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Review | Café Unido sells good coffee. But Panamanian cuisine is spectacular.


Given the task of creating a breakfast menu for the hungry and harried DC customer, Jovana Urriola could have thrown bacon, eggs, and cheese into a tortilla and called it a wrap. But at Café Unido in Shaw, the hardworking Panamanian chef is brimming with bigger ideas.

Urriola’s version contains sofrito aioli, avocado puree, velvety red beans and a touch of hidden texture in the form of concolón, the crispy rice from the bottom of the pot favored in other cultures like tahdig or socarrat. Each ingredient is evenly arranged in a package sealed with a seam. The basics – fluffy scrambled eggs, even planks of crispy bacon – are impeccable. This isn’t just any old roll-up. It’s El Breakfast Wrap. (And the price is accordingly $16, including a side of tangy greens.)

The chef said she was inspired by the Mexican burrito and Panamanian beef and rice bowls. “There’s a common expression we say in Panama: ‘Rice, beans and meat, always for the people.’ I wanted to do this in secret,” Urriola said.

At this outpost of a Panamanian coffee company that sources micro-lots and sells rare Geisha drinks at market price ($10 to $12 on a recent visit), Urriola’s kitchen makes more than keep up with the drinks. With each visit, I leave with a new appreciation for a pickle or condiment made on site, or another touch of refinement. Everyone I’ve taken there seems to echo my reaction: it’s much better food than you’d expect from a cafe.

There are so many tempting options for breakfast and lunch that I haven’t tried them all yet. What I sampled in the open space, full of natural light and black and white landscape photographs, makes me want to tap the shoulders of the Howard students I see immersed in their books and tell them to be careful. Something special is happening here.

That’s thanks to Urriola, 33, whose resume includes a season on “Top Chef Panama” and a stint as actor Owen Wilson’s private chef. She was running a restaurant in Panama City when the pandemic hit, then signed on to help Unido open its first independent cafe in the United States (the brand also has a stand at La Cosecha, next to Union Market in northeastern Washington).

Urriola credits Café Unido co-founder Mario Castellón — the chef and owner of Maito in Panama City, a regular on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list — giving him creative freedom to pursue his idea of ​​”modern Panamanian cuisine.” Please note: the brand’s sites in Panama have adopted the Urriola treatment for the Unido Breakfast sandwich. Urriola builds his inside a group of four sweet Hawaiian buns, with a bubbly brown crunch of mozzarella cheese spilling around fried eggs, bacon, avocado and a tangy guava sauce .

The diet of the Central American isthmus is heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean and Chinese cuisine; the former is reflected in a creamy coconut curry served on tender chicken breast (great grill marks!) alongside soft grains of coconut rice and a light application of pumpkin seeds for more pop.

Note the Asian influences in a time-consuming pork belly sandwich: A 24-hour marinade flavors the meat with lemongrass, ginger, lime juice, cinnamon and coffee. The pork is then slow-roasted, sliced ​​and piled on a potato bun with a pickled salad (I’d happily snack on the sweet ribbons of carrots), a cashew-based mayonnaise and a cascara-based glaze, a fruity and sour tea prepared from the husk of the coffee plant which is discarded before roasting. (Cascara also lends a tamarind-like fold to Urriola’s homemade ketchup.)

Can you tell that the chef is a stickler for details? Urriola said she refuses to buy yuca paste made for her carimañolas, fritters stuffed with ground beef. Instead, she tinkered with her methodology for months, boiling the root vegetable with bay leaf and garlic and letting the puree dry before frying torpedoes that were light and devoid of any density. “The secret is to let it sit,” she said. She grinds organic Mexican corn to make the shells for little empanadas with a deep corn backbone that reminds me of a healthy Frito.

My only criticism of the restaurant is the thin crepes that fall flat, but even there, I am charmed by a surprise cocoa crumble in the vanilla mascarpone mousse. My favorite treat? Orange raspadura latte with a syrup made from citrus peels and unrefined sugar. The same syrup is a typical flavor of a Central American shaved ice frozen dessert called minuta.

Whether it’s breakfast or brunch, Urriola has given her customers plenty to consider. Unido recently hosted its first pop-up, an evening of Latin street food accompanied by natural wines and a vinyl soundtrack, to give the chef another creative outlet for dinner service.

Coffee geeks have the opportunity to discuss rotating roasts from small producers who work directly with the UN. Head roaster Francisco Flores said there are brew and espresso drinks for customers who want to take their caffeine conversation-free, but on the other end of the spectrum, he runs an omakase coffee service which delves deeper into the process and ends with cocktails. like the Panama Cliche (rum, cold infusion and burnt banana syrup).

On a recent visit, I paid $12 for a glass of Abu Geisha that gave me Concord grape vibes before opening up to something that looked more like a dark chocolate-covered strawberry. For customers who might be skeptical of the price, Flores emphasizes the wholesale cost and that it’s not intended to be an everyday price. drink. He prefers you think of it like a glass of wine or a boutique IPA – “a treat you can treat yourself to once a week.”

This seems reasonable. But all my encounters with Urriola’s fine cuisine have been so enriching that I’m not sure I can wait that long.

908 W Street NW; cafeunido.com.

Hours: Closed on Tuesdays ; 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Nearest metro: 800 meters from Shaw-Howard University station.

Prices: Breakfast $16 to $27 (for steak and eggs); bowls and sandwiches $12 to $22.


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