Square Grouper – Review

The Square Grouper is the companion restaurant to The Joint which we visited on my birthday. My future in-laws and my parents were in town for the long weekend, so we have been eating out a lot. Fine with me, I have so many places in the lower keys I love and so many new ones to try now that I live here. The Square Grouper has been a family favorite for years. We stumbled in once in mid-August when most of the tourists were gone and the restaurant was still packed (mostly with locals).

The first thing you need to know is that a square grouper is a reference to the drug-smuggling history of the Keys. A massive amount of marijuana used to be smuggled by boat trough the keys and then shipped up to the mainland via trucks. If the coast guard was heading your way and you had bales of mary jane, you’d simply dump them overboard where they became known as “square groupers.”

Key Lime Pasta 

The second thing you need to know is that this amazing establishment is owned by a woman which pleases me immensely since so few restaurants are. She definitely knows what she is doing and her Yelp reviews reflect that.

One of the first things I tasted (and fell in love with) was their sweet potato fries. It is perhaps strange to start out a review of a fish place with a side dish, but that is how good these things are. These are by far the best I’ve ever had anywhere. If you are like me and prefer your sweet potatoes savory, then these are the fries for you. They are perfectly fried with a hint of seasoning that perfectly balances out the sweetness of the potato. I dreamt of these fries for years when I lived in D.C. and never found their equal.

Lamb Ribs w/ Crostini

The second dish I remember loving and mooning over afterwards is their key lime pasta. I did not get a bite of it this time because it is a dinner dish and we were there for lunch, but I wanted it so badly! Again, strange to review a pasta dish before their fish, but you won’t be sorry if you order this (and you can add fish of course). The pasta is perfectly cooked bow-tie with this light, creamy, with the perfect touch of lime that sends this dish over the top.

Fish tacos w/ sweet potato fries

On this trip I ordered the lamb with crostini (I swear I’m getting to the fish soon) because I can rarely pass up the chance to eat lamb since I have it so rarely. I was not disappointed! It was two cuts of ribs each packed with a rosemary spice mixture and falling off the bone delicious. I was delighted to walk past their on-premises herb garden where they grow many of their flavors (they also fish for their own catch!). The lamb dish was a small plate, but I found it a perfectly good amount (especially since I also had the sweet potato fries). The crostini had a good flavor combo (green olives and goat cheese), but could have benefited from some moisture.

Salad w/ Scallops

My mother ordered fish tacos and my future mother-in-law ordered a salad with scallops. I tasted both, of course, and they were declared wonderfully tasty by the whole table. The dads ordered fish sandwiches, one grouper and one the catch of the day which was mangrove snapper. My review of their fish dishes joins many others in saying that they know how to prepare fish. The scallops were cooked perfectly, the fried fish breading is light and crisp, the flavors are incomparable. Grouper, of course, makes frequent appearances, but they serve many types of fish and always have a catch of the day option.

To cap off our experience, we ordered a scoop of salted caramel ice cream which was topped with whipped cream and mint. It had a subtle salt/caramel flavor that was nice and light after the big meal. Check this place out the next time you’re near Cudjoe Key right off of US-1.

Wharf Bar and Grill – Review

The Wharf Bar and Grill – Summerland Key off US-1

This little gem has been one of our favorite places to eat as on-again-off-again locals for years. In the past seven years or so there have been a few changes to the property as it navigated how to stand out on the route to Key West. What drew us initially to the place was the fact that it is one of the only places to eat on our little island and because a local told us they had a good happy hour. Back then, it consisted of the small building pictured above with obvious plans for the outdoors in the works (at one point there was a gas pump designed for boats, but our waitress assured us that it hadn’t worked in years). Inside were many round tables, a small bar, and a huge cooler case filled with fresh fish for sale (as well as wine, liquor, and a selection of chilled vegetables) like a small grocery. This appealed to me right away. I was even more pleased when I heard that they caught much of their own stock themselves on a weekly basis. The happy hour was indeed nice. I remember a fun bartender, sun-tanned and salty locals leaning on the bar, and a deliciously tart citrus margarita (possibly tangerine or ruby grapefruit?). The highlight for me was the stone crab claw appetizer which was just a platter of claws ripe for the taking. They were cool, meaty, and just what I wanted on that hot afternoon.

Since then, they’ve grown to include a huge outdoor bar with a massive tiki-roof over it. They nixed the cooler filled with fish, but they still sell bottles of wine. They also added live music which I had the pleasure of hearing the other night. As you can see from their yelp reviews, this place has had its ups and downs, but you might also note that nearly all the bad reviews are posted by tourists passing through. I’m going to put it out there right now that not everyone “gets” the Keys at first blush. They don’t understand why the traffic moves so slow on US-1. They don’t realize that if something breaks down like a fan or toilet, there are really only a handful of guys who can fix it in the entire lower keys, so it might be broken for a while. They don’t realize that many businesses are short-staffed half the time because their “labor” often takes the first weeks’ pay, pisses it away at a bar over the weekend and ends up in jail by Monday morning. They find out that the Keys are not the Bahamas and instead are too hot, have too many bugs, and the beaches are covered in seaweed. So they stay at their hotels, float in the pool, and eat only at places that look like Disney attractions. A local facing down a surly bartender who hands them a drink with a fruit fly in it would simply fish it out (or knock it back – hey, more protein) and tell the bartender that he/she should take a break and cool off in the A/C with a devilish grin.

