Key West: Taste of the Tropics

xxxx

Kermit Carpenter and alter ego with his famous pie; photo courtesy of Kermit’s Key West Lime Shoppe

There’s more to Key West, Fla., than living in Margaritaville, that mythical party place celebrated in the Jimmy Buffett song and now franchised in restaurant and casino form.

The southernmost city in the continental U.S. boasts a vibrant local dining scene, with everything from food trucks to fine dining –– all with a relaxed, island vibe.

During a recent visit, I found a seafood haven, where fresh-caught products abound –– I could have eaten a different fish taco every day for weeks, but then I wouldn’t have had room for the famous Key West pink shrimp. Of course, I had to save room for another local favorite –– Key lime pie.

Here are some of my favorites spots, on and off bustling Duval Street, the city’s main drag.

French Connection Upon arriving, I made a beeline for La Creperie, an authentic Brittany-style restaurant owned by French natives Yolande Findlay and Sylvie Le Nouail. I could have lingered all day on the breezy front porch, enjoying my sweet breakfast red velvet crepe, with homemade raspberry chocolate ganache, fresh strawberries, almonds and English custard ice cream. Equally tempting are the savory crepes, omelets, salads and galettes –– warm pressed sandwiches on ciabatta.

Sunny Mediterranean Azur, a Mediterranean restaurant whose menu reflects chef-owners Michael Mosi and Drew Wenzel’s global travels, is worth seeking out. Situated a few blocks from Duval Street, the place serves dishes like charred octopus and braised lamb on a shady terrace or in a dining room whose cobalt blue walls evoke the Greek islands.

Hot Spot, North of Havana For the next best thing to hopping over to Cuba, I stopped by El Siboney, a Cuban-American mainstay for nearly 30 years. The casual spot is known for its filling “Cuban mix” sandwich (pork, beef, ham and cheese), as well as irresistible sides like the crispy fried yucca with garlic dipping sauce.

xxx

Fish tacos from Garbo’s Grill; photo courtesy of restaurant

You’ll Want to Be Alone Blink and you will miss Garbo’s Grill, an unassuming silver cart situated near the harbor. Absolutely worth a lunch stop, Garbo’s has a surprisingly extensive menu for such a small footprint. Don’t miss the fresh fish and shrimp tacos, burritos and quesadillas cooked to order. Seating is limited to a few tiny outdoor tables, so you may have to grab and go.

Did Someone Say Pie? I couldn’t leave Key West without sampling its most famous sweet treat. With practically every cafe and restaurant touting the “best” Key lime pie on the island –– and many establishments having similar names –– it’s difficult to choose where to sample. But you can’t go wrong at Key West Key Lime Pie Co. and The Key Lime and Coconut Factory.

I also spent some quality time at Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, a bright green-and-yellow establishment with two locations that’s been featured on the Food Network. Here you’re likely to run into the shop’s colorful owner, Kermit Carpenter, who will guide you to a range of Key Lime products, from the traditional pie to cookies to chutney to olive oil.

Cupcakes work, too For an equally satisfying sugar fix, I made it a point to stop by Key West Cakes, where gorgeous cupcakes in an array of tantalizing flavor combinations await. Think flavors of red velvet, lemon and chocolate, paired with fillings, such as guava, raspberry and passion fruit.

Take it from me: If you make Key West Cakes a stop on your daily bike ride through town, you will see the extra calories melt away –– as long as you’re in Margaritaville.