It’s weird to come back from a vacation feeling like you ate well and slimmed down, but that’s what happens when you live on tapas, key lime pie, sushi, and ice cream while walking everywhere, biking, snorkeling, and swimming. Now that’s a diet worth living!
Our first meal in Key West took place about 20 yards from our hotel lobby at a hotspot called Ana’s Cuban Cafe, which was a window into some Cuban family’s kitchen that was attached to a corner deli. We ate there twice because it was that good. The plantains are delish, the rice and beans are as good as it gets–and we’ve eaten in Cuba! For about $4, you can keep cool by sipping on some coconut milk. It doesn’t get more fresh than this:
We enjoyed the Cubano presence in Key West and regret we didn’t stop at more Cubano restaurants. Ana certainly benefitted from our repeat business, but next time, we’re going to give the other cafes a go.
Our second meal, one that actually involved silverware (Ana’s Cubano Cafe gave us some plastic sporks wrapped in cellophane) took place at Nine-One-Five, a classy little joint on obnoxious Duval Street. Not surprisingly, this tapas/wine bar features an extensive wine list and some of the juiciest olives I’ve nibbled on in quite some time. I’m regretting not ordering the sangria–we had just flown in having left our apartment for the airport at 3:30 am that day and I was nervous a little sangria would leave me face down and sound asleep on Duval Street. Certainly not the first time locals have seen that.
Mike and I ordered the tapas platter, which we noshed on while enjoying balcony dining on the sloped second floor of this old Victorian house. I inhaled the figs wrapped in bacon. “Inhaled” is putting it politely. I face-planted into them. Thankfully, I remembered to remove the toothpicks before doing so.
I promise not to do a play-by-play of each meal–it’s just that the first two were so good. Like the colors, the food at Ana’s Cuban Cafe and at Nine-One-Five were explosively sensual. What’s great about the Florida heat is that it slows you down, forcing you to sit still and savor every bite. You can’t get that in New York.
We were as lucky with our second dinner in Key West as we were with our first. After an afternoon out on the water, we circled back to our hotel and took a few steps from our room to the hotel restaurant, Ambrosia, which Captain Chuck (seriously…that’s his name and he was from New Paltz) told us had the best sushi on the island. Captain Chuck is indeed a man of his word–it was truly some of the freshest sushi we had wrestled with chopsticks. Wish I could share some photos, but we were starving and the sushi and tempura went quickly. Ambrosia’s ambiance is as great as the food–the wall behind the bar turns color–a trick that didn’t get old, even at 9 pm–and the furniture reminded me of balled up udon noodles.
In between plates of tapas and sushi, there was ice cream:
…and more ice cream…
…and more ice cream. Ice cream was worshipped on this trip. It was a palette cleanser, an intermezzo, a snack, a dessert, and sometimes even an appetizer. Our daughter is not an adventurous eater so I am pretty sure the calcium and protein in the ice cream sustained her throughout the trip. She has traveled on three continents, to four countries, and to the four corners of the United States. Despite all the mouthwatering and sometimes exotic food her parents have placed before her (or perhaps because of this), she still wants only macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, and ice cream. At one point, ice cream was almost breakfast, but you have to draw the line somewhere–even in Key West.
And if you’re tired of ice cream, there’s always the frozen key lime pie on a stick. Covered in chocolate, this concoction melts quickly under the Florida sun so you have to work those mandible muscles and eat it before chocolate and custard trickle down your hand. There are many places along Duval Street that serve key lime pie on a stick, but the Blond Giraffe claims to have been the first and to be the best.
Of course you can’t talk about Key West dining without mentioning Blue Heaven, an island institution that began as a lunch counter service nearly 20 years ago. I overheard people on the streets rave about Blue Heaven, and it had been recommended by a friend as well so we felt compelled to experience what all the buzz was about. If you do decide to eat at Blue Heaven, be warned: the wait averages around one to two hours. We waited nearly two hours for lunch. It’s not a bad wait because the whole restaurant is outdoors, there’s a ping-pong table, live music–even at breakfast and lunch–and a bar. There’s no rush on Key West.
I do believe Blue Heaven’s motto: “Serving heaven on a fork and sin in a glass.” People hang here for hours and keep coming back. Lunch was tasty, but also pretty standard; Mike and I didn’t think it was worth a two-hour wait. We’re glad we went, and would rather try breakfast or dinner next time since those menus looked more creative than the traditional lunch menu we read. I will say Blue Heaven makes a killer grilled cheese–they bake their own bread. And Blue Heaven also bakes their own key lime pies; the meringue definitely deserves some island bragging rights. Like Southern hairdos, the meringue is big, unapologetic, and held together by chemicals and willpower.
For us, the best part of Blue Heaven was watching Anna chase a family of wild chickens with a camera. Years ago, roosters were brought over from Cuba for cock-fighting, and now the island has no shortage of wild chickens roaming about figuring out how to safely cross the road. A hen and five baby chicks circled our table while Mike ate Jamaican jerk chicken for lunch. Right before our dessert, one of the baby chicks was injured and died right by our a table. The kitchen staff had obviously witnessed this before and a hired hand came out and quickly swept the dead chick away.
Don’t let a cute, cuddly dead baby chick slow you down. A few doors down Blue Heaven on Petronia Street is Colombian Grace, a new restaurant that opened its doors five months ago and is run by a former Blue Heaven staffer. The traffic to Blue Heaven is so heavy that there’s a sign out front directing hungry visitors unwilling to wait two hours for a burger or jerk chicken to walk down to Colombian Grace. We’re very thankful for that sign otherwise we would had never known about this place, which proved to be quite the find. Many of the tables there were empty at lunchtime, but hopefully word will get out and tables will fill up. Again, we sat on the balcony of another old Victorian. Petronia Street is much quieter and more residential than Duval Street, so you can bask in Key West’s softer side while sampling the local cuisine.
Mike noshed on tender, juicy shredded beef, I ate chorizo and fried plantains, and then topped that off with a plate called “Happiness,” a made-to-order diaphonous white corn fritter topped with cheese and served with hot chocolate–the real deal hot chocolate as in South America-grown cocoa ground fresh and not diluted with high fructose corn anything or dumped from a bag.
“Happiness” lived up to its name. I’m not familiar with white corn and cheese, but I now know I want to learn more. Colombian Grace claims to be the only Colombian restaurant in Key West–it’s not a large island so that may be accurate. The food there was so inspiring; I’m now checking out travel packages to Bogota. Eating at Colombian Grace reminded me of when I visited Isabela, one of the Galapagos Islands–because it was also one of those treasured, under-discovered, under-appreciated places that you get to selfishly enjoy alone–a real piece of heaven free of tourists and people wearing T-shirts that say “Surrender the Booty.” Hopefully when I go back to Key West, the line at Colombian Grace won’t be like the line at Blue Heaven.