Conch Fritters

Beef Sliders

I’ll share some of the recent dishes I’ve had in the past few days. For appetizers we had the ever-famous conch fritters and beef sliders. While the fritters were not as good as my *favorite* ones (more to come on that), they were flavorful and well-fried. The cocktail sauce served with them was a good accompaniment. The beef sliders were excellent. The crisp little pile of onion rings on top and the perfectly-cooked slider amounted to the perfect bite. I highly recommend them.

The entree I chose was the Lobster BLT. As you can see from the yelp reviews, I’m not the only one who loved this sandwich. The sizable chunk of lobster is fried with a light breading and tastes amazing with the bacon, lettuce, and tomato. It is also a huge sandwich and very filling. It made me want to try to replicate it myself some day. Perhaps I’ll get lucky during mini-lobster season this year!

Lobster BLT

The Wharf is everything that is peculiar to the Keys, but it has stolen my heart.

Birthday Cocktail – The Joint in Cudjoe Key

So yesterday was my birthday! I was almost a 4th of July baby, but not quite. My sainted mother had to deal with an overdue child in the middle of a Death Valley summer. Luckily we were able to celebrate this birthday here in the blue green waters of the lower keys. While we ate and drank a lot of delicious things this past weekend, I really want to tell you about this cocktail I had at The Joint (located around mile marker 25). It is only a couple years old and owes its success to its downstairs counter-part, The Square Grouper, a local favorite (and my family’s favorite) for years. The Joint is a casual bar and small plates place with quaint fishing decor and some rather inventive cocktails. My mother had a cucumber, black pepper, vodka cocktail that was stange, but delicious to ladies like us who don’t care for sweet drinks. Mine was called the Indica and consisted of torched-rosemary infused vodka, grapefruit juice, and St. Germain with a sprig of fresh rosemary for garnish. You definitely need to love rosemary to drink this drink, but luckily I do because it was delicious. We ordered some small plates as well, but the show-stopper was the cheese fondue. If you’re looking for a laid back, but slightly trendy atmosphere, see that you pop into The Joint for a drink and a game of shuffleboard.

Dooryard Garden

Our little Planter

This weekend we have our first guests in time for the 4th of July long weekend. While we intend to eat out quite a bit, we also plan to take advantage of our new home and grill to make some delicious dishes. For the past week, my fiance and I have been discovering our new home – the good, the bad, and the requires-more-than-a-little-elbow-grease. The garden in particular grows with a level of enthusiasm I’ve never seen. We have pulled, trimmed, sawed, and pruned more in the past few days than in my life entire. We also discovered a little planter that had previously an herb garden in it. I’ve since learned that it is not at all uncommon for Keys folks to have a “door yard” garden in which they grow herbs, fruit, and anything else that will thrive in this wet, hot environment. Our little planter already has a bit of rosemary and Greek oregano growing in it, but as you can see – it will require quite a bit of work to get it in shape again.

Even in its withered state, I let it dictate what we would make for the first night to utilize its current bounty. We trimmed some Rosemary to go with red potatoes and the Greek Oregano to dress a cucumber and tomato salad. All we did is quarter or halve the potatoes, roll them in olive oil, salt and pepper, and chopped Rosemary, then bake them at 400 degrees for 30 minutes (you may need longer depending on how many potatoes you are cooking). For the salad, we diced tomatoes on the vine, cucumbers, added herb feta, olive oil, and chopped Greek Oregano from the garden (a little goes a long way as with Rosemary).

To go with these delectable sides we made foil packets for tilapia filets to grill them easily. Whether I bake or grill tilapia (or any white fish) I make it the same way: drizzle a little olive oil, lay 1-2 onion rings and a slice of lemon, a few bits of chopped garlic, and a pat of butter on each filet or set of filets if you are using foil packets. Sometimes I add a bit of white wine in place of oil or butter – whatever you have on had from this set of flavors works nicely with this fish. Then grill or bake for 15-20 min depending on the thickness of the fish.

Of course in the hustle and bustle of playing host, I neglected to take any pictures of these dishes, so you’ll have to suffice with imaginary vision of them for now until I make them again some day. I’ve added some more suggestions and links to my favorite eateries under Restaurants should you be looking for a good place to try delicious food in the lower keys this weekend.

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!

Bistro 31 on Big Pine Key – Review

Our first restaurant stop when we hit the Keys was at Bistro 31. We were exhausted from driving 18 hours with a crying kitty cat from Virginia, but even accounting for the fact that anything would have probably tasted great to us at that point, this place was a surprise delight.

It is harder than you might realize to spot a good place to eat along US-1 because there are more than a few “tourist” traps where the food is lackluster at best and the most interesting thing about the place might be its watered down drinks served in a pirate cup. I was armed, of course, with some insider knowledge, but we didn’t want to “waste” one of our great places on ourselves when we were feeling so tired and eager to get to the house.

So we stopped in this little joint filled with locals (always a good sign) and the dated decor so peculiar to the keys. You can read my review of the place here (yes, I’m a brand new Yelper). Standard fare in the keys is seafood, fry baskets, pasta, and key lime pie – you will find this menu almost everywhere. What set this place apart was the obvious house-made quality of our rather simple lunch picks – Taco Salad and Chicken Fingers. Everything was good from the breading on the chicken to the tortilla holding the salad. This place may have service problems (as other Yelpers note), but our waitress was wonderful.

If you’re heading down the lower keys and need a place to grab a bite, try Bistro 31.