The Florida Keys are well-known for many things such as Fishing, Diving, Beautiful Sunsets and of course Florida Keys foods. The varied recipes found in the local restaurants reflect a multitude of cultural influences from our Spanish, Bahamian, Caribbean neighbors as well as American cuisine.
With Commercial fishing the 2nd largest industry in the Keys, just behind tourism, it isn’t surprising that fresh seafood dominates the menus. I’ll share some of my must have Florida Keys foods and also list some of my favorite spots to sample them.
There are many varieties of shrimp available in restaurants, both farmed and wild-caught. Most of what you will find is imported farm-raised shrimp which are a poor substitute for our local wild caught Key West Pink Shrimp. Florida fishermen land approximately 80% of the nation’s supply of pink shrimp. They are caught in the Gulf of Mexico waters off south Florida. In the northern Gulf, pink shrimp are often referred to as “hoppers”. The more famous “Key West Pinks” are the same species as the hoppers, but they mature on the coral sand bottoms of the Dry Tortugas and develop their distinctive pink color. Pink shrimp are tender and sweet, and they are great for boils and cocktails. Peak season for pink shrimp is January through June.
One of my favorite Key West places to sample Key West pink shrimp is Schooner Wharf Bar. They are served many different ways but you must try the coconut dipped shrimp with mango sauce.
In Marathon, The Island Fish Co. Restaurant & Tiki Bar has a
Islamorada Shrimp Shack in Islamorada serves shrimp in every way you could want. They are becoming famous for their Shrimp and Grits sautéed with peppers and onions in a creamy creole sauce over a bed of slow cooked grits.
If you are in Key Largo you must stop in at The Fish House but you may have difficulty choosing from more than a dozen shrimp appetizers and main dishes. One of my favorites is the Baked Stuffed Large Shrimp, Stuffed with Blue Crabmeat stuffing and topped with mixed cheeses.
Conch (please pronounce it KONK like a local) are large sea snails and the Queen Conch is the namesake of the Florida Keys Conch Republic. They are no longer harvested in the Florida Keys but you will still find Conch served in just about every restaurant. The Queen Conch is eaten in a ceviche commonly referred to as Conch Salad, or Cracked Conch which is a tenderized, fried conch steak, as well as in soups and stews.
The most common Queen Conch dish is Conch Fritters. Everyone has their own recipe but they all are basically small balls of chopped conch, mixed with ingredients such as cheese, chives, bell peppers and onions, fried in batter with numerous seasonings.
Key Largo locals love Sharkey’s conch fritters –a Key’s style fritter with a Kick’n Bayou Dippin’ Sauce.
Conch Republic Seafood Company in the historic Key West Bight serves traditional Island-style conch fritters served with key lime mustard.
The Sunset Grille & Raw Bar in Marathon has their own island fritter recipe with Jamaican conch served with a Sriracha/Pickled Ginger sauce.
Favored for their sweet and succulent meat, Stone Crabs also are a popular delicacy. Because nearly all of the crab’s meat is contained within its claws, these are the only part of the crab harvested. Once the claws are removed, the crab is returned to the sea where, over the course of up to two years, the claws regenerate. It is for this reason that stone crabs are considered a renewable resource, and the Florida Keys are responsible for almost all the state’s overall harvest.
Stone crab claws are most commonly served warm with drawn butter or chilled with mustard sauce. Florida’s stone crab season runs from Oct. 15 to May 15.
Probably the most famous place to eat Stone Crab is Miami Beach’s Joe’s Stone Crab but there are plenty of great Florida Keys restaurants for you to sample.as
Keys Fishery Restaurant in Marathon serves jumbo, large, select (medium) stone crabs straight from its boats. The stone crabs are served cold with a mustard-based dipping sauce or drawn butter BUT diners can enjoy their stone crab claws hot after 5:00 p.m. nightly.
In Islamorada, there are many great restaurants where you will find Stone Crabs in season. For always excellent meals I’d suggest Lazy Days Restaurant.
Key Largo Fisheries in Key Largo is a favorite for locals for stone crab. You can bring them home from their market or try the Stone Crab chowder at the cafe.
Half Shell Raw Bar is the popular place to go for stone crabs in Key West.
The Spiny Lobsters found in the Florida Keys don’t have claws like their Northern counterparts. They offer sweet and tender tail meat. Local restaurants often serve them steamed or boiled with drawn butter – or their meat might be made into salad or served with exotic sauces. Lobster season runs from Aug. 6 to March 31.
