To truly understand Panamanian cuisine, one has to first understand its history and geography. “Panama was the first-ever colonization in the Pacific side of the whole continent of America,” says José Olmedo Carles Rojas, a chef who was born and raised in Panama City and continues to call it home. “From the 1500s, every single culture that you can imagine went through Panama to get to other places.” The result is a “melting pot” that is as diverse as a place like Los Angeles, he says, with myriad influences including Chinese, French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean, among others.
When Carles’s first stateside restaurant opens on Thursday, September 14 in Venice, Angelenos will get a taste of the chef’s personal style of Panamanian cooking, which pulls from the country’s rich foodways and was developed over years of running a duo of acclaimed restaurants in its capital city (Fonda Lo Que Hay and the now-closed Donde José). Veteran restauranteurs Louie and Netty Ryan (Hatchet Hall, Townhouse, Menotti’s Coffee) partnered with Carles on the restaurant after meeting through mutual acquaintances in 2021.
Si! Mon, which simply translates to “Yeah!,” takes over the former James Beach space on Venice Boulevard. The courtyard, with its abundant greenery and earthy terracotta accents, captures a lush tropical scene. “What we tried to do is make it feel like you are in a Central American garden that is close to the beach,” Carles says. The restaurant will initially seat 40 diners on the outdoor patio, with plans to double capacity by mid-October when the main dining room opens for service.
The opening menu focuses on seafood and shares the “same essence of flavors” as Fonda Lo Que Hay. But whereas the chef describes his cooking in Panama City as “playful” — dishes often arrive with instructions on how to eat various components — Si! Mon’s culinary approach is “more straightforward” and seasonal. Dishes on the “elevated street food” menu are meant to be shared: The chef recommends ordering four or so plates per person. Carles says that the menu will expand to around 25 dishes once the main dining room opens.
Not to be missed are Carles’s signature yuca tostadas, which first appeared on Lo Que Hay’s menu and take three days to prepare. The perfectly square, delicately crisp yuca rafts are deep-fried and topped with paper-thin slices of raw tuna, cachucha pepper aioli (“It tastes like a habanero but it’s not spicy,” Carles says), black lime, herbs, and served with a lime wedge. A vegetarian version of the tostada comes with hummus made from a starchy fruit grown on palm trees called pixbae (“There’s absolutely nothing you can compare it to because it’s just very unique,” he says), marinated Sungold tomatoes, and thinly sliced avocado.
Fried chicken drumsticks are another notable dish carried over from Lo Que Hay. Marinated with salt, garlic, and culantro, the gluten-free fried chicken is showered with a blend of salt and roasted rice powder. Carles learned how to make the “chicken salt” topping from a Vietnamese restaurant in Panama. Chef de cuisine Christian Truong’s (formerly of Manuela) Panamanian-style dumplings will be on the menu, bringing together Chinese and Afro Caribbean flavors. Filled with chopped shrimp, shrimp mousse, Panamanian-style sofrito, aji chombo, herbs, and aromatics, the dumplings are served in a shrimp bisque with a coconut curry reduction and finished with burnt scallion oil.
Si! Mon’s beverage menu features cocktails by barman Mitchell Bushell. “The focus for the drinks has been light and bright, drinks that play well with food but do not overpower the delicate notes,” Bushell tells Eater. The Si! Mon margarita includes mezcal, passionfruit, and vanilla, while the Umami Old Fashioned is made with a rum blend, mushroom amaro, and MSG. Wine director Duncan Mischo curated the restaurant’s exclusively orange wine list, which includes bottles mainly from California and the country of Georgia, while the beer lineup features Central American brewers like Imperial, Victoria, and Panama Cerveza.
In the early stages of bringing Si! Mon to life, Carles sought to define the restaurant by exploring two questions: “How does a Central American seafood restaurant look in LA?” and “What does it mean to be in LA and be Central American?” With Si! Mon, he may be closer to the answer than ever.
Si! Mon is located at 60 N. Venice Boulevard, Venice, CA 90291. The restaurant is open from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. Reservations are available on Resy.