More (Dining) Adventures in the Conch Republic
NT's own John Linn recently took one of my favorite road trips to one of my favorite towns -- the long cruise down U.S. 1 to Key West. The Southernmost City is home to a surprisingly number of seriously good restaurants -- John nailed three of them -- but the rest of the Keys... ah, that's another story.
Most of the restaurants in the Upper and Middle Keys range from mediocre to I think I need my stomach pumped, and while they may be loaded with funky charm, when you're driving back to civilization with the remains of a crappy, tired-tasting fish sandwich or greasy platter of frozen fried shrimp rototilling your intestinal tract, funky charm isn't nearly as important as the nearest bathroom.
But there are a few good ones, and having lived in the Upper Keys for several years and made my own recent road trip, I thought I'd do your intestinal tract a mitzvah and give you three of my favorites.
83413 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305-664-4940
One of the best churrascurias in South Florida isn't in Miami but in the Whale Harbor complex on the ocean-side of U.S. 1. Inside, Braza Lena is city slick, not Keys funky, with a huge, gleaming salad bar, glassed-in kitchen, and tres moderne dining room.
You know the churrascaria drill... hit up the salad bar, but gently, flip the card on your table to green to begin your meat orgy, and suck down as many caipirinhas as you can handle to digest all that protein. The salad bar at Braza Lena has all the usual salad-y suspects, albeit fresher and better-prepared than most; it's worth a little stomach space to sample their feijoada, one of the better renditions around.
They know how to cook meat here; you can get any degree of doneness you want, from rare to well done (though why you'd want well-done meat when an old loafer is cheaper and just as tasty, I don't know). Check out the smoky, juicy Brazilian sausage; the big, meaty beef ribs; slices of pink, tender leg of lamb; and ferociously garlicky picanha (top sirloin).
The capirinhas are good too and way-strong, and there's even a decent selection of South American wines. Forget dessert -- you won't be hungry for a week.
85501 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305-664-8400
You can drive right by this colorful, ramshackle dive, practically hidden beneath the Snake Creek Bridge, but that would really be a pisser because it's that rarest of all Keys restaurants -- a place with a genuine old-timey Keys ambiance, really good food, a location right on the water, and live music that won't make you hurl your yellowtail (often by my good buddy John McKinna, who's a motherfucker on jazz guitar).
The best place to eat is the rickety deck literally over the water, where you can see the occasional drunken boater and manatee cruise on by and the outdoor bar is just a few steps away.
The best things to eat are the killer tuna nachos -- sushi-grade ahi over crisp-fried wontons with seaweed salad, wasabi aioli, sweet soy sauce and dribbles of sriracha. It's not junk food; it's junque cuisine. The Thai-style whole yellowtail is a good one too, crisply fried and doused with a sweetish, modestly spicy sauce. The Low Country shrimp 'n' grits will do a number on your appetite. Fat jumbo shrimp (usually Key West pinks), chunks of spicy andouille and three-cheese gris smothered in rich, creamy tomato "gravy" will stick with you until dinner the next day.
3502 Gulfview Ave., Marathon, 305-743-4353
Seafood doesn't get any fresher and accommodations don't get any funkier than at this whitewashed concrete pillbox on the bay in Marathon. The Fisheries' boats supply most of the Florida lobster consumed in this country and tons of stone crab to places like Joe's, so you know there's nothing fresher out of the water than the fish and shellfish here.
The place itself is where the road ends at the bay (heading south, if you passed the FHP station, you've gone too far). You order at the counter, pick up your food when called, grab a beer at the drink station, and eat at picnic tables under a covered patio with panoramic water views.
The menu is huge, but you can't beat the peel 'n' eat Key West pinks, conch fritters, and smoked fish dip. For larger plates, it's best to stick with the simple, like the always impeccable stone crab claws and the signature lobster reuben, a ridiculously large, messy, and over-the-top sammie that combines a fresh spiny with all the reuben fixin's. If you can drive through Marathon without stopping for one of these, you've got more willpower than I do.
Then again, that's not saying a whole helluva lot.