Friday, June 1, 2012

Summer Guest Blog Seri(es)

The lazy days of summer are here, which means we are turning Fridays over to readers to regale us with tales of travel, adventure, food, and whatever else they want to talk about. Up first, is reader Most Valuable Schaumburger who just got back from Key West, which like the West Bank, you actually travel East to reach. If you have a tale or yarn you would like to share, let us know. Or else you will have literally nothing to read on Fridays in the Summer on the internets. Take it away, MVS.

Key West is loaded with jokester chickens, apparently.

It’s that time of year: summer vacation is upon us. For us, the question of where to go hits a little earlier in the year than it does for most due to our early May wedding anniversary. Where is a New Orleanian to go when they want to get away from tourists, heavy drinking, drag queens, and shotgun houses… hmmm, Key West? Well, at least our destination got us away from the daily grind; and Duval Street, despite its similarities to Bourbon, certainly feels a million times cleaner than the Quarter (even the Quarter under Landrieu’s reign). Actually, when we started discussing the Lower Keys, and Key West in particular as a destination, it was amazing how many Yats are Keys regulars. Once we were in the Keys it wasy easy to see why; many of the things that make New Orleans such an interesting place to live are readily available in the Keys. The music, bar scene, architecture, history, debauchery, and Creole-influenced food would be equivalent to dropping Frenchman Street into the ocean 150 miles south of Miami and 90 miles north of Cuba and surrounding it by a couple square miles of beautiful garden district-type homes. And the similarities didn’t end there. Despite Key West’s miniscule population and geographic isolation from Southern Louisiana, a large percentage of Keys locals had either lived in or often visited the Crescent City. It would appear that these two locations appeal to the same crowd. Our approach to eating our way through our week in Key West was to literally consume as much great local fare as my board shorts would allow, washing it down with stops at many of the island’s local watering holes. We began planning our trip to Key West almost 6 months ago. Flights, rental car, cottage. Check, check, check. Food – now that was going to take some serious thought. We got input from so many people who had either been once or visit on a regular basis. It was usually just a barrage of random restaurants that we just HAD to hit. It took some time to sort through and we attacked the 2 by 4 mile island with an empty stomach. We had our list of recommendations in hand, but we were also smart enough to get some local input (which, not surprisingly, led us to some of our best meals during our stay.) Here are the highlights:

As is often the case here in NOLA, our breakfasts in the Keys consisted of a late awakening closely followed by the hunt for strong coffee. In this category, we recommend heading to the Conch and Cuban Café, an open air café where a lovely woman with a heavy Cuban accent will serve you strong Cuban coffee with steamed milk. If you do feel like grabbing a bite, she has a traditional menu and also serves pressed Cuban sandwiches during breakfast hours.

On the day or days you feel like having a full breakfast (or brunch in most cases), our choice would be Blue Heaven. Everyone will tell you to go to this place. And it’s good, really good. But since everyone tells you to go, everyone goes. So be prepared to wait, especially for breakfast. But the eggs benedicts and made-from-scratch pancakes could easily be worth it. Enjoy “Breakfast with the Roosters” in the outdoor seating area. Unsanitary, you say? Well then Key West isn’t for you. Did we mention that chickens outnumber full-time residents on the island?

Much as New Orleans proudly refers to itself as the Crescent City, Key West is The Conch Republic. Despite the moniker, Conch is not an omnipresent menu item. We made a concerted effort to search out some places for conch fritters (similar to a hush puppy, but studded with chunks of the aquatic mollusk). As luck would have it, some of the best fritters on the island can be had at B.O.'s Fish Wagon. This wonderful dive is conveniently located next to what would quickly become our favorite to recommend for a drink or two (or many.) Fritters at this shack were well seasoned, but weren’t the most loaded with conch. The dipping sauce, however, was divine. Other heavy hitters for fritters: a food cart in Mallory Square where the fritters were definitely loaded with conch and The Conch Shack – probably the best overall fritters we had on our trip.

