Food Tour of Key West

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This Florida Keys Foodie had the BEST time these past few days. Thanks to the planning of two great friends, we made it to the keys for a long October weekend. Even though I’ve lived in the Keys twice and been to visit countless times, I’ve only ever been there once between the months of September and March. I couldn’t get over how cool it was the whole time we were there. Instead of the wet heat that clings to your skin and the overly bright long light that spills into every corner, it was breezy, comfortable, and the light spread more delicately across the water, making it look darker than its usual aquamarine green. The upside is that it was WAY more pleasant to walk through the crowded streets of Key West with the cooler temperatures and breezes. The downside is the water was chilly, so instead of languorous afternoons floating in the pool and watching boats go by, we walked more and swam less than we normally would. Luckily my friends were game for a food tour of sorts as I marched them around to all my favorite foodie haunts. Well, almost all – we didn’t make it back to Garbo’s Grill or the Amigos Tortilla Bar, but we had to leave something to come back to ūüėČ

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Our first stop was to Kermit’s Key Lime Pie Shop in one of my favorite parts of Key West – right next to the water and Jimmy Buffet’s recording studio. If you ever visit the keys, you can’t swing a five-toed cat without hitting a key lime pie and there are many pie shops, but Kermit’s¬†is my favorite for one main reason: chocolate covered pie on a stick. This might sound weird to some, but it is freaking delicious. The bitterness of the dark chocolate tempers the tartness of the key lime custard and plays so well with the buttery graham cracker crust. The whole experience is tantalizing and indulgent. If pie isn’t your thing, Kermit’s also has key lime pie flavored crackers, cookies, peanuts, you name it. And they let you sample them throughout the store – #getinmybelly.

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Our second stop was at The Conch Shack on Duval St. – the main drag on Key West and an experience all its own. Our first night we just walked the street gawking at the bars and costumed people (it was the start of Fantasy Fest when we arrived, so there was a more than usual amount of crazy going on). By day, the street looked vastly different and was filled mostly with tourist families window-shopping. The Conch Shack is an unassuming open-air stand which only accepts cash. They have a short counter at the window and a little side alley where you can perch while you smell the enticing scent of fried dough. Conch is the iconic creature and food of the Keys, but was sadly over-fished in the past. Now the conch you eat there is imported. Still tasty though, and these fritters are the best of their kind. The batter is spicy and bready; the conch pieces are perfectly sized and moist. What takes these fritters over the top is the sauce. It is mayonnaise-based and works perfectly with the hot, fresh fritters.

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Our final stop on that day was to DJ’s Clam Shack¬†where the ladies ordered fried clams and I enjoyed a bowl of their delicious middle neck clams. They absolutely held up. The spicy, garlicky broth was just as good as I remembered it. Since we arrived mid-afternoon, it was relatively empty, but we carried on a fun conversation with the staff there. Don’t let the tiny store-front fool you, they have a large, shaded, and comfy patio at the back. If you aren’t stopping by DJ’s, you are missing out!

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Our Key West trip was by no means the only delicious eats we enjoyed on the trip. We had dinner at The Square Grouper – always good value. And we munched on Dion’s Fried Chicken while sunning ourselves at Bahia Honda. The surprise of the trip was visiting what used to be called The Wharf Bar and Grill. ¬†Five years ago I remembered them fondly for their fish fry baskets and blood orange margaritas. More recently they changed owners, added the Tiki bar, and the drinks were not as good. Now it is known as Billy’s Stone Crab which is apparently a chain specializing in the fishing for and serving of stone crab. I was looking forward to trying some stone crab since it is in season now, but I was surprised by the new menu and the rocking picnic tables. A manager came by and brought a presentation tray with different sized crab claws and cuts of steak. It was a far cry from the casual, locals-only vibe of the Wharf. The crab claws we ordered were tasty. They have a fishery right down the road, so it was fresh. If you’ve never had the claws, be prepared for a slightly sweet, chilled, and sometimes mealy flavor/texture – best with a cream sauce of some kind. We also each ordered a potato dish because they had a whole menu section devoted to that humble veggie. We weren’t prepared for the fact that each of the dishes were so large. My Lyonnaise potatoes were delicious, but massive. If you visit Billy’s on your way down to Key West, know that you can share a lot of their dishes which are all fairly pricey, but large.

