TedE

Florida Keys

59 posts in this topic

Alright, so it's not paradise, chock full of sandals + socks wearing tourists disgorged from cruise ships who don't make it 2 blocks inland before succumbing to the siren song of 2-for-1 fruity drinks (which are 200% more expensive than they should be, natch) and "Hemingway Did X Here" taverns providing the the minimum of quality for maximum profit. However, we love it there. It's cheap to get to (relatively, for the semi-tropics) and actually cheap to stay (if you know where, mostly B&Bs with real character). But we are exhausting our decent possibilities and the island is changing, seemingly forever (see the most recent NYTimes travel section on the increasing cost of paradise ... and homgeneity). Who can dish on the last little nook of good eats and drinks that we've not discovered? We're going again 3rd week in December. Territory already covered:

1) 7Fish: By far my favorite place to eat down there. Simple seafood done extremely well for a relative bargain in a converted laundromat. Plop this place down in D.C. and they would mop the floor with most seafood-centric-upscale-but-not-stuffy eateries (and, yes, I'm including Hank's and Johnny's here). I could feast on the grouper roll app (always on "special") for months on end and not grow tired of it. The local stuff is ridiculously fresh and refreshingly un-tampered with.

2) Half Shell Raw Bar: Stone crabs. In season. Never cheap, anywhere. Always the best seafood I will put in my mouth. And this is a born and bred Bawlmer boy raised on Chesapeake blues speaking. Honestly, you really can't go wrong with stone crabs anywhere in the Keys, but it just feels right eating them at the Half Shell. Rest of the raw bar is good, too. We only ever go for stones n' beer, though, at the bar. For hours on end.

3) Blue Heaven: Did somebody say lobster benedict for brunch while a momma chicken and her brood peck away underfoot? Ummmm, OK. Just an awesome place to hang out and eat. Food (always brunch, never stopped in for dinner) is spot on. Drinks under the treehouse ain't bad neither. I hear it's under new management and they've bricked over the outdoor seating courtyard. We'll investiagate in a month or so. Would be sad if true. Heard they lost a large portion of said tree to Wilma. Crap.

4) Back bar at Virgilio's. Not a place I would have imagined in Key West. Martini bar? Meh. But good jazz. Surprisingly excellent Belgian beer selection. Always a post-dinner place (the Italian joint that fronts the place isn't great shakes). Sprayed liberally with cruise-tourist-B-gone.

5) El Siboney: Cuban, greasy, cheap, ridiculous. Probably not as good as the best Miami joints, but a hop, skip, and two jumps ahead of what I can get in D.C.. Worth seeking out, wweelllll off the tourist path. Treat you like family.

6) B.O.'s Fish Wagon: To be honest, I haven't actually eaten here. One time we went by it was closed at some random time, other times the Half Shell beckoned (a few steps away). No way in hell I'm missing it next trip. Literally a shack (no wall, corrugated roof, etc. etc) with supposedly the best grouper sandwich this side of the ocean. Tough comparison in the Keys, but I'd believe it.

7) Pepe's: Can't really explain this place. Claims to be the oldest continually operating restaurant in Key West. Decent food. Every Thursday is Thanksgiving (turkey et al. on special). Bizarre. Great owners and bartenders. Stumbled on it the first time we were there. $1 Yeungling specials just after they had opened their Florida brewery. Had to stay for a few hours after that discovery.

We like to fly into Miami or Ft. Lauderdale and drive down. Kind of eases you into the Keys mood. Here are a couple places worth mentioning to stop for lunch, or drinks. Mile markers where I remember them:

8) Alabama Jacks: If you take the bypass, this is right before the bridge. Don't eat here, but mingle with the crowd for drinks. Real biker bar. Watch out for the 'gators.

9) Islamorada Fish Company, MM81ish: Huge fishing store (think Cabela's or that Bass Outlet place) with floating docks for dining and tarpon to feed. Not the best by any imagination, but a great place to get into the Keys mood. Grouper or stone crab in season. Some fruity concoction at our elbow.

10) Manny and Isa's, MM80ish, near the above: Mom n' pop Cuban, but the real draw is the Key lime pie. Have it here and skip the other (mostly) imposters, especially the joints near Duval in Key West. Ok, the Blonde Giraffe is decent, but otherwise ...

11) Keys Fisheries, Marathon somewhere: This place apparently is owned by Joe's in Miami for supply purposes. Stone crabs? Fresh off the boat. Literally. You can even get them hot if you get there at the right time (stone crab claws are steamed on the boat by law due to their perishibility). Why pay Joe's prices for some penguin in a nice suit to serve them to you? This is the same thing, only fresher and 1/4 the price.

12) Mango Mama's: MM21ish. Can't say why we love the place. Service is slapdash, setting is kinda weird (garden grotto meets crab shack), but folks are friendly and the seafood is spectacular. And a good deal cheaper than what you will get 20 miles to the SW.