Since 1947, locals have enjoyed Alonzo & Berlin’s Lobster House, or simply A&B’s Lobster House. Some of their House Specialties include Lobster Thermidor – Medallions of Florida Spiny Lobster served in a traditional sauce of thyme and sherry with wild mushrooms and baked with herb infused panko breadcrumbs, Broiled Florida Lobster Tail – Available in 6 or 10 ounce and served with coconut pecan rice and baby vegetables.
Hungry Tarpon Restaurant in Islamorada serves a broiled spiny lobster tail with Tropical Rice and charred asparagus with roasted garlic maltre’d butter.
The Lazy Lobster in Key Largo will serve up spiny lobster Sauteed, Grilled, Steamed, Broiled, with Crab Stuffing and you can get Twin Tails or with a Steak.
A Hogfish, sometimes called Hog Snapper is actually a Wrasse! They have one of the most delicate and moist flesh in the Florida waters. A species that has adapted a long snout to dig for mollusks in the sand and retrieve shrimps and crabs from within reefs and stone formations on the ocean floor. With a diet of shellfish, mussels, and clams, the natural sweetness of its prey lends that characteristic to the flavor of the Hogfish. As most have heard, shrimp contain cholesterol (the good type), the Hogfish has the ability to convert the cholesterol into pure fat that it stores as intramuscular fat. This contributes to moisture and oil in the flesh which translates to a silky and delicate mouth feel. Definitely different for whole fish presentation.
Located on Stock Island (the last island before Key West) the Hogfish Bar & Grill would be expected to serve the best hogfish, given the name. You won’t be disappointed with their “World-Famous Killer Hogfish Sandwich – smothered with swiss cheese, onions & mushrooms on fresh Cuban Bread. You can also get Hogfish Sliders – with Pico de Gallo & Key Lime Tartar sauce, Fried Hogfish Tacos, or Hogfish & Chips. And there is always the House Special Stuffed Hogfish with Crabmeat Stuffing.
The macadamia crusted hogfish at Key Largo’s The Pilot House Restaurant, Marina, and Glass Bottom Bar as seen on Diner’s Drive-ins and Dives is a broiled hogfish with crisp citrus macadamia panko crust with mango pineapple salsa.
Boondocks Grille & Draft House in Ramrod Key will delight you with hogfish served fried, grilled, lime peppered or blackened.
Famous for its dock to dish cuisine, Chef Michael’s in Islamorada serves freshly caught hogfish prepared is a variaty of ways. You can choose from Simply Grilled – Sauteed, Fried or Blackened or Mixed Nuts – Pistachio, Cashew, Macadamia crusted and served with Mango Sauce or Ambassador – Sauteed with Crabmeat, Shitake Mushrooms, Capers and Key Lime Butter and more. They are very popular among locals and visitors alike.
Can’t forget dessert.
Key Lime Pie
The Key lime pie has been traced back to the early 20th century in the Key West, Florida area. There is much debate on who made the first Key Lime Pie. Its exact origins are unknown, but the first formal mention of Key Lime pie as a recipe may have been made by William Curry, a ship salvager and Key West’s first millionaire; his cook, “Aunt Sally”, made the pie for him. If such is the case, however, it is also possible and maybe even probable that Sally adapted the recipe already created by local sponge fishermen. Sponge fishermen spent many contiguous days on their boats, and stored their food on board, including nutritional basics such as canned milk (which would not spoil without refrigeration), limes and eggs. Sponge fishermen at sea would presumably not have access to an oven, and, similarly, the original recipe for Key lime pie did not call for cooking the mixture of lime, milk, and eggs. There are also two different basic recipes, each with their advocates. One uses a standard pie crust and a Meringue topping. The other uses a Graham Cracker crust and Whipped Cream topping.
Key Lime Pie is the official Florida State Pie and may be the most common restaurant menu item in the Florida Keys.
Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe – There are two locations in Key West – the Key West Bight near the cruise terminal and on Duval Street. Their Key Lime Pie has a Graham Cracker crust and Whipped Cream topping.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen with two locations in Key Largo. Their Key Lime Pie has a Graham Cracker crust and Whipped Cream topping.
The family-run Midway Café in Islamorada is famous for its classic key lime pie with a flaky pie crust and meringue topping.
If you love Florida Keys Restaurants check out this great book.
Robert Stoky is the chef/owner/author of many restaurants in the Florida Keys. His recipes have been featured on the Florida Insider Fishing Report, Tastes of the Florida Keys, and on KeyTV. In addition, Mr. Stoky is regularly featured in the Keys Weekly Newspapers and the Keys Epicurean. A native of South Florida, Stoky has been working in and around restaurants almost his entire life. Commercial fishing with his brother and friends on the weekends to earn spending money and then working as a dishwasher and cook at the family restaurants at night.