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Although I loved this keys tour de cuisine, my favorite moments from the weekend were the mornings. My friends and I would take coffee to the screened-in porch and watch the water in the canal, talk, share stories. I loved the light, the breeze, and the laughter. It was so relaxing and yet so stimulating. Is there anything better than a vacation with good friends?

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#TacoTuesday ft. Lane Snapper

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In the past when visiting the keys for a week here and there, my family would book a charter boat and come back to shore with armfuls of the most delicious fish, cleaned and cut by the boat captain. A day or a half day is a GREAT way to spend time if you are in the keys. Even if you don’t care for fishing, the trip is always fun because you get to see some amazing sea life on the drive out – we normally see turtles, dolphins, sting rays, and jellyfish at the very least. Then there’s the appeal of knowing you’re in for a sure thing – I’ve never gone out on a charter boat and come back empty handed.

Now that we’re living down here, Mr. Foodie and I want to make fishing a semi-regular affair because we both love it and because we have easy water access. Our first fishing trip after we purchased a saltwater license was a dud. We didn’t have the right bait and we were in water that was too shallow – we caught and caught, but only caught babies. Thanks to a handy fishing app (Fish Rules) we know what the size and bag limits are for all the fish we catch.

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We got smart this time and moved to deeper water, but still too shallow for some kinds of fish like tuna. We hooked a few babies, but then we scored two regulation-sized Lane Snappers. At this point we were running out of bait (which we changed to squid instead of shrimp) mostly because these fish knew how to get it off the hook despite my best hooking tricks. Then all of a sudden Mr. Foodie watched the pole bend at an extreme angle. He started reeling hard, but every few seconds this whopper would pull out the line in spite of his effort. To our dismay the line snapped and we lost it all – bait, hook, and weight. We never did see it, so we can only speculate about what kind of fish it was. Our neighbor suggested a Rockfish which likes to dive back into its cavernous hidey-holes with the line, thereby snapping it.

In any case, we were one squid box down and two lane snappers up by the time we headed home. Because we still lack a fish cleaning station, we used the davit base where the hose is to cut and clean our fish. Though they were regulation size for lane snapper, they were still too small to stuff whole as I would have liked, so we filleted them. I snapped off the heads and pulled out the guts while Mr. Foodie cut the flesh from the bones. We chucked the bits into the canal where they were almost immediately whisked away by the sea life there.

What to make with our fresh catch? Because they were on the small side even before we filleted them, we wanted to stretch the fish meat out a bit – so we decided on fish tacos! I’ve written about using a large batch of tilapia (to feed a crowd) in¬†fish tacos, but this time we we decided to change up our recipe since it was a tiny amount of fish and just us.

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Lane Snapper Tacos

Fish

3 small fillets of Snapper (about 1/4 lb) divided into strips

Lime Juice

3 dashes Cumin

3 dashes Chili Powder

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Filling

1/2 White Cooking Onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil

1 can diced tomatoes

1 can black beans

salt and pepper

Put fillets in a bowl with squeezed lime juice and spices. Marinate for 15 minutes or so. Heat 2 Tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat and place fish strips in hot oil. Cook 2-3 minutes per side.

For the filling, saute onion and garlic in olive oil until softened. Add drained, rinsed black beans and drained tomatoes. Salt and pepper to taste and heat altogether.

To assemble the tacos, place 2-3 strips of fish in the taco, spoon filling over top, sprinkle cheese, and add any garnish such as lime wedge or cilantro to the plate.

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Let me just say that I was shouting “yum!” as I was taste-testing everything before serving. The fish had the perfect amount of flavor without overwhelming the fish itself. The filling was delicious all by itself – the cooked onion and garlic carried the tomatoes and beans. Together the taco had texture, flavor, and heat – a trifecta that made Mr. Foodie smile at me between every bite.

I had been a little disappointed with our return on investment for this fishing expedition, but after tasting our tacos, I can say with confidence that it was worth every moment.