Anybody else have experiences they'd like to share? There are other places we'd like to spend our big-dinner money on (La Te Da, Louie's, etc) but can't seem to justify it having never bitten the bullet (money on food takes away dollars from drinks and fishing charters smile.gif ). Anyway, I'd encourage anybody to head down to the Keys if they've never been; PM for recs. It's not for everybody, but I suspect that most folks here would get a kick out of 3-4 days there.

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We like to fly into Miami or Ft. Lauderdale and drive down.  Kind of eases you into the Keys mood.  Here are a couple places worth mentioning to stop for lunch, or drinks.  Mile markers where I remember them:

It has been around for fifty years, and it's in all the guidebooks, but I thoroughly enjoyed my quick, casual lunch at 7 Mile Grill in Marathon a few years ago.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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I'm in the Keys once or twice a year. My new job will bring me there more often so I'll post any new-to-me gems I might find. You've mentioned a lot of my favorites. I'd heard a nasty rumor that Manny & Isa's closed -- do you know if that is true?

I can't imagine Blue Heaven without the sand. I also like Camille's (Simonton Street) for breakfast.

Some of the fishermen in Key Largo used to always take me to Sharky's. It is off the tourist track and has good seafood and basics.

I haven't eaten at the La Te Da (but the drag show was phenomenal) but I have been to Alice's across the street which used to be there. It was more upscale then most of the places you mention but it was definitely worth it.

915 at 915 Duval offers small plates so even though it is on the upscale side, you can have a light meal at the bar without blowing your budget. They introduced me to my favorite summer salad -- butter lettuce, nectarines, caramlized shallots, and a muscat vinaigrette. They also have a wonderful Caribbean-spiced pork kabob on sugarcane skewers. I do well with their wines by the glass list too.

I don't really think of Italian when I go to the Keys, but I was taken to L'Opera on Duval last summer and loved the housemade pastas.

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Alright, so it's not paradise, chock full of sandals + socks wearing tourists disgorged from cruise ships who don't make it 2 blocks inland before succumbing to the siren song of 2-for-1 fruity drinks (which are 200% more expensive than they should be, natch) and "Hemingway Did X Here" taverns providing the the minimum of quality for maximum profit.  However, we love it there.  It's cheap to get to (relatively, for the semi-tropics) and actually cheap to stay (if you know where, mostly B&Bs with real character).  But we are exhausting our decent possibilities and the island is changing, seemingly forever (see the most recent NYTimes travel section on the increasing cost of paradise ... and homgeneity).  Who can dish on the last little nook of good eats and drinks that we've not discovered?  We're going again 3rd week in December.  Territory already covered:

1) 7Fish: By far my favorite place to eat down there.  Simple seafood done extremely well for a relative bargain in a converted laundromat.  Plop this place down in D.C. and they would mop the floor with most seafood-centric-upscale-but-not-stuffy eateries (and, yes, I'm including Hank's and Johnny's here).  I could feast on the grouper roll app (always on "special") for months on end and not grow tired of it.  The local stuff is ridiculously fresh and refreshingly un-tampered with.

2) Half Shell Raw Bar: Stone crabs.  In season.  Never cheap, anywhere.  Always the best seafood I will put in my mouth.  And this is a born and bred Bawlmer boy raised on Chesapeake blues speaking.  Honestly, you really can't go wrong with stone crabs anywhere in the Keys, but it just feels right eating them at the Half Shell.  Rest of the raw bar is good, too.  We only ever go for stones n' beer, though, at the bar.  For hours on end.

3) Blue Heaven: Did somebody say lobster benedict for brunch while a momma chicken and her brood peck away underfoot?  Ummmm, OK.  Just an awesome place to hang out and eat.  Food (always brunch, never stopped in for dinner) is spot on.  Drinks under the treehouse ain't bad neither.  I hear it's under new management and they've bricked over the outdoor seating courtyard.  We'll investiagate in a month or so.  Would be sad if true.  Heard they lost a large portion of said tree to Wilma.  Crap.

4) Back bar at Virgilio's.  Not a place I would have imagined in Key West.  Martini bar?  Meh.  But good jazz.  Surprisingly excellent Belgian beer selection.  Always a post-dinner place (the Italian joint that fronts the place isn't great shakes).  Sprayed liberally with cruise-tourist-B-gone.

5) El Siboney:  Cuban, greasy, cheap, ridiculous.  Probably not as good as the best Miami joints, but a hop, skip, and two jumps ahead of what I can get in D.C..  Worth seeking out, wweelllll off the tourist path.  Treat you like family.

6) B.O.'s Fish Wagon: To be honest, I haven't actually eaten here.  One time we went by it was closed at some random time, other times the Half Shell beckoned (a few steps away).  No way in hell I'm missing it next trip.  Literally a shack (no wall, corrugated roof, etc. etc) with supposedly the best grouper sandwich this side of the ocean.  Tough comparison in the Keys, but I'd believe it.

