Cocos General Store: Restaurant Review

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Sunday was errand day for Mr. Foodie and I (we also organized the storage room, filled cracks in the concrete, and fixed some electrical issues #teamwork). If we ever need anything more than groceries and basic materials for productive days like that, we only have two options – go south to Key West or north to Marathon where these sizable islands will (generally) have what we are looking for (then there’s always amazon.com). We chose to go north to Marathon even though it is technically two miles farther away because we can get around it easier than in Key West where traffic can be cumbersome. After running several errands we were both too hungry to wait the 40 minute drive back home to grab a bite for lunch, so Mr. Foodie took me to a little convenience store he goes to sometimes during the work week –  Cocos General Store.

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There we met the owner, Debbie, and learned that she owns two stores, both of which are attached to marinas – perfect if, in addition to sandwiches, you sell bait and tackle. At the Cocos location she is a popular woman to the many boaters who set out from the docks surrounding her shop. They buy sandwiches before and after heading out and, of course, bait for fishing. We ordered just one sandwich because they are quite large – with a thick stack of meat between two pieces of regular bread. They also sell potato salad, macaroni salad, and other cold items. The only other cold item we purchased was a bottle of Dark Horse Rosé mostly because it was the only cold wine that had a twist top – wish we had known that Debbie very thoughtfully keeps both a wine cork opener and beer opener hanging from the handrail outside! 20160814_111848.jpg

In any case, we had a nice time sitting at one of the picnic tables, staring out at the cloud-heavy grey sky and wind-whipped water while we sipped wine and slowly ate our enormous sandwich halves. Mr. Foodie was right about the meat stack! I appreciated the flavor of the meat and the freshness of the veggies. I would have liked a more textured bread or perhaps toasted bread slices instead of the basic sandwich bread she had – but that’s just my preference. The atmosphere was lovely, the wine cold, and the meat generous (and the sandwich affordable) -all in all a great stop for lunch.

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The Hurricane Grill – Restaurant Review

Photo Credit: tripadvisor.com

I stumbled onto The Hurricane in Marathon because I decided to join Mr. Foodie one morning when he went to work. While I usually enjoy the quietness of the house for working while he’s gone, I also fall into non-writing ruts sometimes and need to switch it up. So we looked up a coffee place to hold me over until the library opened where I could spend all day. We found Keys News and Coffee on google maps and attempted to locate it off of US-1. No luck. As it often happens while driving through the keys, we couldn’t “see” it from the road even though the map app said we had arrived. If you’re ever driving through the keys, you’ll notice the non-uniform look of many businesses with their tiny signs and cluttered front drives – no shiny strip malls dotting every corner here. So he dropped me at the library which wasn’t open, and I made my way on foot to see if I could find it on the ground. I did. And it was wonderful. Jeff is the owner’s name and he makes an excellent cup of coffee. There is a pleasant area surrounded by magazines and books to set up one’s laptop and get work done. I asked Jeff if it would be okay if I perched there for most of the day and he said yes – many of his customers even ran their businesses out of there for want of  a proper office. And sure enough, I saw exactly that as phone calls were made and orders were recorded. I was having a bit of trouble getting stared on the dissertation when a man struck up a conversation with me which would turn out to be one of many unique encounters I’ve had with people living down here. We began with politics, always tricky, but ended with his life story which was rather incredible. He and his whole family lived on boat, and he performed in a band most nights at different restaurants around the keys. He and his family decided to sell everything and make this change after he survived cancer. His conversation was intriguing, pleasant, and just the break I needed to get my head in the game. Jeff tried to intervene thinking the man was interrupting my work, but I let him continue until he had to go because he was so unusual.


