“Oh, it’s the one, this is the best,” says Jay Kana, editor of Modern Mississauga Magazine. “It’s the perfect combination of sweet and tart.”
After spending a week touring the Florida Keys, we have finally fulfilled our mission: find the best key lime pie. The pie, served at Bistro 245 in Key West, was the perfect fluffy consistency, taste and colour. That’s yellow by the way—a green pie isn’t made from real key limes. And no self-respecting Conch (moniker for those from the Conch Republic, aka, The Keys) will accept anything but the authentic limes. Just like the pie, Conchs have a taste all their own.
Margarita-drinking singer Jimmy Buffet, a native to the Keys, had it correct when he wrote his classic song, Margaritaville—the Keys are different. It’s not about making money and living in the rat race; the Keys are a place to chill, take a sip, and eat some mighty fine Conch cuisine. To eat in the Keys is to understand easy living: simple and authentic.
Eat your way through the natural beauty of Key West
The 171-kilometre stretch of islands, held together on one long road and 42 bridges, feels like a giant pearl necklace hanging from the southern tip of the United States. The combination of fishermen, geography and its proximity to Cuba make for some tasty and unique cuisine.
Key Largo Conch House
Our first lunch stop is at a classic family-run restaurant, the Key Largo Conch House. The whitewashed and nautical memorabilia make the restaurant feel like a cozy seaside cottage. To start, we order conch fritters. The conch shell is the name for the outer spiral shell. Inside, the mollusk is a white meaty shellfish. The fritter is a fried ball of conch goodness.
Our waitress arrives with a cold beer, with a hint of coconut. “Key West is closer to Cuba than a Walmart,” she says. In fact, at only 150 kilometres, it’s closer to Cuba than the mainland US. The first wave of immigrants arrived in 1830, bringing with them their love of fish and spice. The waitress sets down a platter of shrimp on plantains and a dish of lobster ceviche, raw fish cured in lime juice. The hot sauce on the table is Cuban, too. Fresh, spicy and salty.
Hawks Cay Resort’s Angler and Ale
The ocean is truly the star of this place. We’re staying at Hawks Cay Resort with giant windows on all sides that makes it feel as if the resort is an extension of the ocean. With a room that backs onto the pool and seaside bar, I know where I’m spending the afternoon. Margarita in hand, I watch the cranes swoop into the ocean.
That night we dine at the onsite restaurant, Angler and Ale, for a smorgasbord of seafood: broiled Florida lobster, a lobster Reuben, crispy grouper cheeks (as a Newfoundlander, these remind me of the rich taste of cod cheeks) and whole roasted snapper. That night, walking back to my room, I can feel the summer breeze on my sunburnt shoulders. The ocean calmly whooshes. Sun-kissed and satisfied; I sleep soundly.
Robbie’s Marina and the Hungry Tarpon restaurant
For breakfast, we drink coffees at Robbie’s Marina and the Hungry Tarpon restaurant in Islamorada. The area is full of vendors selling cottage plaques and nautical memorabilia. The lobster egg omelet is rich, but the real highlight this time isn’t the food: everyone comes here to feed the tarpon fish. I watch someone lean over the dock, dangling a fish. I swear I can hear the Jaws movie anthem as we all wait. Nearby, a pelican inches closer. It’s a toss-up as to who will get the fish. Suddenly the tarpon lurches out of the water, almost swallowing the feeder’s hand.
Florida Keys Brewing Co.
In the Morada Way Arts and Cultural District, we meet up with Craig McBay, a native Ontarian whose wife Cheryl’s love of the Grateful Dead inspired the tie-dye aesthetic everywhere at the Florida Keys Brewing Co. The brewery and taproom opened in March 2015 and the beers, with names like Spearfish Amber and Grapefruit to be Alive, are infused with local flavours such as key limes, citrus and local honey. I recommend a flight of their many flavours to become truly initiated.
Morada Bay Beach Café
That night we dine in the most romantic restaurant in Ismoralda, Morada Bay Beach Café. The setting is complete with picnic tables on the beach, tiki lamps glowing and the ocean crashing on the shore. The menu is a blend of American and Caribbean cuisine; the spice comes through in the roasted chicken with mojo, a citrus sauce. Add some cilantro rice and I can’t help but think of Cuba.
Déjà vu–it’s time for more key lime pie. It’s interesting how every restaurant has its own version. This one has mango coulis and raspberries, a little twist on the classic.
Key West takes its key lime pie very seriously
Even the origins of the pie aren’t consistent. Some say fishermen created the pie because it doesn’t require milk—they used sweetened condensed milk instead. It’s also easy to make because the acid of the lime reacts with the egg yolks to thicken it naturally, without gelatin. Another theory is that in the early 20th century, a ship salvager’s cook, Aunt Sally, created the pie. Whoever did it, key lime pie is taken quite seriously in the Keys. In 1965, a Florida politician tried to fine restaurants $100 if they claimed to use real key limes, when in fact they used generic Peruvian limes.
We drive further south, stopping to take pictures on the Seven Mile Bridge that connects Knight’s Key (part of the preceding island, Marathon) in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys; the two-way road feels surreal in the water, as if it’s just floating without supports.
The No Name Pub in Big Pine
For lunch, we visit a place as legendary as the pie. The No Name Pub in Big Pine was once a general store, part brothel and then, a bait and tackle shop. The pub, in its many iterations, has been around since 1931.
Inside is a testament to its popularity: dollar bills, hundreds, no thousands of them, are hanging from the ceiling or taped to the walls. Not an inch of bare space is visible making it feel more like a cave than a pub. The tradition began in the 70s and 80s. When the economy was booming, guests began to tape cash to the walls. And people don’t come for the novelty, it’s also known for the pizza. Seafood pizza in a creamy white sauce is a must, or the Caribbean chicken that is marinated and topped with green onions.
Bistro 245 at the Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina
Our final ocean extravaganza is at Bistro 245 at the Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina in Key West. Situated on the Gulf of Mexico, it’s the epicentre of chilling out. After a day of riding a scooter around the small island, stopping off at Ernest Hemmingway’s elegant whitewashed home, and now part cat sanctuary, it’s good to be sipping a mojito.
We’re waiting for the final seafood dish: a buttery Florida lobster and wild gulf shrimp with baby potatoes. And yes, one last time, the pie. It’s a good way to punctuate the end of the trip, a tart, but not too sweet key lime pie. Creamy, refreshing and just a bit tart—and the classic yellow colour. Like the Keys, the pie is an original and Conchs wouldn’t have it any other way.
Want to bring the flavours of Key West home? Check out this key lime pie recipe for a culinary getaway you can enjoy in your own back yard.
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