7) Pepe's:  Can't really explain this place.  Claims to be the oldest continually operating restaurant in Key West.  Decent food.  Every Thursday is Thanksgiving (turkey et al. on special).  Bizarre.  Great owners and bartenders.  Stumbled on it the first time we were there.  $1 Yeungling specials just after they had opened their Florida brewery.  Had to stay for a few hours after that discovery.

We like to fly into Miami or Ft. Lauderdale and drive down.  Kind of eases you into the Keys mood.  Here are a couple places worth mentioning to stop for lunch, or drinks.  Mile markers where I remember them:

8) Alabama Jacks:  If you take the bypass, this is right before the bridge.  Don't eat here, but mingle with the crowd for drinks.  Real biker bar.  Watch out for the 'gators.

9) Islamorada Fish Company, MM81ish:  Huge fishing store (think Cabela's or that Bass Outlet place) with floating docks for dining and tarpon to feed.  Not the best by any imagination, but a great place to get into the Keys mood.  Grouper or stone crab in season.  Some fruity concoction at our elbow.

10) Manny and Isa's, MM80ish, near the above:  Mom n' pop Cuban, but the real draw is the Key lime pie.  Have it here and skip the other (mostly) imposters, especially the joints near Duval in Key West.  Ok, the Blonde Giraffe is decent, but otherwise ...

11)  Keys Fisheries, Marathon somewhere:  This place apparently is owned by Joe's in Miami for supply purposes.  Stone crabs?  Fresh off the boat.  Literally.  You can even get them hot if you get there at the right time (stone crab claws are steamed on the boat by law due to their perishibility).  Why pay Joe's prices for some penguin in a nice suit to serve them to you?  This is the same thing, only fresher and 1/4 the price.

12)  Mango Mama's: MM21ish.  Can't say why we love the place.  Service is slapdash, setting is kinda weird (garden grotto meets crab shack), but folks are friendly and the seafood is spectacular.  And a good deal cheaper than what you will get 20 miles to the SW.

Anybody else have experiences they'd like to share?  There are other places we'd like to spend our big-dinner money on (La Te Da, Louie's, etc) but can't seem to justify it having never bitten the bullet (money on food takes away dollars from drinks and fishing charters :lol: ).  Anyway, I'd encourage anybody to head down to the Keys if they've never been; PM for recs.  It's not for everybody, but I suspect that most folks here would get a kick out of 3-4 days there.

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Alright, so it's not paradise, chock full of sandals + socks wearing tourists disgorged from cruise ships who don't make it 2 blocks inland before succumbing to the siren song of 2-for-1 fruity drinks (which are 200% more expensive than they should be, natch) and "Hemingway Did X Here" taverns providing the the minimum of quality for maximum profit.  However, we love it there.  It's cheap to get to (relatively, for the semi-tropics) and actually cheap to stay (if you know where, mostly B&Bs with real character).  But we are exhausting our decent possibilities and the island is changing, seemingly forever (see the most recent NYTimes travel section on the increasing cost of paradise ... and homgeneity).  Who can dish on the last little nook of good eats and drinks that we've not discovered?  We're going again 3rd week in December.  Territory already covered:

1) 7Fish: By far my favorite place to eat down there.  Simple seafood done extremely well for a relative bargain in a converted laundromat.  Plop this place down in D.C. and they would mop the floor with most seafood-centric-upscale-but-not-stuffy eateries (and, yes, I'm including Hank's and Johnny's here).  I could feast on the grouper roll app (always on "special") for months on end and not grow tired of it.  The local stuff is ridiculously fresh and refreshingly un-tampered with.

2) Half Shell Raw Bar: Stone crabs.  In season.  Never cheap, anywhere.  Always the best seafood I will put in my mouth.  And this is a born and bred Bawlmer boy raised on Chesapeake blues speaking.  Honestly, you really can't go wrong with stone crabs anywhere in the Keys, but it just feels right eating them at the Half Shell.  Rest of the raw bar is good, too.  We only ever go for stones n' beer, though, at the bar.  For hours on end.

3) Blue Heaven: Did somebody say lobster benedict for brunch while a momma chicken and her brood peck away underfoot?  Ummmm, OK.  Just an awesome place to hang out and eat.  Food (always brunch, never stopped in for dinner) is spot on.  Drinks under the treehouse ain't bad neither.  I hear it's under new management and they've bricked over the outdoor seating courtyard.  We'll investiagate in a month or so.  Would be sad if true.  Heard they lost a large portion of said tree to Wilma.  Crap.

4) Back bar at Virgilio's.  Not a place I would have imagined in Key West.  Martini bar?  Meh.  But good jazz.  Surprisingly excellent Belgian beer selection.  Always a post-dinner place (the Italian joint that fronts the place isn't great shakes).  Sprayed liberally with cruise-tourist-B-gone.

5) El Siboney:  Cuban, greasy, cheap, ridiculous.  Probably not as good as the best Miami joints, but a hop, skip, and two jumps ahead of what I can get in D.C..  Worth seeking out, wweelllll off the tourist path.  Treat you like family.