In any case, eventually I got hungry for something other than coffee (and buttered bagel crisps that Jeff made by hand and handed out to all his patrons at one point), so I began the longish hike along US-1 to a restaurant that was supposed to have a good, inexpensive lunch – The Hurricane Grill. What I stumbled upon was a local favorite. When I sat down to the horseshoe bar, my hopes weren’t terribly high for a great meal – it seemed like the kind of place that served a good drink, perhaps, and maybe okay pub food, but I ordered the salad/sandwich combo and realized immediately why this was a local favorite. Even this simple fare was elevated by the care that went into it, and I was hooked. The daytime bartender is a sweet, chatty woman who reminds me so much of Kristin Chenoweth that it’s uncanny. One of the locals welcomed me to the island by buying me a glass of wine! This was my kind of place. So I didn’t hesitate to bring Mr. Foodie here one day when we were both looking for a bite during our brief hotel stay. We were tired after a long day of boating and sun, so we opted for a simple pizza. We chose the sundried tomato, artichoke, meatball, and spinach pie and it was very good. Mr. Foodie noted that they could have pulled back on the amount of sundried tomatoes because a little of that goes a long way – which was true, but I loved them. What really sold this pizza was the crust. It was a perfect crust – thin, crusty, good flavor – with non of the bitter by-product that can happen with some home-made crusts. The Hurricane Grill is well-known for its $5 lunches and $10 dinner, but even more so for their satisfying fare. The next time you’re passing through Marathon, pop in to this nondescript, divey looking bar/restaurant and enjoy!

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Gone Fishing – #Keyslife

Photo Credit: Stephen Mccowage
One  of the many peculiarities of the keys that I’ve come to (mostly) handle with a shrug is that businesses will just be closed sometimes. In the middle of the day, in the middle of the week (as we found out the other day with Square Grouper). Try getting your haircut on a Saturday after noon between Key West and Marathon, I dare you. Rarely does the sign actually say “gone fishing” unless it is an establishment that sells fish, but if the weather is nice, you can be that is a good reason why the “closed” sign is hanging during a perfectly normal business hour. 
It frustrates many, especially visitors, and defies a logic that many of us were raised with in this glorious capitalist country, but it makes more sense the longer you live down here. For one, many of these businesses are run by their owners – not trained staff who can be trusted to take the reigns if something comes up (or the weather is good for fishing). For another, it is sometimes more cost-effective depending on the season and the business. I’ve learned that many stylists, for example, have two jobs because they are only called in to style when there’s a customer – mostly because there just aren’t enough customers. My key only has 6,000 (semi) permanent residents compared to the 24,000 who lived with me in my last city not to mention the 1.31 million residents who lived in my last county. And while there are a sizable number of tourists who travel to the keys each year, rarely do they stop in for a haircut. Finally, there is what you might imagine – the work to live attitude that generally dominates. That’s not to say people here don’t work hard, but I’ve found that they don’t let work completely run their lives either. 





This is why I wasn’t terribly surprised, but only a little disappointed, when I stopped by Big Mouth Eatery last week to try one of their sandwiches only to find a sign saying they were closed for “an event.” Mr. Foodie and I were still holed up in the hotel in Marathon so I was scouting for non fast-food places to grab a bite for lunch. I ended up hitting the salad bar at Publix (one of two major grocery chains in the keys) which was quite tasty. But I returned to Big Mouth Eatery another day and was able to sidle up to their long shiny counter for a sandwich. This place has been open for 18 months and as such gives off a contemporary vibe that is unique in the keys where mounted fish is the preferred mode of decorating. The menu was extensive with hot and cold sandwiches, a board of specials including a soup/sandwich combo special, and they offered alcohol (always a plus in my opinion). 



