Fresh-off-the-boat fish and seafood, like Keys Fisheries’ popular yellowtail dish, are a mainstay of the Florida Keys’ signature cuisine and a favorite of both locals and visitors. (Photo courtesy of Keys Fisheries)
Some people who come to the Florida Keys are hungry for on-the-water adventures where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Atlantic Ocean. Some are hungry for time to recharge amid nature’s seclusion, or share sun-splashed romance with that special someone.
And others are hungry for something more elemental: the chance to discover and enjoy the island chain’s enticing seafood-based cuisine.
Visitors to the Keys can savor their way through the destination on a culinary journey that can’t be found anywhere else — so guest blogger Ashley Serrate, a discriminating foodie herself, has provided a “road map” to some of her favorite food-focused experiences in the Upper and Middle Keys.
Ashley’s Guide to Keys Cuisine begins on the northernmost island of Key Largo.
ONE: Enjoy fresh local seafood from a working fishery. Set in the back of Key Largo Fisheries — a working fishery that’s the source for fresh seafood including lobster, stone crabs and shrimp — this spot has been a favorite in the area since 1972. Aptly named The Backyard Café, it features locally sourced seafood, soups and salads in a casual setting.
TWO: Experience a family-owned hidden gem. Tucked away behind trees and shrubbery, Key Largo Conch House is a family-owned and -operated restaurant with outdoor seating, nifty décor and a menu featuring local seafood and delicious desserts. This “must-try” eatery is known for its award-winning conch fritters and Key lime pie — both traditional staples of Keys cuisine.
THREE: Explore fine dining and a creative chef-driven menu. Serving an extensive variety of freshly caught fish, Chef Michael’s offers a menu featuring creatively inspired Florida Keys cuisine. Fish choices, which often include hogfish or exotic lionfish, can be prepared several ways: the restaurant’s signature Pontchartrain, Ambassador, Adriatic or Juliette; with mixed nuts and mango sauce; or simply grilled, sautéed, fried or blackened.
FOUR: Go fishing and have a local restaurant cook your catch. Islamorada is known for fishing experiences. After making memories by catching snapper, grouper or hogfish, one of the best ways to celebrate is by having that catch prepared at a local restaurant. Standing in the heart of Islamorada, Lazy Days Restaurant offers oceanfront dining with a laid-back atmosphere — and skilled chefs who can cook the day’s catch in a variety of ways that are sure to tickle the tastebuds.
Moving on to Marathon in the Middle Keys, Ashley suggests two spots to enjoy unique sea-sourced treats.
FIVE: Conserve through consumption by savoring lionfish. The Castaway was built in 1951 and was originally known as a place to get beer and shrimp. In 1999 John Mirabella, a former submarine engineer for the United States Navy, moved to Marathon and bought the restaurant. A fisherman and diver, Mirabella became well-known for initiatives to remove invasive lionfish from Florida Keys waters and prepare it for consumption. Today at the Castaway, diners can experience lionfish served in multiple ways including fried whole and in creatively prepared sushi.
SIX: Sample a renewable delicacy. Stone crabs, renowned for their sweet and succulent claw meat, are popular during an annual harvest season that runs Oct. 15 through May 1. The Keys are Florida’s leading regional supplier of stone crab claws — a renewable resource, since only the claws are harvested and the crabs are returned to the water to regrow them. One of the best-known locations to sample this delicacy is Keys Fisheries in Marathon, where food is literally “fresh of the boat.” Home of the Keys’ annual stone crab eating contest, the restaurant is also famed for its luscious Lobster Reuben.