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 😉
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?