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Oct 27, 2008 10:35 AM

Key Largo weekend

Our weekend in Key Largo began with lousy lunch of fish and chips at Sundowner (recommended by our hotel—we did not seek further suggestions from them).

Next came a really lackluster, bordering on unpleasant meal at Marker 88 which we tried thanks to a plethora of good reviews on this site. We sat outside, which was nice, but our server couldn’t seem to remember we were there. Taking our order took an age and then our wine came after the appetizers—an annoyance for sure. Apps were unremarkable conch fritters and a fried crab sushi roll. The latter I found truly awful (mushy, greasy) but my husband didn’t mind it. Our dinners—fish in a piccata style and another fish, blackened—were not at all special. The fish was fresh enough but the preparations were just not interesting nor were the sides—a scoop of lukewarm mashed potatoes and generic vegetable medley. This was a disappointing stop and not worth the prices.

Breakfast at Mrs. Mac’s began to redeem Keys cuisine. This place has kitschy, really friendly staff, and reasonable fare. Good orange juice too. Lunch and dinner menus looked promising as well but we moved on.

Day two continued to improve with a “famous” fish sandwich at Craig’s restaurant which was surprisingly good though the décor in this place was a bit off putting (no awards for cleanliness here). The fried snapper was fresh and the serving very generous. An odd regional thing: I notice fish sandwiches on menus here tend to be served with cheese and tomato on wheat bread. Not what a New Englander expects in a fish sandwich at all. I was able to get mine on a Kaiser roll while DH tried this wheat bread style. We’ll both stick with the roll as the wheat bread gets pretty soggy.

Best of the weekend was dinner at Ballyhoo’s. We started with a buffalo shrimp appetizer which, though a small portion, was memorable. DH had a snapper prepared “Nassau style” which meant topped with herbed crumbs. Our meals came with ample side salads, very fresh. The fish and his side of beans and rice were great. I had a blackened tuna alfredo which was really tasty and not at all as heavy as I was anticipating. The tables around us were all indulging in “all you can eat” stone crab (in season now). A friendly patron at the bar told us this is where locals eat—I don’t know about that but I know I would definitely return.

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  1. Surprised to hear Marker 88 wasn't good....Been there many times and with success....Had laugh about what a "New Englander" expects in a fish sandwich considering that you weren't in "New England"!!......You did miss some of the better restaurants....Ziggys.....Bentley's.....The Fish House and a few others....I'm going to try Ballyhoos....haven't been there yet......and I love Stone Crabs!!....Love Mrs. Mac's Kitchen......still great after all these years.....


    1. I am so sorry you had to suffer through Sundowners and again through Marker 88. Sundowners is just average and Marker 88 has really gone way, way downhill since they put in a new chef years ago. The entire place needs to be revitalized and it is floating on the current of its previous reputation. I am still shocked, after several years, to hear that people return... Like LargeLife- I was shocked to hear that he has had good times there.... I don't get it...?

      Glad to hear that the remainder of the trip went better- Ballyhoo's is a local's spot. Ziggy's is also good. Other big local's spots are Hobo's (with no-frills, fresh home cookin;), the Buzzard's Roost (up at 106, back in a residential area) and Snappers (mm 95ish). The best breakfast is Harriet's... the only restaurant between Key Largo and Tavernier- big, yellow, with lots of people milling around smartly. Again, it is not fantabulous fair- just good, fast, hearty, home-cookin. Another really nice place is Lazy Days in Islamorada. It's a 30 min drive south and certainly worth it... The view is simply breathtaking.

      2 Replies
      1. re: QTWO

        I neglected to say that we did stop at Harriet's on our way out of town. I can't say I was impressed but then we didn't order expansively-- just a bagel sandwich and BLT, neither of which were anything out of the ordinary. I'm sorry we didn't get to try Ziggy's as I have heard good things about them.

        And to be clear to the earlier response (again, as my earlier post was deleted), it seems reasonable to me to take note of, and perhaps be disappointed by, significant regional variations in foods.

