Edilma Valdes owns a restaurant. She most often caters to the working men of the Darien who are content to dig into a steaming bowl of soup or the typical dish consisting of rice, a protein, some beans, and a bit of cabbage or tomato garnishing the plate. Nevertheless, this entrepreneur takes her restaurant and the presentation of her plate seriously.

When eating out – on extremely rare occasions and only when completely and utterly necessary – she is quick to judge other restauranteurs and the lack of care shown in their presentation. On rare occasions in her restaurant, she caters to wealthier Panamanians from Panama City, who are in the Darien for various reasons such as resetting the alarm system at the bank, collecting money on small loans, or visiting their country-bumpkin family members.

“When soup is ordered,” she explains to the perpetually new waitresses entering to earn a bit of cash for a few days before they skip out on the job, “you give the diner a spoon. When they order a plate of food, you are to give them proper utensils” ( i.e. a knife and fork wrapped neatly in a paper napkin).

Farmers do not like to eat with a knife and fork. What good are those if everything on the plate is already sliced or chopped into small enough pieces that it can be shoveled into the food-hole with a simple soup-spoon? Meat is stewed, so it is soft and does not necessitate a sharp blade. Chicken, when done well, falls off the bone. In the case that any animal protein continues to cling to the bone, it is completely acceptable to pick up said bone with one’s hands and gnaw on it until it has been cleaned and the soft pieces of bone most often swallowed. Even a fried fish can be eaten with a certain spoon/finger combination.

On one particularity hot Sunday, when Edilma does not make soup but rather only offers plates of food staples, a family comes in to order three meals of stewed beef. Once the waitress has brought the food to the table and provided the diners with the appropriate cutlery and glasses of water, they simply sit and wait, looking a bit uncomfortable.

Edilma is not a shy woman and is quite observant. When diners leave food on the plate, she assesses them; those who leave the salad intact receive a softer judgment than those who leave meat on the plate. Those who don’t touch the beans are wasteful and should have told her, but still are not judged as harshly as those who leave meat. She knows who is a good eater, who is picky, and who to offer a piece of queso blanco to because they will indeed appreciate it. She is an observer.

To this particular table of uncomfortable diners, she sways over, leans on the table (which, although standard size, reaches up only to her bellybutton), and asks, “What’s wrong?”

Her brusque, though innocently inquisitive, tone startles them. It takes the head of the group a moment to look up, make eye contact, and tell Edilma that they are farmers; they are simple people. He does not finish his thought or need to request anything because Edilma’s business-smarts are spot-on.

“I’ll bring you spoons. “I can’t eat with a fork either. It slows me down.”

When you are in Torti, near the Darien in Eastern Panama, do yourself a favor and eat at Dimita’s! Attentive to her clientele, she’ll have even the pickiest of gringos dining happily at Restaurante Valdes, the quintessential, authentic Panamanian restaurant-dining experience.

How to get there: Take an Agua Fria bound bus from the Panama City terminal to Torti. Ask to get off at the entrance to Rio Congo (la entrada de Rio Congo). When you exit the bus, stay on the same side of the road (don’t cross over to the restaurant that claims free wifi). With the bank to your left, look to your right for the stout, blue and white striped building, also housing a medical center (Centro Tortí). Edilma and family are always making changes to the restaurant so, although it may look under-construction, it is open for business. Tell her you would like to eat comida natural.