I ended up with a pressed roast beef sandwich and a soda. The food was very good. It was so good that I ended up ordering another one to go so Mr. Foodie could try it when he got home from work. You can see that he liked it a lot. The atmosphere could have been a bit more cheerful. I’m not sure if the woman who helped me and the chef were the owners, but they seemed tense and/or exhausted. They did everything right and efficiently, just not very happily it seemed. I won’t hold it against them – owning a business is stressful and sometimes you just have a bad day. 
I was heartened by the number of locals who came in even in the short amount of time I was there – always a good sign especially for a newish place. And they definitely made a good sandwich. The average sandwich cost around $9, but they had some specials which were closer to $6. If you’re driving through Marathon and want a place to stop for lunch, you should give them a shot. 
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Surf n Turf in Marathon

Photo Credit: tripadvisor.com

 

In an effort to take my visiting friends to a nice place to eat, we ended up at the Florida Keys Steak and Lobster House in Marathon. I wanted to take them to the Square Grouper because it is the best, but they were closed on Monday, so we looked elsewhere for a “nice” place to eat and quickly ran across a problem that I’m sure many tourists face: a lack of options. While there are many good places to grab a bite (and I’ve written about more than a few here), there are not many “nice” places open for dinner on a Monday night between Key West and Marathon. There just aren’t. So even though it was out of their way, they trekked to Marathon with us to locate some good seafood.

I had passed by the Florida Keys Steak and Lobster House many times, noting it for its bright turquoise exterior and porthole windows. Because it’s right up the street from Marathon’s Turtle Hospital and because of it’s colorful paint job, I dismissed it as a tourist trap. It has, however, great reviews, and so we decided to give it a shot. So glad we did! They sat our party (of seven) right away and in a cozy alcove with a few other tables. The wait staff was attentive and friendly. The menu is extensive with many options including a sushi menu and specials menu.

Mr. Foodie spotted the Shrimp Diablo and, of course, ordered it. The red sauce was not quite as good as it was at the Ale House, but it was satisfying. I ordered the Shrimp Scampi because love seafood with garlic, wine, and butter – it is my favorite way to eat any kind of ocean fare. The shrimp was perfectly cooked in both of our dishes – succulent with just the right bite. Though the portions were generous, we ate every last bite. One of our friends ordered a surf and turf platter that looked amazing.

I wish I could have taken them to Square Grouper since it is a family (and local) favorite, but this was a good substitute. More basic than SG, but still well-executed with a cozy atmosphere. If you’re passing by and see the bright aquamarine surf and turf restaurant, consider stopping in for dinner one night.

Mr. Foodie and I are back home today, but I still have a few more Marathon eats to share and a work BBQ menu to plan for Mr. Foodie’s work buddies this weekend, so stay tuned!

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Sunday Funday w/ Breakfast at the Wooden Spoon

On Sunday Mr. Foodie and I stumbled down to the hotel lobby after a sleepless night because a high-pitch screaming noise had issued from our bathroom all night. The maintenance man had come and said there was nothing he could do that night, and since the entire hotel was booked, they could not move us to a new room. Needless to say I had a few choice words in mind that morning. On top of that, the entire hotel breakfast area was teeming with tourists – so many I couldn’t even reach the coffee. Luckily we were helped by a very sweet woman at the front desk who told us where to grab the best breakfast in Marathon while she sorted out our room transfer to an upgraded suite for our troubles.

The Wooden Spoon in Marathon was definitely hopping when we arrived with nearly every square inch of the small dining room packed with people. We found a small round table in the corner near the bar and scoped out the interesting wooden spoons that hung on nearly every inch of the dining room’s walls. You could tell that the spoons came from all over the world. Some were inscribed with a name and a date – gifts from loyal patrons from over the years.

Their menu was comprehensive, but also basic for a breakfast diner. Mr. Foodie and I were so hungry by that point that we could have eaten everything in sight, but we ordered moderate plates that were basically breakfast samplers – a couple of eggs, bacon or sausage, and a bit of french toast. We did have to wait a while for service, but such is life in the keys. We didn’t mind – it gave us time to check out all the cool spoons. The breakfast was excellent. Unfussy scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, and a basic french toast that was taken over the top with whatever amazing butter they had melting over it when it reached the table. It was incredibly satisfying. Behind us were two tiny girls in water-sports gear chattering about their dreams and their food when one of the bartenders handed them a ketchup bottle for their eggs. The little girl on the left squeezed hard and out came the longest red string of “ketchup” she had ever seen – turns out it was a prank bottle with a red rubber “ketchup” string. The girls giggled so hard over the prank and we all laughed with them.

