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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Kickin’ It In Key West

[Warning: this is a long post full of borderline food porn deliciousness. I cannot be held responsible if it inspires you to spend all your money coming  to paradise just so you can stuff your face]

I’ve already written about how much I like when the Keys get their moment in the spotlight because I want everyone to love these islands as much as I do. Being a foodie, I am especially excited when other foodies take note of the offerings down here. To my delight, Paula Deen is just the tip of the iceburg! Bobby Flay has also filmed an episode in the keys, hitting Cheeca Lodge and Spa in Islamorada, The Fish House in Key Largo, and, my favorite, the Little Palm Island Resort brunch which I blogged about not too long ago.¬†“Man v. Food” was also filmed here in 2011 and Vanilla Ice was featured (you know I saw him in “concert” in college? It was $1 to get in!).

But in 2014, Food Network star Guy Fieri’s show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives showcased three Key West joints. Being a major fan of this show and this chef, I was more than a little excited to see if Guy’s recommendations held up. Below is our evaluation of each of the three places featured in the Kicking It in Key West episode.

Bad Boy Burrito

Mr. Foodie and I were in this part of town running errands, so we decided to pop in and see if the burritos at Bad Boy Burrito were as good as Guy thought when he was here. There is a tiny (two space) parking lot in front of the joint with some surrounding street parking. The burrito ordering window backs up against a bar which luckily allows you to use their tables inside and out to eat your burrito. The bar itself was dark, divey, and definitely had a keys vibe. IMG_20160819_114225.jpg

As a number of reviews note, the lady at the window was not particularly friendly, but she was efficient and fast, so we were satisfied. Our burritos came out fairly quickly and we chose to eat them from inside the bar since it was a hot day. 20160819_114731.jpg

As you can see from my rather blurry picture, the burrito was packed with the carnitas we had ordered as well as sliced radishes, rice, cheese, verde and black beans. There were a number of toppings you could have added, and Mr. Foodie went with sour cream, cheese, and peppers. The tortilla was grilled, but not homemade. The ingredients were full of flavor, but needed to be mixed inside the burrito more. I could see what some people were saying about the burrito not having a “wow” factor as they were expecting. Perhaps the hype is just too high. We found it overall satisfying and priced reasonably ($8), but not as good as the carnitas bowl at Amigos, for example.

Garbo’s Grill

Every so often Mr. Foodie and I like to pop down to Key West for a few hours¬†and see the sights (otherwise known as “stuff our faces with food“). The last weekend in August was Museum Weekend during which you could get free or BOGO museum tickets (kids are almost always free on this weekend) which is a screaming deal considering that most Key West attractions are $15/adult, so Mr. Foodie and I decided to take advantage and go to Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum because he had never been. Most people have never heard of Mel Fisher let alone the reason he might have a museum, but my family has known him/known about him for years. Mel is credited with discovering the Atocha shipwreck – a Spanish galleon ship laden with treasure that sunk on a reef in the early 1600s. It has a fascinating history, and the museum does an outstanding job telling both the history of its cultural past as well as its artifact¬†present. It also does an excellent job of showcasing the discipline of underwater archaeology and Mel’s life. My mother tells me about how she used to see Mel walking¬†the streets of Key West with a large gold chain dangling from his neck, mingling with the locals. He found the wreck on July 20, 1985. Years later in 1998, she was both saddened and lucky to catch a glimpse of the clipper ships heading out during sunset to scatter Mel’s ashes over the site after he had passed away. He is definitely a fixture in the local lore.

Before heading over to Mel Fisher’s Museum, however, we stopped to grab a bite at Garbo’s Grill to see, again, if Guy’s hype was worth it. It was. This little grill is housed in a silver retro-looking camper behind a bar named Grunts. In a pretty courtyard with Edison light bulbs strung overhead you can wait for your order while sipping a cola or head inside the bar to knock back a beer.

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Mr. Foodie ordered the Umami Burger which cost $10.50 and was worth every penny. The burger is 80/20 angus beef with bacon, tomato, and a chipotle gouda – a seemingly basic/classic combination, but man what a burger! It was juicy, rich, and bursting with flavor. If I was the type to say “mouth feel” I would say that my mouth felt good.

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I didn’t quite have meal envy, though, because I chose the Kogi Dog ($8.50) and almost wouldn’t let Mr. Foodie have a bite – it was that good. In the first place, it doesn’t even look like a hot dog when it comes.

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Can you see a dog in there?! The complete list of ingredients includes: National deli quarter pound dog, house made kimchi fried cheese, sesame mayo, napa cabbage, carrots, daikon scallions, citrus soy dressing and sriracha. That impressive line-up does things to your soul as you dive in to savor the juiciest hot dog you’ve ever tasted with bright pops of spice and cool slivers of slaw. Forget about being lady-like. You will go through 10 napkins before you’re through and still have sauce all over your face. And yet, it isn’t heavy with sauce or moisture, but balanced on a perfectly toasted bun wrapped in that kimchi fried cheese. Um, you had me at kimchi.

Let’s just say that it lives up to the hype and more. I will be dreaming about this dog for years to come. It was so good that even though it started raining on us, Mr. Foodie and I kept eating. It was only when lightning struck so close as to make our hair stand on end that we pulled up from the deliciousness and sought the shelter of the Museum.

DJ’s Clam Shack

We finally made it around to the third location included in Guy’s Triple D show about Key West – DJ’s Clam Shack. As the name suggests, it is a tiny shack-like structure sitting open to the street on Duval (the main drag) with street-side as well as backyard seating.

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The staff was clearly having a good time, and we found their energy was contagious! We chose street-side seating and ordered the Garlic Steamed Middle Neck Clams and Crab Cakes with a sangria and beer. Mr. Foodie never met a crab cake he wouldn’t at least try, being a lover of all things involving crab meat, so I wasn’t surprised when he ordered them. My crab preferences extend to the juicy leg and claw meat, but not often to crab cakes which I find to be either too full of breading or too fishy tasting. But man did these ones blow. me. away. Those delicate round patties were melt-in-your mouth good with a creamy, perfectly seasoned flavor. Despite being packed with meat and only lightly held together by breading, it did not taste fishy at all. The sweet thai chili sauce that came with them amplified their goodness, lending the creamy patty a sweet-hot pat on the back. They were hands down the best I’ve ever had, and even Mr. Foodie was impressed.

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We are both huge fans of mussels in broth, so we were eager to taste the clam version that DJ’s offered up. The broth was a garlic base with a stimulating jalapeno kick, but mellowed throughout with a sweeping hand of herbs and lemon. The clams themselves were perfectly cooked, flavored fully with the gorgeous broth, and accompanied by a crusty, also garlicky, bread to sop up the remaining broth. I scooped. I sopped. And then slurped straight from the bowl.

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While our whole meal was a little pricey for what is essentially street eats, we felt it was more than worth it – as was the Triple D hype. It’s right on Duval. You have no excuse to miss it and every reason to run there from your hotel or cruise ship.

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Selfie w/ Guy’s Autograph!

This concludes our evaluation of the three locations featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Not a bad line-up! I have a few more FL Keys diners and dives that Guy could add to the list, but these three didn’t disappoint. If you did your own Triple D episode, what diners, drive-ins, or dives would you include?

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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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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 Рperfect 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 Рwith 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 Рwish 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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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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