6) B.O.'s Fish Wagon: To be honest, I haven't actually eaten here.  One time we went by it was closed at some random time, other times the Half Shell beckoned (a few steps away).  No way in hell I'm missing it next trip.  Literally a shack (no wall, corrugated roof, etc. etc) with supposedly the best grouper sandwich this side of the ocean.  Tough comparison in the Keys, but I'd believe it.

7) Pepe's:  Can't really explain this place.  Claims to be the oldest continually operating restaurant in Key West.  Decent food.  Every Thursday is Thanksgiving (turkey et al. on special).  Bizarre.  Great owners and bartenders.  Stumbled on it the first time we were there.  $1 Yeungling specials just after they had opened their Florida brewery.  Had to stay for a few hours after that discovery.

We like to fly into Miami or Ft. Lauderdale and drive down.  Kind of eases you into the Keys mood.  Here are a couple places worth mentioning to stop for lunch, or drinks.  Mile markers where I remember them:

8) Alabama Jacks:  If you take the bypass, this is right before the bridge.  Don't eat here, but mingle with the crowd for drinks.  Real biker bar.  Watch out for the 'gators.

9) Islamorada Fish Company, MM81ish:  Huge fishing store (think Cabela's or that Bass Outlet place) with floating docks for dining and tarpon to feed.  Not the best by any imagination, but a great place to get into the Keys mood.  Grouper or stone crab in season.  Some fruity concoction at our elbow.

10) Manny and Isa's, MM80ish, near the above:  Mom n' pop Cuban, but the real draw is the Key lime pie.  Have it here and skip the other (mostly) imposters, especially the joints near Duval in Key West.  Ok, the Blonde Giraffe is decent, but otherwise ...

11)  Keys Fisheries, Marathon somewhere:  This place apparently is owned by Joe's in Miami for supply purposes.  Stone crabs?  Fresh off the boat.  Literally.  You can even get them hot if you get there at the right time (stone crab claws are steamed on the boat by law due to their perishibility).  Why pay Joe's prices for some penguin in a nice suit to serve them to you?  This is the same thing, only fresher and 1/4 the price.

12)  Mango Mama's: MM21ish.  Can't say why we love the place.  Service is slapdash, setting is kinda weird (garden grotto meets crab shack), but folks are friendly and the seafood is spectacular.  And a good deal cheaper than what you will get 20 miles to the SW.

Anybody else have experiences they'd like to share?  There are other places we'd like to spend our big-dinner money on (La Te Da, Louie's, etc) but can't seem to justify it having never bitten the bullet (money on food takes away dollars from drinks and fishing charters :lol: ).  Anyway, I'd encourage anybody to head down to the Keys if they've never been; PM for recs.  It's not for everybody, but I suspect that most folks here would get a kick out of 3-4 days there.

Hi Ted.

So, is it true that Blue Heaven has new management? If so, how's the food now (we always loved it before)? I also heard 7 Fish has new owners and is not as good - - do you know anything about that? Do you have any other new recommendations?

I know it's too late for your trip, but for next year: on the drive down, try Morada Bay Cafe in Islamorada for lunch. Also, the Islamorada Bakery Cafe has great baked goods and breakfasts. Leigh Ann's in Marathon has great con leche and chocolate happies. In Key West, I think Kermit's is better than the Blonde Giraffe for key lime pie on a stick - - extremely delicious in my opinion. For the best brunch, drive over to Little Palm Island on Sunday (well drive to their reception center and catch the shuttle out to the island) - - expensive but worth it.

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Hi Ted.

So, is it true that Blue Heaven has new management?  If so, how's the food now (we always loved it before)?  I also heard 7 Fish has new owners and is not as good - - do you know anything about that? Do you have any other new recommendations?

I know it's too late for your trip, but for next year: on the drive down, try Morada Bay Cafe in Islamorada for lunch. Also, the Islamorada Bakery Cafe has great baked goods and breakfasts. Leigh Ann's in Marathon has great con leche and chocolate happies.  In Key West, I think Kermit's is better than the Blonde Giraffe for key lime pie on a stick - - extremely delicious in my opinion.    For the best brunch, drive over to Little Palm Island on Sunday (well drive to their reception center and catch the shuttle out to the island) - - expensive but worth it.

Not sure about the Blue Heaven management change, but it was a little off when we dropped in for lunch (service issues mostly, but then again it's never been the most attentive service). I could have sworn the menu was changed, but I may have been confusing it with the brunch menu. I think we'll only go back for brunch the next time down.

We did hear about the ownership change at 7Fish, but didn't notice any drop off in quality.

B.O.'s was everything I'd expected. Best fish sandwich down there.

We really didn't cover any new ground except Conch Republic Seafood Co.; won't go back, there's no reason to pick it over the Half Shell.