Bahia Honda – the old railroad

Later, we joined our friends for some beaching at Bahia Honda – the nicest beach in the lower keys. Many vacationers are surprised to come to the keys and not find many beaches. They are picturing the rest of Florida or the Bahamas – well sorry to say, the keys are coral, rocky, and rarely produce what most people would recognize as a “beach.” The “beaches” in Key West for example are largely made up of imported sand. But Bahia Honda is natural sand and a state park, so it is kept fairly pristine. There is a per-head charge to enter the park, and there are two beaches – one with a cove, snack bar, kayak rentals, and a historic path to see the old railroad and the other with just one long stretch of beach. Both have picnic tables and restrooms. We typically go to the long stretch because fewer people are there usually. Sunday we were blessed with sunny, breezy weather and only a smattering of other tourists on our beach. We brought more of Dion’s fried chicken and bobbed in the waves for a couple hours chatting and enjoying the sunshine. The kids found starfish and conchs – the areas around Bahia Honda are teeming with sea creatures. But don’t think about removing a thing from these beaches or the rangers will have it out for you. While we were there, one guy tried to fish off shore. One guy tried to pull his boat right onto the shore from the ocean. These are big no-nos and the locals let them have it. I myself have called the rangers to come handle a case where a boy was removing piles of conch shells from the ocean and stacking them on the beach.

That evening we returned to our quiet, roomy suite tanned and sandy and tired from a fun day of wave jumping. Only one more night and we’ll be back home!

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

Marathon Grill and Ale House – Review

I wish I had a beautiful header picture of this place, but whereas I have gotten better about snapping pictures of my food before I eat it, I have yet to master taking pictures of the exterior before driving away. I also assume there will be a photo online, but I have yet to find a decent looking one of the Marathon Grill and Ale House – probably because it is tucked away in the corner of a strip mall (!). Yes, I was warned by Cory who recommended this place that I will ask myself, “am I in the right place?” when I went to look for it and that is exactly what I did as I passed nail salons and pet stores. But Cory, who plays with his band up and down the lower keys in restaurants (live music being a huge feature of key life), told us that they had BOGO entrees and ridiculously good drink deals between 4 and 6 pm.

I hesitated to order their happy hour white wine (although it is always encouraging when the menu lists the different types of wine instead of “house white”), but the bartender talked me into it and soon enough I was sipping a delicious white chardonnay for $3! Mr. Foodie tried three beers and loved them all, but his favorite was a Bells Amber. I ordered the chicken marsala which came with mashed potatoes and creamy carrots. Mr. Foodie ordered the seafood fa diavolo because he loves the mussels version at the Wharf on Summerland. This one had clams, lobster, mussels, shrimp, and scallops – all on a bed of perfectly cooked pasta. It was the show-stopper dish of the night. The sauce was incredibly addicting. I kept reaching over to taste it again and again. Mr. Foodie indulged my love of lobsters and mussels by putting morsels on our bread plate for me to try. With all this mini-lobstering going on, I have been craving lobster like a son of a gun, but Lobsterfest (which takes place in Key West) doesn’t happen until August.

My dish was good for the wrong reasons – namely the sides were the best part. The carrots were so creamy and rich that I only ate half and the mashed potatoes were freaking delicious. I was more than happy to polish those off. My chicken, on the other hand, was rubbery and the sauce was just too thick – not being an expert on marsala, I couldn’t tell you what it lacked or had too much of, just that it tasted like eating drapes on a rubber ball. Whereas the sauce flavor wasn’t bad, the texture was problematic. Still, the other dishes made up for that and our stuffed-mouthed exclamations of pleasure drew the attention of our bar seat-mates with whom we struck up a conversation about the food there (they were locals) and a myriad of other things like comparing the weather in the mid-Atlantic to here. Throughout the whole experience our bartender was attentive and pleasant. My seatmate told us that the place becomes a disco at night.