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History in a Strip Mall – Review of CoCo’s Kitchen

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Our nearest full grocery store is a few miles up the road on a different island. If you didn’t know where it was, you would never find it off US-1. Situated between two roads that form a point, a trip¬†to this little shopping center feels more like entering the everglades than locating one of the area’s oldest strip malls. In fact, it butts up against a Key Deer habitat. If you visit Big Pine Key, it is more than likely that you’ll see one of the mini-key deer which are protected and endangered.

This particular shopping center has been around since my family lived here in the 80s if not longer. My mother tells me that she used to take my brother and I to this very grocery store where often the checking-out process took so long that she’d have to replace the ice cream which had all but melted. The check out process hasn’t sped up a lot since then, but Mr. Foodie and I enjoy chatting with the old ladies who run the day shift. As I’ve mentioned, our grocery store is going through a renovation which it desperately needed, but which also causes some problems for us since everything is moved around the store every time we visit. They are often out of things we need. In any case, each trip there has been a bit of adventure.

The other day we had several errands to run in that center, so we began with a trip to CoCo’s Kitchen which is a small, unassuming storefront next to the grocery store, but with claims to being a local favorite since 1969. It is tiny inside, but very clean and cozy with art on the walls and helpful signage. You can order your food to go at the counter or sit down. Everything on the menu is shockingly inexpensive. $3.50 omlettes, $4.00 breakfast plates. And free refills. They have daily specials, and a number of cuban-inspired dishes like Cuban French Toast which was unfortunately not available the day we were there. CoCo’s is open for breakfast, then lunch, and then they take a break and reopen for dinner. Mr. Foodie and I ordered two basic breakfast platters both of which were fine. Everything was cooked well and the portions were just right.

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Yes, that’s buttered cuban bread which came w/ our breakfast plates – #yum

We want to come back and try some of their lunch specials. If you’re passing through Big Pine Key and want to visit a local favorite, give this one a shot.

While we were there, Mr. Foodie and I also got groceries and had to wait 20 minutes at the checkout when the system suddenly failed and all the lanes were stalled. We didn’t mind – we just chit-chatted with the ladies about the renovation. They felt sorry for us, so they gave us an apple on the house lol We also swung into the tiny library located adjacent to the grocery store between a Chinese restaurant and the Tax Collector’s office because Mr. Foodie and I finally decided to get library cards! Though the library is small, they ¬†have an impressive food writing section, so I was happy.

Later Mr. Foodie and I decided to explore our surroundings a bit more, so we drove out to the very tip of our island where we heard there was an old wooden bridge/dock still standing. What I thought would be a rather short jaunt to the shoreline turned into quite a trek over rocky coral, around mosquito-filled puddles, and through a mess of mangroves. Mr. Foodie was losing confidence in my plan with every step and we definitely heard a variety of animal sounds coming from the shrubs, but we forged ahead. So glad we did! IMG_20160818_192346.jpg

We found the old wood dock and climbed up the ladder to get a view of the sunset. We were not alone as another couple had the same idea. We were excited to finally meet another young couple, but sad to learn they were leaving the area the very next day. We still had a fun time chatting and watching the rather amazing sunset. They came prepared with a cooler and bug spray. We vowed to do the same next time.

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When we got home we jumped in the jacuzzi for a bit so ¬†Mr. Foodie could see the stars come out – they can be quite brilliant down here thanks to the limited light pollution. Because the days are still so long, we didn’t stay until it was pitch dark, but we did end up seeing many of the brightest constellations before heading in. Not a bad day in paradise!

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We’re Not in Kansas Anymore – #Keyslife

Mr. Flamingo Floatie is running away w/ my beer

Since moving here, I find I’ve changed considerably. My habits, my person, my pace. In grad school we called this “becoming-other” – the kind of transformation that comes from traveling to a new place and letting it change you. And while I’m certain I haven’t completely adopted the complete mindset of a keys local yet, I have noticed some significant differences in the way Mr. Foodie and I live our lives.

These days, I find myself primarily preoccupied with two things: repelling mosquitoes and avoiding sun damage. Some people don’t have to worry about the tiny little blood-sucking bugs that reign supreme down here, but they really like my blood. We use incense coils when we’re outside and keep spray handy in the house, by the pool, and even in my purse. I always spray down my legs before a run (and arms and face). We are not alone in our efforts – keys locals all have their preferred methods to keep the little devils at bay. If you’re strolling around town and see plastic bags of water hanging from the railings, don’t be alarmed – this is just one of many tricks designed to keep mosquitoes away.

