Kim's Key West

As promised yesterday, I've compiled a list of culinary pit stops worth making in Key West. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it sure helps keep a restaurant open, particularly on an island where businesses tend to change with the wind.




From Tim's tropical garden: A Tahitian gardenia. (Kim O'Donnel)


The list below includes reliable favorites that have earned return visit points from me, the occasional out-of-town visitor, as well as my brother, the local who likes good food. For the most part, the venues below have been road-tested several times. I also included a few new businesses that seem promising and worthy contributors to Key West's eats and drinks community.

One last note: This list is far from comprehensive. Think of it as a page torn from my little black book, with room for comments and additional suggestions.

Coffee
For a sit-down java experience in a pretty environment, head for the Coffee Plantation. On my last visit in October 2005, I spent a few hours a day at CP, thanks to the free and reliable Wi-Fi. It has since relocated from a plantation-style house to even more architecturally gorgeous digs, in a refurbished 'conch'-style house on Caroline Street. Although the brew is just okay, the setting is top notch.

For coffee on the run, consider 5 Brothers (930 Southard Street, 305-296 5205), a spot unique to Key West; in fact, I doubt there are many places like this around the country. A combination corner grocery story and sandwich shop, Five Brothers serves up mostly Cuban fare, all of which is packed for carry-out. Tim is partial to its bacon, egg and cheese on Cuban bread, washed down with a cortadito, an espresso-milk-sugar combination that will put hair on your chest.

In addition to the Cuban mix (ham, pork, salami, swiss, pickles and lettuce) and "medianoche" aka midnight (ham, pork, swiss and pickles), both pressed under the heat of a griddle, Five Brothers also serves up daily specials, such as ropa vieja, oxtail and garbanzo soup. While you wait, you can peruse the shelves, which are stocked with a motley assortment, from playing dice to Brill cream.

A coffee roaster selling his brew from a gas station in neighboring Marathon Key has expanded its operations in a Key West storefront. Only five months in town, Island Joe's Gourmet Coffee is roasting on site and selling beans of several varieties by the bag. You can also pop in for a cup of drip coffee or espresso drink. The woman who made our drink informed us that before the end of the month, Albertson's grocery chain will carry Island Joe's on its Key West shelves.

Shopping
Even if you only occasionally use hot sauce, make the trip to Peppers. An emporium of all things spicy, Peppers is truly one of a kind. At first glance, it looks like a gimmick -- and maybe it is -- but what's different here is that these guys know what they're doing. Selling hundreds of hot sauces from around the world, including an award-winning line of their own hot stuff, the owners are knowledgeable and passionate. The tasting bar, complete with stools, offers ample opportunities for sampling and heated discussion. Cookbooks, spice mixes and grill tools round out the fiery menagerie. Go. They are super nice folks to boot.

Upon arrival, I set out on bike with Tim in search of a coffee grinder. We came up empty at two stores (Kmart and Sears) before arriving at The Restaurant Store, a locally owned all-purpose cookware store that serves both the home cook and the professional. In addition to coffee grinders and other small kitchen appliances, we spotted a good selection of knives, nonperishable pantry items and a slew of gadgets Tim was eyeballing. He was thrilled to learn that the store offers knife sharpening as well as cooking classes.

These folks also sell bread and baked goods from its other business, Coles Peace Artisan Bakery, located next door. If they've run out of goodies, you can try your luck at Waterfront Market or Fausto's Palace, two locally owned supermarkets selling premium vittles (at top dollar).

Eateries
Continental fare, with German touches, are on the menu at Martin's Café (413 Applerouth Lane, 305-296-1183). Think champagne sauerkraut, red cabbage, homemade spaetzle, weiner schnitzel. Hidden in an alley in an old house (love those wooden beams), Martin's has a cozy feel; we were hoping to sup in the enclosed courtyard, but berries from a ficus tree were falling like crazy and keeping us indoors. In addition to dinner, the café also offers cheese service and smaller tapas-like snacks for light-night nibbling. Vegetarians would feel less than welcome here.

