Published On: Mon, Mar 4th, 2024

Cafe Unido sells great coffee. But the Panamanian food is spectacular.

Cafe Unido sells great coffee. But the Panamanian food is spectacular.
Cafe Unido sells great coffee. But the Panamanian food is spectacular.


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

Urriola’s version tucks in a sofrito aioli, mashed avocado, velvety kidney beans and a hidden boost of texture in the form of concolón, the crispy rice from the bottom of the pot prized in other cultures as tahdig or socarrat. Every ingredient is evenly arranged in a package sealed by a seared seam. The basics — fluffy scrambled eggs, uniform planks of crispy bacon — are flawless. It’s not any old roll-up. It’s El Breakfast Wrap. (And it’s priced accordingly at $16, including a side of tart dressed greens.)

The chef said she took inspiration from the Mexican burrito and bowls of Panamanian beef and rice. “There is a common phrase that we say in Panama: ‘Rice, beans and meat, always for the people.’ I wanted to do that in a wrap,” Urriola said.

At this outpost of a Panamanian coffee company that sources from micro-lots and sells rare Geisha pour-overs at market-price ($10 to $12 on a recent visit), Urriola’s cooking more than keeps pace with the beverages. Every time I visit, I leave with some new appreciation for a pickle or condiment made on the premises, or some other touch of refinement. Everyone I’ve taken there seems to echo my reaction: This is way better food than you’d expect from a coffee shop.

There are so many enticing options for breakfast and lunch that I’ve yet to try everything. What I’ve sampled in the spare space, full of natural light and black-and-white landscape photography, makes me want to tap on the shoulders of the Howard students I see buried in their books and tell them to pay attention. Something special is happening here.

That’s thanks to Urriola, 33, whose résumé 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 stand-alone cafe in the United States (the brand also has a stand in La Cosecha, next to Union Market in Northeast Washington).

Urriola credited Café Unido co-founder Mario Castrellón — the chef and owner of Maito in Panama City, a regular on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list — with offering her creative freedom to pursue her idea of “modern Panamanian cuisine.” To wit: The brand’s Panama locations have adopted Urriola’s treatment of the Unido Breakfast Sandwich. Urriola builds hers inside a cluster of four sweet Hawaiian rolls, with a bubbly brown crisp of mozzarella cheese spilling out around fried eggs, bacon, avocado and a guava hot sauce.

The diet of the Central American isthmus is heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean and Chinese cooking; the former is reflected in a smooth coconut curry served over tender chicken breast (nice grill marks!) next to supple grains of coconut rice and a light application of pumpkin seeds for more pop.

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

Can you tell the chef is a stickler for details? Urriola said she refused to buy premade yuca dough for her carimañolas, fritters stuffed with ground beef. Instead, she tinkered for months with her methodology, boiling the root vegetable with bay leaf and garlic and letting the mash dry out before frying lightweight torpedoes devoid of any density. “The secret is to let it rest,” she said. She mills organic Mexican corn to make the shells for small empanadas with a deep maize backbone that makes me think of a wholesome Frito.

My only gripe with the restaurant has been thin pancakes that fell flat, but even there I’m charmed by a surprise cocoa crumble in the vanilla mascarpone mousse. My preferred treat? The orange raspadura latte with a syrup made from the citrus rind and unrefined sugar. The same syrup is a typical flavor for a Central American shaved ice dessert called a minuta.

Across breakfast and brunch, Urriola has given customers plenty to consider. Unido recently hosted its first pop-up, a Latin street food night paired with natural wines and a vinyl soundtrack, to give the chef another creative outlet for dinner service.

Coffee geeks have the opportunity to talk through rotating roasts from small producers that work directly with Unido. Head roaster Francisco Flores said there are batch brew and espresso drinks for customers who want their caffeine jolts without the conversation, but on the other end of the spectrum, he leads a coffee omakase service that goes deep on process and ends with cocktails such as the Panama Cliche (rum, cold brew and burnt banana syrup).

On a recent visit, I paid $12 for a pour-over of Abu Geisha that was giving me a concord grape vibe before opening up into something more like a dark-chocolate-covered strawberry. For customers who may be skeptical of the price tag, Flores emphasizes the wholesale cost and how it’s not intended to be an everyday drink. He’d rather you think of it like a glass of wine or a boutique IPA — “a treat that you can give to yourself once a week.”

That sounds sensible. But all my encounters with Urriola’s finesse-filled cooking have been so rewarding, I’m not sure I can wait that long.

908 W St. NW; cafeunido.com.

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

Nearest Metro: Half a mile from the Shaw-Howard University station.

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


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