The second preoccupation is even more difficult. Perhaps you’ve been here before and seen the old men bicycling around with their backs tan as leather, their hair white as snow, and you think “why don’t they wear shirts and/or sunscreen?!” But we do, dear readers, we do. And it hardly makes a dent. I came from a land of seasons where the minute it got warmer than 60, I was out sunbathing. All vacations were spent maximizing sun time, knowing that in a few short months I’d be pale as the snow falling outside and dying for some vitamin D. I’m aware that contemporary skin scientists warn that practically *any* sun exposure is bad for you, but try living here for more than a week and you’ll see that despite your best efforts (and I mean best) you will still develop a full-body tan. I’m sure I look a little ridiculous most days when I’m out and about – sunglasses, wide brimmed hat, long pant legs (or sweat-catchers as I now call them), and every other part slathered in sunscreen. I walk on the shady side of the street. I search the parking lot strategically for a space that will have the most shade throughout the period we’ll be parked there (oh and we’ve purchased a window shade which we now pop open automatically even in covered garages).

Mr. Foodie and I are the types that tan deeply when we are around even mediocre sun. When I was living here as a child, my brother and I had nearly white-blonde hair and tan little bodies. It was

The only pic I could find showing me
as the tan blonde baby I was (bottom right)
and pictured also is my aunt and uncle Khaler
with my cousin and brother

almost comical. Since then my hair has darkened considerably, but Mr. Foodie says it is getting lighter again (just hopefully as a result of the sun and not of gray hair growth lol). Sunburns are generally a dead giveaway that you’re a tourist (although I’ve definitely seen some burnt locals, but it’s harder to spot given their base tans). If you’re planning to visit, just know that we’re 90 miles from the intertropical zone, around 1500 miles from the equator. You will probably need to be more diligent than normal about your sun management.

There are a myriad of other ways living here has changed us. Mr. Foodie notes that the amount of time we spend in water has more than quadrupled. Back home we went boating with the family once or twice a year, used the jacuzzi occasionally, and our community pool in the summer every week or so, but down here…if we’re not in the ocean, we’re in the pool, and if we’re not in either, we’re in the shower washing off the salt, sand, chlorine, bug spray, and sunscreen lol. We’ve become devotees of moisturizer just to cope with the dryness of our skin from all this water. On the plus size, the ocean is great for your skin. The water is also the reason we spend so much time outside. It is full-on summer here, so it is hot and humid, but the water makes it fun. I’ve lived in many places with hot summers – even a different part of Florida, and most of the time we spent outside is getting from one A/C unit to another. Here you can count on a lot of time out of doors, so plan accordingly.

Don’t worry, that’s my bite. Couldn’t wait to try it.

Mr. Foodie and I decided to try out the happy hour at the Looe Key Tiki bar just up the road on Ramrod Key. We’ve heard from a few people that it is a good one. Both our bartenders were attentive, friendly, and a little surprised at how quiet it was for a Friday night. We didn’t mind – the drinks were cold, the food was scrumptious. We both ordered the happy hour burgers – both cooked to a succulent medium just as we asked. The prices were a little higher than you’d typically see on a food happy hour menu, but as it’s attached to a hotel, that is to be expected. Domestic beers and rail drinks, however, are nicely discounted from 3-6:30. The whole bar is under a tiki roof and outdoors, but the fans and shade keep it it quite comfortable. We’re looking forward to returning again soon!


After drinks and burgers, we returned home and swam in the pool for a while, just catching the sun beginning to set before heading inside. All in all a good end to the week.

This weekend we have major yard work to deal with and some house projects, but we’re going to try and squeeze in some fun at Key West’s Lobsterfest where I plan to reap the rewards of all those lobster divers out there. So stay tuned, I might have some mouth-watering snaps of my favorite crustacean to share.

Want to follow along with my keys foodie adventures? Use the follow field on the right or check me out on Instagram @flkeysfoodie and Pinterest