I was keen to try Twisted Dish (404 Southard Street, 305-294-5602), a new place owned by the same folks who run Seven Fish, a popular shoebox of a spot several blocks away. Located in a much larger space than its older sibling (formerly occupied by The Meteor, known for its ribs), Twisted Dish is serving up a diverse assortment of moderately priced fusion-style plates.

We started with a "tinga," which was described by our Czech-speaking waitress as a grilled tortilla (which she sweetly pronounced as a 'tortina') filled with interesting combinations such as gingered pork or sesame-crusted mahi mahi, and served with a dipping sauce. I was relieved to see that the "tortina" was more like a lavash, which held its shape, even when we sliced it for sharing. The accompanying sauce was a kicky combination of mangoes and chiles, which worked beautifully.

I was thrilled with my skirt steak, which arrived tender and properly sliced against the grain. It danced gracefully with its partnering cubed sweet potatoes, black beans and rice (or was it faro?). Everything felt fresh in the mouth and prepared with care. Tim and Ron were making plans for a return visit.

Although I didn't make it on this visit, I urge you to hit the Karr Breiz Creperie (512 1/2 Duval Street), right by Margaritaville. Owned by a firecracker of a French woman called Sylvie, this stand-up-only crepe bar serves the real deal. On my last visit, my friend Bill ate here every day, sometimes twice. He couldn't get enough of Sylvie's cheese sauce. She also makes a mean buckwheat crepe filled with berries.

Lack of time kept me from trying The Café -- A Mostly Vegetarian Place, which Tim says is the only vegan-friendly place on the island. Other than the lone fish dish, the menu is entirely meat free. I am putting it on the list for the next visit.

And now I must sign off, to head for breakfast at Sarabeth's, before heading to the airport (sigh, back to the wintry weather). Yes, that Sarabeth's, the consistently good cafe of New York fame. Open since 2005, the Key West outpost is a historic clapboard house, painted in a shade of robin's egg blue. Breakfast is a seductive lineup of traditional faves, including porridge, buttermilk pancakes, the signature granola and fab jams and preserves.

Lunch and dinner is a casual mix of classic homey dishes (meatloaf, pot pie, grilled cheese and tomato soup) and lighter, tropical-kissed salads and locally caught fish. A nice treat indeed.

Thanks to all of you who have been sharing their Key West faves over the past few days; it's been great fun and I love the enthusiasm. Tomorrow: Back home in the saddle.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 24, 2007; 10:19 AM ET Travel
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Comments

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Hard to believe anyone would list Key West Eateries without mentioning the two best "local" places: Pepe's Cafe and El Siboney. Anyone who knows or to put it bluntly really knows Key West, would put these places at the top.

Posted by: EaglesNavy fan | January 24, 2007 2:59 PM

I'm eloping to key west next week! What's a good place for the post-secret-wedding dinner? Just me and my fiance :)

Posted by: jinxie the cat | January 24, 2007 4:19 PM

What, no B.O.'s Fish Wagon? Seriously, El Siboney really should be on everyone's list.

Posted by: Son of a Conch | January 24, 2007 4:29 PM

the full quote is "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds".

a good place to eat is not foolish.

Posted by: quark | January 24, 2007 4:39 PM

Jinxie the cat, Go to Marthas by the airport, great atmosphere and great food. No tourists in there

Posted by: lovethekeys | January 24, 2007 6:30 PM

The two places that are not to be missed by ANYONE headed to Key West are nine.one.five and Blue Heaven. nine.one.five has a fabulous 'cone of fries' and a wine list that is wonderful. No brunch can compare to spicy bloody marys and lobster benedict with the chickens at Blue Heaven.

You just need to go - trust me.

Posted by: AddE | January 25, 2007 11:58 AM

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