Although I told my mom I would bring some chicken home that night, she was expecting me to bring only the chicken. Of course, why would I bring that only? Granted, my mom has never been that thrilled of other Panamanian dishes; this time it was different – she did not mind this time. And my father was actually enjoying it! So what did I end up also bringing? Here they are:
Tamal de puerco (pork tamale)
Tamal de pollo (chicken tamale)
Bollo de maíz nuevo
A couple of explanations:
- No, there is no typo. In Spanish, tamal is not written with an “e” at the end. That “e” is an American English thing. The plural of tamal is tamales.
- Tamal is made up of masa or cornmeal dough, then condiments are added, though, in Panama, tomato is almost a most (this is the reason why it turns orange-y). Sofrito, a fragrant mix of garlic, onion and tomato cooked in oil might be added as well. The filling is usually pork or chicken.
- There is no real difference between the pork or chicken variant; i.e, it is not that, because it is pork, a different set of condiments will be added or so on.
- Wait, isn’t it supposed to be wrapped in banana leaves? Yes and no. While these were wrapped, they were removed before it was given to me. Also, there is a local version called tamal de olla which rather than wrapping them into individual portions, it is served right from the pan and sofrito is added on top of the serving. Think mashed potato…
- Bollo de maíz nuevo – maíz nuevo referring to either young corn or sweet corn. The best way to describe it would be a “plain” version of a tamal. In fact, other than some some salt and fat (optional in most cases), nothing is added; it is just shaped/wrapped into the corn husk, boiled and served. This way, you can “taste” the sweetness of the corn.
So, how were they? The tamales were OK; I did not expect too much from them. Actually, I just wanted to try some. The hit was the bollo. I was expecting it to be a bit bland also; however, they were actually quite sweet. My father who usually disdains local food actually ate almost all of it! One thing I have not mentioned so far is that small container along with the bollo. That does not come with it. Instead, it was a small container of extra chimichurri. Not free, though…
Finally, the main part, the one reason I was in Jap Jap, the one thing I know my mother won’t complain if I buy it for a meal…
A whole chicken again, smothered with chimichurri. Although I took other pictures, this was about the only one that did some justice to the chicken. Though I knew it was sitting there for a while and it was not charred as they did it in the past, the eating experience was the same as I remember. It was still juicy (even the white meat pieces) and, even had it been dry, the chimichurri would have taken care of that problem. The bones could easily slide off the meat. Savoury yet not salty. Could it have been any better? Sure but, then again, it would not have been a chicken from Jap Jap.
To close this post, you might be wondering, “how much was all this?”. How about (all in US dollars)…
Three sides: $3.75
One small sauce container: $0.50
One whole chicken from Jap Jap: $5.60
Taxes: $0.00 (no sales taxes on food unless it is from a “luxury restaurant”!)
An dinner with my parents reminiscing old times: Pri… Err…. OK, you know the rest! ^_^