Straddling both the warm Gulf waters and the rollicking waves of the Atlantic, the Florida Keys have been known to convert unsuspecting visitors to permanent residents thanks to its enchanting natural beauty and funky, come-as-you-are vibe.
While the drive down the 113-island archipelago offers over 125-miles of spectacular sun-kissed views, don’t let that distract you — the food you’ll find along this mainland escape is worthy of its own postcard. Whether you’re wrangling a massive hogfish sandwich into your mouth or cooling down with a rum-splashed tiki drink, here’s a checklist of seven things you must eat (and drink) while you’re there.
Sweeter than grouper and flakier than Mahi, the reef-dwelling hogfish is a Florida Keys delicacy that’s relatively obscure in other parts of the U.S. The fish belongs to the wrasse family and can be found digging up crustaceans in the Gulf of Mexico using their long, pig-like snout (hence, the name). Locally, this mild, delicate fish is cut into a tender filet that’s typically stuffed in between two slices of fresh Cuban bread with all the fixins. Stock Island’s Hogfish Bar & Grill is ground-zero for the infamous sandwich, but you can find hogfish filets as a daily special throughout the Keys, including Chef Michael’s in Islamorada and Blackfin Bistro in Key West.
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Key West pink shrimp
Known locally as “pinks,” this wild-caught variety of shrimp is native to the Gulf waters around South Florida and makes up over 80% of the country’s shrimp harvest. But there’s something to be said for enjoying these sweet, tender decapods directly from the source. Pinks, who get their distinctive blush color from feeding on the Keys’ pink coral sands, are in season from November to June and can be found in everything from egg benedict at Blue Heaven to the zesty Cajun jambalaya at the Islamorada Shrimp Shack — although it’s hard to beat a simple peel-and-eat basket from any number of local Keys joints.
It isn’t called the Conch Republic for nothin’ — mollusk with captivating spiral shells were once plentiful in the waters surrounding the Keys, but due to overharvesting, is now a protected species. Still, locals know their way around the Queen Conch, even if it’s being imported from nearby Carribbean waters. That means a nearly flawless version of the conch fritter, a battered-and-fried nugget stuffed with aforementioned conch meat. Your best bet is to pair it up with a cold beer at Alabama Jack’s in Key Largo, Keys Fisheries in Marathon or The Conch Shack in Key West.
With all due respect to Jimmy Buffet, the Keys run on rum drinks — preferably with a screaming-red maraschino cherry floating up on top. In fact, ordering a rum runner at the Tiki Bar at Holiday Isle is practically a rite of passage. But there’s plenty of other frozen concoctions to be found along the Florida Keys. Icy daiquiris, creamy key lime coladas and the crowd-favorite piña colada are prime contenders for your next drink — and case of brain freeze.
Miami may have cornered the market on U.S.-based Cuban cuisine, but the Keys hold their own with plenty of standout options for succulent mounds of roast pork, delicately fried plantains and heaping portions of black beans and rice. And it’s no surprise — there’s an oversized buoy in Key West marking its 90-mile distance from Cuba. While you’re there, pop into El Meson de Pepe’s or El Siboney for gut-busting plates of affordable Cuban classics.
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If you’re looking for succulent claw meat from Florida's spiny lobster, keep walking. Unlike its cousin in Maine, this warm water crustacean is known for its soft, delicate tail meat — a prized catch for divers from all around the world (spiny lobster season runs from August 6 to March 31). The local crab is used in a hearty rendition of mac-and-cheese at The Flaming Buoy Filet Co. and dished up next to a thick-cut steak for a Keys rendition of surf ‘n turf at A&B Lobster House.
Key Lime Pie
Ask a group of locals about the best slice of key lime pie in the area and you have the makings of a lengthy and heated debate. Keys residents are particular about this creamy and tart confection, most of which fall into one of two camps: Team Meringue and Team Whipped Cream. (There’s also a pastry crust versus graham cracker debate which has been responsible for its fair share of feuds.) You’ll find various versions in shops and restaurants throughout the islands, with honorable mentions going to Kermit’s in Key West, Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo, the Square Grouper in Cudjoe Key and the abominable meringue monster served up at Blue Heaven in Key West.