Just about everyone who walked through Kelso's door exchanged greetings at the counter, and even a first-timer like me was welcomed by the waitstaff and invited to "make yourself at home." I'd walked to this corner of Crown Heights for Panamanian food, but the menu seemed focused on frituras — the fried snacks you might scarf on East 116th — and on fare found in Spanish eateries all across upper Manhattan. (Kelso, and Panamanian food in general, mixes in many Spanish and Caribbean influences, I later heard from the owner.)
Asked for something typically Panamanian, my waitress proposed pepper steak ($5 for a small order, without beans and plantains) paired with a flat flour fritter called an hojaldre (oh-Hahl-dray; $1). Tear off a little of the hojaldre to pinch pieces of pepper steak, or use it as a starchy interlude between bites of meat; a fellow at the counter, with the same order, did both. (A reader tells me that the word is derived from the Spanish "hoja" — that is, it's a "leaf" you use to pick up your food.) Spoon on a little of the thin orange-brown hot sauce, perched discreetly on the table, to set your lips a-tingle.
I added some extra bulk with a carimañola ($1), a cassava fritter filled with seasoned ground meat; a couple of these to go would make a wonderful nosh. However, I noticed and then somehow neglected a handwritten sign for chicheme, which I've since learned is a distinctively Panamanian drink that combines milk, corn, cinnamon, and vanilla. Indeed, I bypassed the beverages entirely; Kelso serves "fresh juices" including tamarind, nance, and a concoction called Panamanian Kool Aid. I'll see if I can't swing this way again soon — there's a long, thirsty summer just ahead.
648 Franklin Ave. (St. Marks Ave.-Bergen St.), Crown Heights, Brooklyn