BY LENA KAZER
You could say Punta Lava Beach Bar and Grill is off the beaten path. Located on Red Frog beach in Bocas del Toro, Panama, the beach joint is a mere barefoot walk on the sand from Palmar Tent Lodge. The open-air restaurant provides views of surfers catching their last few waves of the day; it’s twinkle lights glittering invitingly on the border of beach and jungle. It’s convenient location amidst several tropical resorts leads many out-of-towners to dine at the grill, but in ordering familiar fare from the menu, many miss out on the stellar creativity of Panamanian chef, Kinga Samudio.
Just the other evening, the chalkboard behind the bar underlined fresh red snapper served with savory lobster cake. Lindsay Littlefield, bartender and sister of new owner Rich Littlefield and his business partner Kristie, took out her phone to show us a picture of a local fisherman holding a red snapper the size of his torso. She then pointed to the chalkboard and said, “I would try it. It’s as fresh as it gets.”
Chef Kinga explained, “The snapper you ate tonight, yesterday a local fisherman caught it. The week before, I got a 25-pound grouper. The lobster I got from the local Indians.” When it comes to Kinga, buying local is a top priority. Knowing where the seafood comes from is crucial to ensuring freshness, and to having a great story for those who dine at the restaurant. Additionally, doing business with the local fishermen means a challenging sense of spontaneity; Kinga finds fabulous fresh seafood, and quickly crafts it into a chalkboard-ready special. Lucky for us, Kinga’s creative impulses lead to serendipitous foodie-pleasers like the red snapper with vegetables and lobster cake.
The fish arrived with grill marks, seasoned delicately with olive oil, salt, and pepper. The flavor of the sea was not concealed or overdressed with sauces and spices, just left to speak for itself, fresh and simple. The snapper was served over a savory lobster cake, a complex and flavor-rich patty that beautifully contrasted the lightness of the fish. The dish emphasized a dichotomy; sweet and sour sauces decorated the plate, illuminating the Caribbean flavors in the cake, while the fish sat as the focus, unadorned and delicious.
Kinga learned to cook from his mother, who was a chef for 45 years, but also spent time traveling the world learning tricks from chefs in Italy, Thailand, Malaysia, and Bali, to name a few. His favorite time was spent in Rome, where he developed his trademark cooking-style, “My fish will be on the Italian side, and the sauce, Caribbean flavor: ginger, paprika, and coconut.” When asked what he misses most about Rome, his held his chest. “The ice cream…gelati, the bread, and the wine. That’s real red wine,” he said with sudden seriousness. When it comes to wine, you can take the chef out of Italy, but you can’t take Italy out of the chef.
Having tasted everything from street food in Bali to seven course meals in Malaysia, Kinga has a strong perspective on great cooking, even on the food capital of the world. “France has too much sauce, too much time to cook. (They) do 10 hours of sauce, I would die from hunger!” Kinga is seemingly on the opposite side of the creative spectrum, as his gastronomical gift is in adventure and spontaneity. Ask him his favorite food in the world and he’ll tell you, snake. “I’m an exotic chef…I cook monkey, Iguana, anything you can imagine.” It is his mischievous excitement for cooking new, fresh, innovative dishes that make ordering from the chalkboard a must when eating at Punta Lava.
When asked what’s next, what his dreams are for his future, Kinga replied, “I want to go to South America – Peru. I’ve got so many friends there.” When Wendy asked why Peru, of all of the places in the world, he replied, “I just want to learn, everyday is a possibility.”