If we can tear ourselves away from the Keys Fisheries we might try Morada Bay :lol:

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Went to Keys Fisheries for the first time last week. Beautiful setup with picnic type tables right on the water. Watch the tarpon cruise by. I had a crabcake sandwich that was mighty tasty. Others had the hogfish and grouper sandwiches -- not a crumb was left. This would be a great casual watch the sun set kind of place.

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Duck confit salad small plate at 915 (915 Duval St, Key West) turned out to be a rather large duck leg, fall off the bone tender with crispy skin atop a bed of mixed greens, shallots, dried cherries, and a sherry vinaigrette. Not so small a plate. I thought the shallots were a little too strong a flavor and overwhelmed the duck. I just ate around them.

Eating at the bar, I was able to witness a series of wine purveyors come in to do tastings with the owner/manager/guy in power. I half expected jparrot to saunter in. When the power guy noticed me paying attention, he poured me a few samples. Sadly, I didn't catch names but enjoyed the gesture.

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There are a couple of places in Key West that I have fond memories of:

I agree on El Siboney at 900 Catherine St. Down home Cuban cooking. No wine to speak of (Sangria and table wine) but the food was good, cheap, and plentiful.

Blue Heaven for breakfast was a joy. Had shrimp and grits for breakfast (Sunday bruch really) and a fish sandwich for lunch 5 days later. Both were out of this world. I wonder if the new management has changed things.

The Banana Cafe had wonderful food and great local jazz on Thursday nights.

If you like ice cream, you have to go to Flamingo Crossing on Duval St. (1105) Best ice cream I have eaten in a long time. Wonderful passion fruit icecream, huge portions, and just the thing for a hot (and I mean HOT) day.

Mangia Mangia. We went twice since we enjoyed it so much the first time. The menu is spare, but I had a great Tuscan Duck and the escargot was fantastic. Pastas are made fresh every day and delicious. But the wine, oh my, the wine list. It is quite long and extremely well priced. (You have to ask for the reserve list however, or you get just the ordinary list) Unlike most places, the prices for older wines have not risen as they value has. I had a 93 Bongiovianni Borolo for $55 and a 94 Bernardus Barinus for $40. Exceptional prices for older first growths and at $275 the Gaja was very well priced. The list goes back to the 50s. French and CA wines are very well represented. The 97 Tapestry was $62 and the 96 $55.

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I miss the days when I had to go to Key West regularly for business. :)
I'll be back in 3 weeks. I guess there are a few good things about this job!
Mangia Mangia. We went twice since we enjoyed it so much the first time. The menu is spare, but I had a great Tuscan Duck and the escargot was fantastic. Pastas are made fresh every day and delicious. But the wine, oh my, the wine list. It is quite long and extremely well priced. (You have to ask for the reserve list however, or you get just the ordinary list) Unlike most places, the prices for older wines have not risen as they value has. I had a 93 Bongiovianni Borolo for $55 and a 94 Bernardus Barinus for $40. Exceptional prices for older first growths and at $275 the Gaja was very well priced. The list goes back to the 50s. French and CA wines are very well represented. The 97 Tapestry was $62 and the 96 $55.
Very good to know. I have passed by this place dozens of times and for whatever reason never gone. Something about the Keys doesn't scream pasta to me. But since I'm going so regularly now I need to branch out. A little at least. I'm not going to stop hitting Keys Fisheries for a shrimp stop on the drive. Today was the start of the lobster mini-season. An astounding number of boats on the water. I went for lunch around 1:30 on the way back north and ran into a slew of officers who'd docked for a break. They had faboulous stories of the morning patrol.

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There are a couple of places in Key West that I have fond memories of:

I agree on El Siboney at 900 Catherine St. Down home Cuban cooking. No wine to speak of (Sangria and table wine) but the food was good, cheap, and plentiful.

Thirded. It was a regular stop on my visits there. Off the beaten path, always busy, and wowed you in that different sort of way that didn't require linen tablecloths.

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Mangia Mangia. We went twice since we enjoyed it so much the first time. The menu is spare, but I had a great Tuscan Duck and the escargot was fantastic. Pastas are made fresh every day and delicious. But the wine, oh my, the wine list. It is quite long and extremely well priced. (You have to ask for the reserve list however, or you get just the ordinary list) Unlike most places, the prices for older wines have not risen as they value has. I had a 93 Bongiovianni Borolo for $55 and a 94 Bernardus Barinus for $40. Exceptional prices for older first growths and at $275 the Gaja was very well priced. The list goes back to the 50s. French and CA wines are very well represented. The 97 Tapestry was $62 and the 96 $55.
I went here for the first time tonight. Instead of building a meal around the carpaccio appetizer which was calling my name, I opted for pasta to test my earlier assertion that I just don't think pasta when I'm in the Keys. I was right. The fresh pasta was quite delicious and a reminder that I need to put our pasta class back to work and make some soon. But the dish was just too heavy for summer heat. While the sauce was a summer-friendly pomodoro, when it is 90 degrees and the garden seats are awash in salty air, I want lighter food. The grilled housemade sausage that came with it was nicely spiced with a nice amount of smoky char. I did like that in a nod to the Keys culture the garlic bread was Cuban bread. I did enjoy reading through the wine list and went for a glass of very lovely chianti they were featuring.

