New Colada Shop Chef Is Amping Up DC’s Breakfast Scene

Jovana Urriola is bringing Panamanian flavors to the Cuban coffee-shop

Jovana Urriola left Panama for the States when actor Owen Wilson hired her to be his private chef. Photograph by Evy Mages .

In 2018, chef Jovana Urriola was living an idyllic life in Panama, spending her days hiking in the rainforest, surfing, and running Soo Artisan Kitchen, a fusion restaurant in Panama City’s historic quarter. That November, she got a visit from a high-profile tourist.

“My host told me, ‘Today we have important people here,’ ” Urriola says. “ ‘It’s a Hollywood actor. Owen Wilson.’ I said, ‘Who’s Owen Wilson?’ ”

Urriola tended to the table herself, explaining her dishes to the blond Texan star: charbroiled beets with a polenta tamal, pumpkin rice topped with shrimp.

Wilson, who has visited Panama several times, was impressed. After Urriola brought out dessert, he made a bold request, in the manner of comfortable celebrities who are seldom told no: Would she be his personal chef?

“I thought he was kidding,” Urriola says. But a month later, she was flown to Maui, where Wilson has a home, to start cooking. The gig was fun—Urriola regularly flew between LA and Hawaii and got to be creative with her cooking—but also challenging. Wilson eats mostly vegan, supplementing his diet with salmon sourced only from Alaska.

Six years later, she’s become a rising star in DC’s restaurant scene. In 2020, fellow Panamanian Mario Castrellón tapped Urriola to revamp the kitchen at the standalone Shaw location of Cafe Unido, which also has a dozen locations in Panama. Her Central American–­accented breakfast dishes at the sleek coffee shop are almost incongruously delicious. Standouts include eggs Benedict with sofrito hollandaise, served over fried yuca, and a fried-egg sandwich with avocado, bacon, fried mozzarella, and sweet sofrito aïoli tucked into a four-square of pillowy mini rolls.

This year, Urriola—once a contestant on Top Chef Panama—represented her home country at the annual Embassy Chef Challenge, in which cooks chosen by their country’s delegations face off in a culinary competition. Her invention—a chicken-dumpling tamal that blended Afro-Caribbean and Asian influences—earned her the top prize.

Now, with her latest venture—she recently joined the ever-expanding Colada Shop chain as its regional executive chef—Urriola is stepping beyond strictly Panamanian cooking. Still, she hopes to weave some Panamanian flavors into its Cuban coffee-shop menu.

And one day, Urriola plans to open a place of her own here with her wife, Monica Piccolo-Evans, the head bartender at Queen’s English. “I cook, she makes cocktails,” Urriola says. “We’re already working on it.”

This article appears in the June 2024 issue of Washingtonian.

Ike Allen
Assistant Editor