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.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 23, 2007; 10:22 AM ET Travel
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If you liked the Hogfish Bar & Grill, try BO's Fishwagon while you're down there. It's on Caroline Street in the Bight.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 23, 2007 10:45 AM

Montes at the 25 mile marker has the best smoked amberjack.

Posted by: Stick | January 23, 2007 11:02 AM

Gotta get the bananna bread, and have breakfast with the chickens, at Blue Heaven.

Posted by: Mmmmm | January 23, 2007 11:10 AM

you are SO lucky to be down there! I haven't been for several years (15), has it really been built up a lot (that's what I hear).

Posted by: jj | January 23, 2007 11:20 AM

I live in Key West and well remember the intestinal parasites I got at BO's Fishwagon just after it had moved from Duval and Fleming.

When giardia lambdlia hits you, it is hard to forget. Skip BO's

Posted by: Steve | January 23, 2007 11:21 AM

Have to agree that breakfast with the chickens is an experience to have while down there.

Posted by: Late to the Party | January 23, 2007 12:05 PM

Check out the breads at Cole's Peace (next to The Restaurant Store). The mango breakfast bread is great stuff. Best meal I've ever had in Key West was at 915, don't miss the killer frites and Dungeness crab wrapped in sashimi-grade tuna. A drink at the bar at Louie's Backyard watching the sunset isn't too bad either. And when you go to Peppers, say hi to Tom from Bill and Sue in Key Largo...

Posted by: Bill | January 23, 2007 12:07 PM

PS: On your way back up the Keys, go for the lobster reuben at Keys Fisheries in Marathon, one of the few remaining old-fashioned Keys dives. Great place, right on the water...

Posted by: Bill2 | January 23, 2007 12:10 PM

Wished I had read that a month earlier... I will have to go there again

Posted by: too late | January 23, 2007 12:11 PM

Try the Lorelei on Islamorada. Great conch fritters, key lime pie and the coldest draft beer. Excellent pit stop heading north or south on Route 1.

Posted by: ct.nyc | January 23, 2007 12:14 PM

Nine-One-Five is, hands down, the best culinary experience in Key West.

Posted by: Eric Wexler | January 23, 2007 1:15 PM

In Key West, give Mangia Mangia a try .. homemade pastas in a lovely old house.

About 20-miles north of Key West, Mangrove Mama's is a fun local spot, with great food in a pretty outdoor setting.

And the Cracked Conch Cafe in Marathon has some of the best (duh) cracked conch sandwiches I've ever had!

Posted by: ex-Keys | January 23, 2007 1:48 PM

Our must-visit restaurant in Key West (especially for breakfast) is Camille's, on Simonton (formerly on Duval, in smaller quarters, for many years). Last time around we tried Sroissants de France on Duval street and it was so great we'll have to alternate from now on. The French toast (!) is great, and the fraisiers are to die for.

I second your vote for Flamingo Crossing--best ice cream anywhere.

We also like dining al fresco at any of the restaurants in Duval Square--lots of roosters hanging around--and locals swear by Blue Heaven although I've never gotten around to eating there myself.

The Conch Republic Seafood Company is pretty good for a tourist place; we dropped in for a fish sandwich and liked it so much that we made a point to return and repeat the experience the next time we were in town.

For really healthy food, go to Waterfront Market--fresh fruit, vegetables, and baked goods; sandwiches, juice, etc. Especially recommended: croissants with fillings, mmmm.

Posted by: kbertocci | January 23, 2007 2:19 PM

Seven Fish is another great culinary experience!

Posted by: Key West Lover | January 23, 2007 2:20 PM

Chico's Cantina - Mile Marker 4.5 on Stock Island, just before the bridge to Key West

Kelly's Caribbean Bar, Grill and Brewery - 301 Whitehead (Caroline and Whitehead)

Both very good.

Grunt's - (409 Caroline across from Kelly's) a bar where they "order out." They use the kitchen of another closeby restaurant, and bring the food over to Grunts. It's very good and reasonably priced.

Posted by: Nor'Easter | January 23, 2007 3:52 PM

Try the fresh guacamole and conch fritter stands at the Sunset Festival on the Square at the end of Duval - particularly the guacamole. Made right in front of you, it's the best I've ever had!

Posted by: Carebear | January 23, 2007 4:34 PM

lots of great places to eat here... but I can't believe no one mentioned my favorite place - Carolines Cafe - awesome food, good prices, huge servings, and great ambiance... it's a MUST for anyone who has the chance... trust me go in there and have the square grouper sandwich.

Kellys was mentioned they have an awesome happy hour and another place no one mentioned that is wonderful is Blue Heaven, just down the street from me.

Living here is not the picnic many of you think it is... BUT... I can't think of a town I love more than this one and I have been around the block a few times.

Posted by: Aaron in Conch Town... | January 23, 2007 10:10 PM

So excited to read these two posts Kim and so bummed I missed the chat today. I'm heading to Key west on Thursday for 5 days - a wedding and 1st vacation with our 4-month old - in our favorite place in the whole world. El Siboney is on our list of must visit paces, now I have some more to check out. Maybe I'll see you around town!

Posted by: Jp | January 23, 2007 10:57 PM

My husband and I are planning to go to Key West for our anniversery NEXT YEAR. Anyway, I was wondering if anyone could tell me the best time to visit, and recommend where to stay. I know this is a long way off, but I like to dream ;)

Posted by: New to Key West | January 24, 2007 9:30 AM

I'm surprised no one mentioned the Turtle Kraals in the old seaport district. They have a great selection,interesting choices for vegetarians, (we have five in our family) and the prices are reasonable. Ask for the happy hour menu if you get there early, great half price Magaritas and $0.50 raw oysters and clams. After extensive testing, my teenage grandson rated their Key Lime pie the best in all the Keys.

Posted by: Sylvia | January 24, 2007 9:47 AM

My wife and I have been to Key West multiple times and have developed two favorites. One is Kelly's Caribbean (owned by actress Kelly McGillis), which has very good food and perhaps the best atmosphere on the island (the big, tree-canopied courtyard). The absolute best food in town, in our view, is at the Cafe Marquesa, the restaurant at the beautiful Marquesa Hotel, which we also very much recommend as an alternative to the big chain hotels.

Posted by: JH in Four Points | January 24, 2007 6:23 PM

Reading all of this has made me very hungry and wanting to go back to Key West, which we're hoping to do this July!

Posted by: Julie | February 14, 2007 12:35 PM

Just a couple of notes:

Grunt's has been closed for about 6 years.

Kelly McGillis no longer owns Kelly's restaurant

Posted by: CayoDave | February 14, 2007 3:01 PM

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