Tomorrow I'll go with your suggestion of El Siboney.

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I had a very tasty grilled pork chop smothered in onions at El Siboney tonight. Came with a massive mound of plantains and yellow rice. I passed on the black beans. The food was very good and I made note of several other interesting dishes I saw people eating that I'd like to try next time. But, the service was awful. It took 15 minutes and two asks to get a menu. My waitress brought my food but not my drink and then disappeared until 10 minutes after I'd finished eating. Surrounding tables served by other people seemed to be faring much better with their service. I'm chalking it up to someone having a bad day and I'll be back on future visits.

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Hit the Islamorada Fishing Company for stone crabs and Key lime pie tonight. Caught the end of sunset and the start of the live music. Salty breeze was a nice contrast to the 20 degree (no joke) weather we had last night in Tallahassee. It has been a very good stone crab season. No hurricanes to mar the start of the season and no traps to replace mean lower prices. Eight large claws ran $28. That is a great price for medium claws in a typical season. The crab was sweet and served with a great mustard sauce. They did a nice job cracking the claws so I never had to use the mallet and make a ruckus at the table.

The Key lime pie was not so good. It is made in individual portions in big mugs. Looks cute but means the crust is not baked. I like the toasted graham flavor. Also means it is a fridge-set custard. I prefer the smoothness of a baked filling. I should have waited until I made it to Key West and stopped at the diner for pie.

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With the temperature now a chilly 72 (hey, I've acclimated) I decided I was ready to give Italian food in Key West another shot. A friend steered me to Abbondanza on Simonton. When I drove up, I was tempted to go to Camille's next door but decided that in the name of science I had to continue with my experiment.

I really enjoyed it.

I had about 2 pounds of fettucine (no joke - this was a ridiculously large portion) with shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce with just a hint of cream and a sprinkling of spinach. At first I was put off by the spinach being limited to the top layer but then I realized I'd never get past the surface so it didn't matter. I really enjoyed the sauce -- the hint of cream gave it a nice richness that complimented the pepper without being too heavy. This was served in a large bowl. Great for containing the sauce on such a large portion but it made it difficult to cut off the shrimp tails. I need some traction!

Added bonue -- non-metered street parking. If you are heading to Key West and plan on parking on the street bring a ton of change (25 cents for 10 min) or get a parking card.

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I was going to check out 7 Mile Grill for dinner on my drive from Key West to Key Largo tonight, but there were absolutely no cars in the lot. I just find it odd to sit in a totally empty place. So I figured I'd hit one of the dives along the way. The great thing about Keys dives are that they are the exact opposite of mainland dives -- best places for seafood. Then I realized I was wearing my agency logo shirt because of the public meeting today. Decided I didn't need to invite trouble.

Which is my long-winded way of saying I ended up at Marker 88 for dinner. Having heard some great stories in a session with long time fishermen about the changes in fisheries, I felt compelled to enjoy some crustaceans bayside. I had the Key lime seafood pasta -- shrimp, lobster, and crab in a Key lime-garlic sauce over penne. You could have fed two or three people with this portion. I had to eat strategically. The shrimp looked suspiciously non-local -- far too big for this time of year -- so I focused on the lobster and crab. The sauce was slightly overspiced but nice and limey -- like someone hadn't quite converted proportions properly for using dried spices when they are used to cooking with fresh. I hate when things labeled as Key lime don't have a decidedly lime flavor.

One service quirk. When my otherwise wonderful waitress brought another glass of iced tea she took the straw from my old glass and put it in the new one. Ick.

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Just back from another trip to Key West. Since I had to give up my weekend for work, I opted to spend the extra money and fly all the way rather then drive from Miami. My bag didn't make the flight home (despite having only 2 people on the plane) so I guess that will teach me.

Dinner the first night was at Camille's on Simonton. We had a large group and overwhelmed them a little. I had a shrimp scampi served on a mountain of pasta. There were a few shrimp hidden in all of that pasta but a few more would have been nice. The sauce was lighter then you normally get for a scampi and a welcome twist. One of the party had a phenomenal lamb chop and spinach salad that I'm sure to try next time if still on the menu.

Our event ended at 2-ish yesterday and I had already reached saturation for small talk so I stopped by Matheson's on White St to pick up a chicken salad wrap and an iced tea. This is a great little place with a soda fountain feel (cherry red counter stools and a few booths). They have housemade ice creams that looked wonderful but I didn't taste since I'm getting fit for summer. This is also one of the few places in the area that asks if you want sweet or unsweet tea. The Tea Line is somewhere around Orlando. It is sort of a second Mason-Dixon Line. It is the point where you've gone far enough south that you are in a northern culture again. Anyway, this place does chicken salad right -- just a hint of mayo, big chunks of chicken and onions, not celery. Took my feast out to Ft. Zachary Taylor and sat under the shade of the invasive Australian pines, grateful that headache isn't my problem.

