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Key Largo to Key West unique eats?

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I've got an old college buddy flying down from Michigan for a couple of days to hit the roads between SoBe and Key West next week. We're keeping it deliberately low key as he's recovering from wedding expenses and we both enjoy "roughing it" anyway. Consequently we'll be hosteling and camping the whole way down, and want to keep our dining habits similarly unlavish.

We do plan on cheating a bit in Miami for tapas and sushi ( who wouldn't? ), but mostly we'll be sticking to Latin and Caribbean street food while in the area. Once we hit the keys we're looking for similarly "local" cuisine. Though on a recent trip to Atlanta I managed to spend three times as much on restaurants as on lodging, this time around we're more interested in small expenditures and a variety of tastes. We don't need fried fish and chips, BBQ or grilled mahi, or even sit down dinners. After all, we're under time constraints and have a lot of ground to cover.

We're looking for unique tips, like "There's this guy on Marathon that makes the best oyster chowder in his garage..." or "Down on dock four on Big Pine there's a midget that sells raw abalone salad..." etc. We'd much rather eat 5 or 8 mini-snacks scattered throughout the islands than get a combo basket at the Tourist Trap Cafe.

Also, other not-strictly food tips are also most welcome, i.e. interesting bars or other social attractions we might not have found on Google.

Having said that, any suggestions?

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  1. First place you have to check out is Alabama Jack's on Card Sound Road, the back entrance to the Keys. One of the few remaining old-fashioned Keys dives. Go on a Saturday when they have live country music and square dancing... the combination of square dancers, leather-clad bikers, bewildered tourists and crusty locals is a gas. And the food is pretty decent. Just on the other side of the tollbooth from Jack's is a guy who sells live blue crabs from concrete tubs next to his funkadelic houseboat. He's not open all the time... look for the hand-written sign that says "Live Blue Crabs." If you're staying anywhere with a kitchen, buy a bunch (they're cheap), steam 'em, grab some french bread and a cold Sauv Blanc and party on. Have a drink at the Caribbean Club in Key Largo... it has a tenuous and largely imaginary connection to the Bogart movie Key Largo, no air conditioning, warm beer and genuinely funky Keys atmosphere. Good music there in the evenings too. In Islamorada, have dinner at the Island Grill underneath the Snake Creek Bridge. Some of the best food in the Keys. Call and find out when my friend John McKinna is playing there... in addition to being an excellent novelist, he plays a monster jazz guitar. No Jimmy Buffet! Just very cool tunes. Don't leave Marathon without having lunch at Keys Fisheries. At the end of 35th Street, on the water, a squat little concrete bunker where you eat at picnic tables surrounding by fishing boats, order from the counter and bus your own dishes. It's great. You must get the lobster reuben... great sloppy fun and about a godzillion of 'em sold. In Key West, you've probably googled B&O's Fish Wagon but if not, it's another Keys dive, great atmosphere and fish sandwiches. Look for the rusted out truck in front. Another well known but worth doing place is Blue Heaven. Go for brunch, drink lots of bloody marys, order the shrimp n grits or lobster eggs benedict. For world tapas, Santiago's Bodega is a cool little place... if you're in luck, you can watch the cops bust up a drug deal down the block. Finally, have a drink at the bar at Louie's Backyard. Eat there too if you like. It's expensive but in seven years I've never had a bad meal there. But drinks are cheaper, and the bar is outdoors, right down on the water, with spectacular views. Skip Mallory Square, watch the sunset from here with a glass of dark rum and a cigar and all is right with the world...

    1. One more cool thing about Keys Fisheries. You order at the counter, they call your name over the loudspeaker when your food is ready. Except they don't call your name. Each day has a different theme -- favorite cartoon character, fish, movie star, etc. You pick your handle and they shout it out. The best one, though, was one afternoon when the theme was your favorite criminal. So over the loudspeaker I start hearing, "George Bush, your order is ready," "Dick Cheney..." How can you not love a place like that?

      1 Reply
      1. re: eatswrite

        We enjoyed Alabama Jack's last trip and really like Key's Fisheries. There's also a good breakfast lunch spot on Rte 1 by the turn into Key Fishery.

        Restaurant, fish market and a few charter boats. We had a slow but moderately productive and fun AM out on the Gulf.

        This will give you a little feel for Keys..nice dockside tables..friendly people..

        http://flickr.com/photos/61246842@N00...

      2. waffle.I sure wish that things were like you want...I would love nothing better that Ceviche from the old bum on the corner, Conch fritters from the old man with one arm....But we have become commercialized like everywhere else... Myself. I usually go to Hog Heaven in Islamorada. Great atmosphere, beautiful waters, and great beer...Mile Marker 85 or so. Not a beautiful place, but beautiful people.I will be there tomorrow for my weekend fix.

        1. if you get tired of The Keys Schtick after awhile, stop in at Craigs around MM92 for super fresh deli type food. Reasonable prices and generous portions, and it doesn't have that "fried food and beer" smell.

          1. Thanks for all the tips so far guys. Alas at commercialization. Keep 'em coming though, I've got a long list to feed.

            1 Reply
            1. re: wafflepunk

              Another place we enjoyed in Marathon was Burdine's Marina and Tiki Bar..left on 15th St (heading south)..nothing fancy; but a nice spot for a few beers and a bite.