        1. re: GSM

          Well, after running my mind's historical trips I realized it's been quite a while since I have been to Marker 88. I guess years can fly when you're having fun, right?

          I was glad to see Buzzards Roost as a recommendation here. It's been panned here and I've eaten there a handfull of times and had solid meals there so that's an unexpected positive. I also think Hobo's is very solid indeed.

          And GSM, as a New Englander you were disappointed in a fish sandwich that wasn't to your liking and that's understandable. Much like the way I went to the Boston area for 10 days and ate Lobstahs just about everywhere and every way you could have it and I was disappointed every time. Why? I'm a South Floridian, grew up eating Florida lobster and that's what tastes best to me - and by far! Like my friend always says, "Water always tastes best where you first drunk it!".



      2. Interesting, I thought ballyhoo and Mile Marker 88 were owned by the same people. Guess it wouldn't be the first time such disparities exist. Also, I was wondering when you were there, as the Stone crab season's started and ballyhoo offers that excellent all you can eat option once the season gets going.

        1. may I ask where you stayed? we're planning an overnight in the upper keys on our way back from Key West next month and I'm trying to choose where to stay. I have a few possibilities, but am just curious. thanks.

          1. The fish sandwich you mention is a copy of the famous "Harvey's Special" fish sandwich from the Pilot House restaurant in Key Largo, then owned by the late Mr. Ernie Bean. Everybody stole the idea and it is now universally referred to as the Key Largo fish sandwich.
            Actually, Ballyhoo's, Sundowners and Senor Frijoles (avoid!) are all owned by the same folks. Ballyhoo's is quite good, the others not so good. Ballyhoo's is definitely a locals spot. Ditto Mrs. Mac's.
            Try Calypso's next visit. Creative and very good. Service can be bad, though. Casual.
            Hobo's is good but noisy and usually packed. Fish House is OK.
            Unless something has changed, Buzzard's Roost is poor. I quit going there when management changed. Besides, Shipwrecks is right around the corner. Decent fish sandwich, but it is more of a beer joint than anything.
            Marley's changed hands and the food has suffered. I haven't been back since. Too bad, you sit over the water.
            Been too busy trying to finish the new Casa Key Largo to go anywhere new.
            Maybe next year.....

            4 Replies
            1. re: keysrat

              And you know... the guys who own Ballyhoo's, Sundowners and Senor Frijoles are jerks... I was really suprised... they treat locals no better than they treat tourists. So sad.

              1. re: QTWO

                had no clue. Any specific items that point you to that? My only experience with Ballyhoo was dominated by a very friendly and efficient server. Was there for the claws and did not care about a whole lot else.

                1. re: QTWO

                  Senor Frijoles and Sundowner's suck, so I don't go there and can't comment on them.
                  The folks at Ballyhoo's have been great. They give us the local's discount and have always been pleasant.
                  We were there for the all you can eat stone crabs yesterday. Fantastic!!!

                  1. re: QTWO

                    I have had the same experiences as you all... so I need to clarify...

                    The servers and mngmnt at Ballyhoo have always been great... Oftentimes, the servers and bartndrs at Sundowner's and Senor Frijoles are also really great. I have never had a bad experience, with respect to the servers...

                    I'm just speaking of the owners themselves... they guys who do the hiring and firing and financial management... I know this only because I have met them on several occasions in social settings and/or at the restaurants. The guy who was most closely involved, in my opinion, was swimming in his own ego and he was often really short and harsh with the employees. A lot of yelling and a bunch of belittling and berating... truly insulting stuff. I know it is hard to find good people, but power-tripping is a turn-off... I felt bad for people who continued to work for him.

                    The reason I mention it is because I believe that the owners "set the tone" for a place and if they are super critical and demanding, they create a tense and uncomfortable work atmosphere... which, in turn, leads to dissatisfied servers/bartenders and less than the best service.

                    I dunno how the folks at Ballyhoo's have been unscathed- maybe the get yelled at less. Maybe they are long-timers- I think many have worked there for YEARS.