I'd intended to have dinner at the annual Seafood Festival but I got a late start and and the good looking booths had run out of shrimp. So I headed over to Sarabeth's on Southard St. I've wanted to go for a while since I have fond memories of a meal at one of the NYC Sarabeth's. This was delightful. I had a table in the garden out front so I could enjoy the beautiful, clear night. The manager brought over a copy of the latest issue of Key West magazine "to keep you company" since I was dining alone. It was a nice touch. I had shrimp and crabcakes with a mango-jicama slaw. The crabcakes had almost no binder and I spent the meal trying to guess how they got them so large and cooked in perfect form when they crumbled as soon as the fork touched them. The cakes had corn, peppers, and cilantro mixed in and a cornmeal crust which made for a slightly spicy contrast to the mango-jicama slaw. I exercised admirable restraint and only ate one of the two large crabcakes, not that I was still hungry but these were good.

And I got through the weekend without a single serving of pie. If that isn't willpower then I don't know what is.

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And I got through the weekend without a single serving of pie. If that isn't willpower then I don't know what is.

I couldn't make it through a day in the Keys without a slice of pie, diet or not. I'd skip meals to feed that indulgence.

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I couldn't make it through a day in the Keys without a slice of pie, diet or not. I'd skip meals to feed that indulgence.
Ordinarily I think you should have multiple pieces of Key Lime Pie a day when in the Keys. I don't have a fever, so the only other rationale I can come up with is that the frequent trips make the need to cram unneccessary. I know another piece of pie is just around the corner (also known as February 18th).

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1) 7Fish: By far my favorite place to eat down there. Simple seafood done extremely well for a relative bargain in a converted laundromat. Plop this place down in D.C. and they would mop the floor with most seafood-centric-upscale-but-not-stuffy eateries (and, yes, I'm including Hank's and Johnny's here). I could feast on the grouper roll app (always on "special") for months on end and not grow tired of it. The local stuff is ridiculously fresh and refreshingly un-tampered with.

Update: 7Fish is off the list. We were down there at the end of October and can't recommend the place anymore. At all. It was sold, but I guess the timing of our last meal down there was fortunate. A lot of the same staff appear to be there, and the menu reads the same, but the food coming out of the kitchen was completely uninspiring. No, it was downright bad. Fish was overcooked and the sides were just not good. We're sad to see it devolve so much, but our next trip down won't include a meal there.

On the other hand we still like the Half Shell, El Siboney is still great Cuban, Blue Heaven still serves a fantastic breakfast, and B.O.'s still knows how to put together a great fish sandwich. There is a new place called Santiago's Bodega that we heard of on the way out of town and we're sorry we missed it. We heard good things.

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Key West - the stream-of-consciousness version.

Arriving Monday evening at the B&B, our hostess was unequivocal that 7Fish (corner of Elizabeth and Olivia) was her favorite. It's still a popular spot with the locals; thanks to her call, they held the last two seats (at the bar) for us as we hustled around the block. Wish I'd remembered TedE's post. I didn't think it was actively bad, but it wasn't particularly inspired. Cooking solid, rustic, but a bit ham-handed. Ceviche could have used more steeping time, whereas fish entrees somewhat overdone. Conch chowder a little too dominated by the tomato. Service was excellent however, with the bar seating offering a good opportunity to gab with your barman - Fred was both friendly and full of suggestions. Overall though, the food reminded me a bit of the old O'Donnell's two iterations back...safe for the whole family, but not likely to set foodie hearts aflutter. Also note the unusual hours - they're closed Tuesdays.

Tuesday lunchtime, we promised some friends we'd taunt them from the raw bar at the Hog's Breath Saloon, your quintessential KW tourist trap. Dodging the smoke from the tipsy 50-something ladies getting their lounge lizard on to the beat of the Skynyrd cover band, we grabbed a dozen oysters, fries, and some booze and SMSed some chilly friends up here to check the webcam. Otherwise, it's what you'd expect from a tourist bar.

