Taste Tests in Key West
On a tourist-driven island such as Key West, there are certain advantages to doing things the local way. Although most folks who live here are transplants (my brother included), just a few years in this southernmost village instills a sense of community and ownership that is hard to find in Washington, also known for its transience.
For locals, Key West quickly becomes home. I was stunned to learn that Tim's housemate, Ron, has lived here for less than two years; he speaks of this place on such intimate terms, like a real "Conch."
One of the highlights of my visit has been Tim's impromptu botanical tours of the island as we pile into Ron's little truck, three squeezed in the cab, and Tim, who's a human encyclopedia of tropical plants, is our guide. Putt-putting through the streets, Tim stops whenever he sees trees of interest and shares his botanical tidbits, or he'll show us properties where he's done work. The tours usually unfold as we're headed to a restaurant.
On my first night here, Tim picked a local joint he's long wanted to try on neighboring Stock Island, about 10 minutes away. "People says that Stock Island is what Key West used to be like," Tim said. "There's still a working marina here, with fishermen." And so we pulled up to the Hogfish Bar & Grill, an open-air wooden fish shack that sits right on Safe Harbor Marina. According to the restaurant's Web site, the marina "used to be the headquarters of the Bay of Pigs operation and in peaceful times the Cuba ferry docked nearby."
We could see a shrimp boat pulling in as we dove into a plate of steamed "pinks," local Key West pink shrimp, which were briny in the best possible way. For supper, we all chose the restaurant's namesake dish, hogfish, grilled or blackened. Also known as hog snapper, the hogfish is a common species in south Florida, extending into the Caribbean (I remember cooking up some fillets in the Bahamas). It lives on coral reefs and is for the most part diver-caught -- no hook and line. Its hog-like snout is the reason for its name.
The fish is light and flaky, the flavor sweet and delicate. We all wolfed down the contents of our paper plates, nodding our heads in approval. Setting the mood was a guy on guitar singing Kenny Chesney and Randy Travis covers as Ron was falling in love with the waitress.
We hopped back in the car to continue Tim's tree tour before arriving at our dessert destination: Flamingo Crossing. Located on the lower, quieter end of Duval Street (the famous main drag loaded with bars, restaurants and lewd t-shirt shops), Flamingo Crossing is a locally owned ice cream shop churning out flavors worth the plane trip alone.
I remember Flamingo from my first trip here back in 1998 and was keen to return for its bounty of tropical flavors -- mango, guanabana, coconut, sapodilla, for starters -- plus intriguing combinations such as black mangrove honey and walnut, Cuban coffee and English custard. Yowza.
While slurping on the front porch, we had front seats to the side walk parade of both tourists and village characters. I couldn't have asked for a more locally-infused reintroduction to the island.
Tomorrow: Locally roasted coffee, hot sauce heaven and a certifiably French creperie... plus a few of Tim's picks.
Talk to me today at noon, for more Key West goodies or any thing else on your culinary minds.
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