Being in the Florida Keys for 7 months gave us a good understanding of the cuisine in this part of southern Florida. One of the joys of traveling and this RV adventure is experiencing local and common foods of the area.
Keys’ cuisine is influenced by multiple cultures like early settlers from Spain, the Bahamas, Cuba, and merchants from New England. The Keys are known for farming pineapples, limes, tomatoes, and melons. Of course their location on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico brings vast seafood opportunities.
In the 112 mile long stretch, there are 1700 islands. Some are well known (Key Largo and Key West), some are privately owned, some are part of Everglades National Park, and others are only accessible by boat.
One day we took a boat ride to Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key (both near Islamorada, Florida) which are operated by the state park system. Our guide picked Tamarind pods from the tree for us to taste. The fruit tasted like sour apple. It becomes sweeter as it ripens and is used as a jam, in drinks, and to flavor ice cream and candy. I am hoping to find some fresh, or in a jar (as a paste) at a grocery. Otherwise, I’ll have to back to that island or to its origin, in tropical Africa.
We don’t know why, but chefs seem to put Scallions on everything here! Kayak Chris doesn’t particular like this type of spring onion so it really stands out to him. It’s frequently on top of sushi as a garnish.
The Keys are the fifth most valuable seafood port in the nation and are surrounded by what the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association calls “a seafood gold mine.”
Some of the seafood we tried includes:
- Fish caught by Kayak Chris, like: Snapper, Sea Trout, Sheepshead, Snook, and Grunts. (Sometimes the cat got a portion too.)
- Hogfish – It really does look like a pig!
- Pink Shrimp – It sounds special but tastes just like regular shrimp to me. Chris caught enough to make us a shrimp cocktail appetizer.
- Stone Crabs – We ate them at restaurants and straight out of Chris’ traps. You can take one claw, but must leave the other.
- Spiny Lobster – They are clawless. (I prefer Maine lobster.)
- Redfish – Proven easy to eat but hard to catch! (Kayak Chris is still after ’em.)
- Conch (pronounced Konk) – I had the best conch fritters on a Norwegian cruise from the Port of Miami. (Go figure.)
Today, conch is no longer fished in the Keys but it is still served and the area is known as “The Conch Republic”.
We also had many varieties of fish tacos, seafood chowders, and trips to all you can eat “Friday Fish Fry” restaurants.
Our Cuban friends say “there’s no good Cuban food in the Keys!” They made us lots of tasty homemade dishes during our stay and we found a couple yummy things on our own too.
Key lime groves existed until the mid 1930’s. Though the industry is gone now, the limes remain famous. I tried many but I couldn’t find a key lime pie to name “the best.” My favorite was “Key Lime Pie on a Stick”, which is a piece of pie dipped in chocolate, from “Key Largo Chocolates.”
If you turned key lime pie into a drink, you’d get my favorite local cocktail, pictured here. It’s a concoction of alcohol, fruit juice, and a graham cracker crust rim.
We gave up on the quest for the best pie and instead found the best ice cream at a national chain called Sub Zero. They make cream into ice cream right in front of you, using liquid nitrogen. You may have seen them on the ABC Network show, “Shark Tank.”
We ate truckloads of pancakes and every type of Eggs Benedict possible. My favorite were both from the same place, the Key Largo Conch House. Chris’ favorite pancakes were “any that didn’t taste like onions!” (Twice, at two difference places, they cooked his with or right next to onions.)
Other Restaurants & Pot Lucks
A few specific places deserve a special mention.
- Santiago’s is a tapas restaurant that delights with their small plates and wine selection. Our favorite menu item is dates stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto. Amazing!
- Garbo’s is a food truck, run by a husband and wife team. It was recommended to us by our cab driver who said we had to try their fish tacos. In 2012 I didn’t like fish, nor did I understand why you’d ruin perfectly good tacos by adding fish to them. We went anyway, and thus began my fish taco obsession. Since that experience, I was eating fish tacos everywhere, trying to find some that lived up to Garbos’. When we returned in 2016, they were just as good as I remembered. It’s worth the 2 hour (one way) drive from Key Largo to Key West to have their fish tacos.
A wonderful break from the seafood overload in Key Largo is Senior Frijoles. We could often be found there for football games, sangria, and all you can eat tacos.
We met some wonderful people and participated in a number of campground pot luck events. We had:
- many delicious authentic Cuban meals cooked by Ileana and Lazaro,
- “Maryland Seafood Night” by Paul and Ann,
- “Smoked Pork Butt Night” cooked in Steve and Laura’s smoker,
- “Venison Stew & Paella Night” by Kayak Chris and Horatio,
- “Spaghetti and Meatball Night” by Jack and Susan,
- and a bonus “Biscuits & Gravy Breakfast” by Jerry and Doreen.
When we weren’t stuffing ourselves at the pot lucks and local eateries, there were also grocery stores, farmers markets, home cooked RV recipes, and campfire cooking.
Gram Weenie jokes she isn’t on a “camping adventure”. She’s actually “eating her way across the USA!“