That evening we hit 915 (915 Duval St) for dinner. The menu is divided into small plates (median about $9), large plates ($25-35), and lighter plates ($20-ish), with small plates approximating tapas portions. In addition, 915 has one of the lengthier wine lists in town, complete with a few Parker-pointed items for those who shop that way. We started with a cone of excellent fried calamari served with a mild aioli, the devils-on-horseback (nice smoky bacon, dates almost too sweet), and a plate of sweet baby radishes with slices of rustic brown bread and butter. Mains were much less consistent. Gubeen opted for the dazzling whole yellowtail "Thai-style", which was somewhat overfried on one side, and quite a bit overfried on the other. Served on a bed of shredded cabbage with a bowl of rice on the side, it never quite went anywhere, apart from looking good. My main, on the other hand, was a new addition to the menu this week, and terrific - stuffed quail and merguez with roasted root vegetables. The quail ballotine was perfectly tender and savory, but the house-made merguez was especially good. I suggested to Stuart, the co-owner, that he should seriously consider offering a version as a small plate. For dessert I had the pear cobbler with ice cream, another slightly uneven concoction. The cobbler was delicious, individually portioned in a ceramic crock, with a layer of marzipan adding a nice dose of almond to the pear slices. The ice cream however, was a bit like eating butter...perhaps too much milkfat or simply over-churned. The main downer was service; the seating layout, wrapping around the porch of a converted house and spilling into the front lawn, didn't lend itself to convenient oversight, but we still saw our server only twice during the first forty minutes, several items failed to show up "due to computer problems", and overall it took us nearly 2.5 hours to complete a simple dinner. My overall impression would be very promising, especially in the kitchen, but with some rough areas to work on.

Sitting on our hands between courses, we had plenty of time to chat with Michael and Ray, local foodies at the next table who had plenty of great info about dining in Key West. Progressive meals seem to be the winning plan...hopping from restaurant-to-restaurant for the one or two dishes that each excells at, and bypassing the also-rans. Ray, who has worked at a variety of Key West restaurants over the years, highly recommended trying hogfish (a large wrasse, although locally referred to as hogfish snapper) wherever it could be found. They had good things to say about most of the places we'd heard of, but strongly suggested lunch (but not dinner) at Louie's Backyard (700 Waddell St), for reasons of value. So that's what we started with on Wednesday. Louie's was probably our favorite overall in Key West, a sharp-looking dining room located directly on the Atlantic, with very good cooking all-around. I kicked off with the Bahamian conch chowder served with a cruet of bird-pepper vinegar. Great seafoody base to the chowder, with a kick of spicyness even if you don't add a bit of the vinegar, and a sizeable enough portion to make a light meal out of by itself. The local snapper sandwich was superb - delicate, extremely fresh, with carefully prepped toppings on a good soft roll. Gubeen's conch fritters were marvelously light with a crisp batter shell, and her scallops with citrus vinaigrette and grilled endive were perfectly done. We'd definitely hit Louie's again.

We got married on a sunset cruise that evening :( If you like the water, we highly recommend looking up Captain Carla, who offers charter tours on her 31' catamaran Java Cat. It's not a fancy high-frills boat, but with a capacity of 6 guests, a shallow draft and the ability to haul her sea kayaks on the fore trampoline for daytime eco-tours, Carla is an excellent skipper and host. Java Cat docks directly behind the Turtle Kraals restaurant.

Alice's Key West (1114 Duval St) was our last dinner stop in town. In honor of Repeal Day, we started off with a negroni and a "Church Lady martini". I usually avoid coconut shrimp as a clumsy over-battered over-sweetened dish, but Alice's coconut and nut-encrusted version is terrific. Served with a mild horseradish sauce and streaks of sriracha, with coconut rice and stir-fried vegetables. Gubeen wasn't as fond of her ceviche, which was dominated by grapefruit juice, which clashed with the shrimp. Bartender "Tonto" mixed us up a couple of good drinks, but I'm a little skeptical about the rye Manhattan on the drinks list, as there was no straight rye anywhere at the bar, only Canadian whiskey.

Alice's and 915 were the most ambitious kitchens we tried, but also more prone to stumbles than Louie's. Any of them would make for an interesting meal, but Louie's was clearly the blue-chip choice. Key West chefs also seem to favor imported dungeness crab over anything more local, apart from expensive stone crab claws.

Oh yes. No trip would be complete without a sampling of Key lime pies. Interesting to see that the local style is always lightly baked, resulting in a slightly fluffier texture than what I've seen elsewhere on the east coast. Texture seemed uniformly good on all pies tasted.

Blonde Giraffe: ubiquitous and heavily promoted. Pastry crust, heavy meringue topping. Didn't try.

Alice's black-bottomed pie (as seen in Southern Living, 2002): can't count me a fan. Chocolate flavor distracts from filling, which was already noticeably lighter on key lime flavor.

Key Limes-n-More: baked graham crust, whipped cream florets on rim. Excellent lime flavor. Very good overall.

Kermit's Key (West) Lime Pies: unbaked graham crust, whipped cream florets on rim. Excellent lime flavor. Favorite overall, with the crust giving it an edge over the others.

Finally, we were able to get our hogfish on, at Keys Fisheries (end of 35th St on Marathon) on our way back to Miami. It's exactly what you hope for from an outdoor fish shack - order at the window, then grab some utensils and condiments and stake out a piece of park bench. Blackened hogfish sandwich is delicious, but fried is to die for. A must-do.

Pics later.

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We got married on a sunset cruise that evening :(
Oh you coy boy.

Million congrats. Especially on taking joint ownership of THAT Scotch collection :(.

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