Duval Street is like a mix of Bourbon and Magazine. It’s the main thoroughfare for everything touristy (trinket shops, bars, and chain restaurants). At some point, you’ll give in to the urge to buy a Hemingway shirt and hit a touristy bar. When you do, stop in to Sloppy Joe's. Yes, it’s cliché. But it will also be the best Sloppy Joe you’ve ever had. Hands down. When you’re finding yourself nursing a hangover at 11 am, grab one, along with a huge handful of napkins and a Magic Hat #9 on draft. You will not be disappointed.

At the other end of Duval you’ll find Nine One Five, which despite its two James Beard Invitations (2007 & 2009) is the only place mentioned in this article that we would not recommend. Our expensive dinner was markedly disappointing, and later in our trip local knowledge confirmed that a new chef has made the Beard Awards a thing of the past. Our disappointing visit to 915 nearly turned us off to the upscale Key West dining scene all together, but luckily we spied a spot on our block with heavy local patronage and decided to book a reservation at Seven Fish for our last night in the islands. We’d recommend reservations: despite being tucked a couple blocks off Duval and relatively absent from the guide books, this place seemed to consistently pack in the locals. Probably the best meal of the trip, this upscale dinner spot could easily compete with NOLA’s heavy hitters. We started out with the Tropical Shrimp Salsa, which was an explosion of flavor. It was served with Tostito’s Hint of Lime chips, but don’t judge. They were the perfect accompaniment to the sweetness of the salsa and we couldn’t imagine anything being a better match.

For our entrée choices, we had the scallops served over mashed potatoes and spinach and the fish of the day, grouper with a spicy etouffee-like sauce with plenty of onions and peppers. The scallops were delightfully crusted with a rich and buttery texture inside. And the grouper was the freshest piece of fish we’ve tasted other than the times we’ve gone fishing ourselves and practically went straight from the boat to the kitchen. Overall, our experience at Seven Fish was amazing. The service was incredible, the décor was simple, and food was the star of the show.

Other places we recommend (and will certainly be repeat customers at on our next trip to the southernmost point):

Better Than Sex – That was not a typo. It’s the name of a dark and romantic dessert restaurant where you can cap off the night or make it a whole meal. We started the experience with two of their special “rimmed” drinks (above). As if cocktail hour wasn’t sweet enough, we chose the Kinky Key Lime (hey – “when in Rome,”) dessert and were not disappointed. The mile-high mousse was amazing, and the flaky crust and sprinkle of pistachios balanced out the key lime flavor so well. Pass on the caramel sauce – it’s not necessary. The whole experience is rather entertaining. The staff is sexy, seductive, and sends you off with a satisfied palate and a challenge to prove their motto incorrect.

Smokin Tuna – We accidentally stumbled into this place after being detoured for a road block on Duval. We were impressed by the delicious smoked tuna dip and great live music; it was obviously more of a locals’ bar as it was slightly off the beaten path. We tried smoked tuna dip at a number of places, but this place probably wins. The underlying smokiness wasn’t overly powerful – it was just enough.

Schooner Wharf – Previously mentioned as being our favorite watering hole on the island (possibly due to the 7 am happy hour specials), this place also serves up some tasty food. Try the breakfast, or stop in late-night and get the Caribbean-seasoned Schooner Wings. These truly were the most well-seasoned, crispy yet juicy wings we’ve ever had. The buffalo sauce was not even required for these to be well-enjoyed. Everything you know about this traditional bar food will be forever changed…

Garbos Grill – Awesome food truck. Awesome. Across from Peppers of Key West (a rather unique hot sauce store), we were pointed in its direction when we asked the sales clerk where his favorite place to eat on the island was. We split the fish quesadilla – a delicious combination of flaky white fish, sharp cheese, and sweet mango all pressed into a crispy tortilla sandwich.

El Meson de Pepe – For a traditional Cuban sandwich (above), this is where you go. But heads up: they tacked on 18% gratuity automatically. For a table for 2. At lunch! We can only wonder how many people don’t notice this at the end of their meal and tip additional. But either way, the sandwich was awesome.

So that’s it, our culinary tour of Key West. It goes without saying that we managed to find time to snorkel, swim, watch the sunset, etc. We even had a celebrity-sighting. All were pretty cool experiences. But to really experience the place, we feel you have to meet the people and eat their food. As such, we consider this trip to be a huge success.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agreed Seven Fish is legit. Yellow tail/Mahi/catch of the day in curry sauce is incredible.