All in all it was another fun Marathon key foodie adventure. We’re off to taste the best fried chicken in the keys and for another boating adventure, so stay tuned!

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Marathon Key Staycation

Morning! So Mr. Foodie and I are on a staycation of sorts for a long weekend in Marathon Key just up US-1 from home. We are staying a chain hotel which is not my preference (especially in the keys where you can often find quaint little “resorts” and b&bs), but we had points so free nights = awesome. Plus, look at our view!

We got here late last night because of work, so all we really did was crawl to the Tiki hut restaurant near the hotel property, have dinner, read, and then pass out. We did not have terribly high hopes for the restaurant Tarpon Creek Bar and Grill because it looks like giant tourist trap and it is right next to a bunch of hotels, but we were pleasantly surprised by some things.

We ordered an appetizer of Cuban rice balls which were probably the best thing we had – the rice-bean mixture inside was spicy and creamy, the fried outer shell was perfectly crisp and the sauce was tangy and delicious. It was altogether a great pairing with our pale ales and the ocean breeze.

Mr. Foodie ordered fried catch of the day (mahi mahi) and fries. He reported that the fries were good (I can confirm), but that the fried breading on the fish tasted burnt – someone needs to change out their fryer oil. The mahi itself was cooked well. I ordered the pulled pork sandwich and plantain chips mostly because of the promised key lime sauce that the menu mentioned. The sandwich was indeed good and so was the sauce. The chips were also good if a little bland. We decided that it was a little steeply priced for what amounted to pub food, but the water view was pleasing, our waitress was attentive but mellow (perfect for two exhausted diners), and the beer was cold. All in all, a good evening.

Luckily Marathon is teeming with restaurants – I believe a bartender I was talking to a few days ago said 72 restaurants in total on the island, so we will have no shortage of good eats while staying here. We already raved about the cuban sandwhich shop down the road, so I have high hopes for this place.

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

Comida Cubana ("Cuban Food") – Review of La Nina in Marathon

La Nina in Marathon off US-1

My fiance and I had to head up to Marathon for some new-to-the-state business and by the time we extracted ourselves from the house it was close to lunch. Although I had driven through Marathon plenty and even taken a charter boat out from there for some excellent game fishing, I had never eaten on that particular key, so I whipped out my phone and looked for something inexpensive and delicious. La Nina was the hands-down winner according to Yelp, so we took a shot.

My fiance almost missed it despite having it plugged into the GPS because it is very unassuming right off US-1, but we made it and proceeded into a tiny (but thankfully air conditioned and clean little restaurant). They had an outdoor ordering window, but they also had the indoor ordering counter where you can peer into the ready-made dishes on tap like ribs, red beans and rice, and yucca.

If you are in the Keys and not thinking about consuming some Cuban food, you are missing out. It may not have the number and variety of Cuban tastes available in Miami, but there are a few major gems that I hope to share with you along the way. Besides, Cuban food and culture is a major part of the Keys history beginning with the cigar trade that once dominated the islands’ economy.

La Nina’s Cuban Sandwich

At La Nina we both ordered Cuban sandwiches because my beau had never had one before. A Cuban sandwich consists of ham, roast pork, cheese, pickles, and mustard (with some variation here and there). What makes a Cuban sandwich amazing is the ham (especially if it is made in-house) and the bread – Cuban bread is soft, crusty, and buttery. La Nina did not disappoint! Their version had the delicious crunchy, buttery bread, the tang of mustard and pickles, and the sweet/savory satisfaction that only ham and roast pork can deliver to the tongue.

The size of the sandwich is so large that we took our halves home and hand them for dinner. We regretted not having room enough to try some other dishes – notably their fried tomatoes and the yucca, but we definitely intend to return. The price was also easy on the wallet especially considering the size of the dish. If you’re passing through Marathon this weekend, lookout for this tiny pink structure and enjoy!