Christmas with my family in snowy Pittsburgh, PA, can be a bitter, cold affair . . . and the weather usually stinks, too. So this year, we rounded up a bunch of friends, jumped on a plane, and headed to the Conch Republic, where we were all but assured of a warm, if weird, welcome.
Not too warm, though.
For the first eight days of our trip, we were joined by our friends Frances and Todd, who live in New Jersey. Aside from that they are very nice people and, unlike the last time we spent a weekend with them, this time they mostly behaved themselves and nobody had to call out the Coast Guard.
The four of us decided to rent a house instead of staying at a hotel, which especially suited Frances and Todd, seeing as how, "Welcome to Disney World!" are the only four words they might dread hearing more than, "Where are y'all from?"
The house, Pineapple Cottage, was very large, extremely private, and around the corner from Walgreen's, which was perfect considering that I'd spent $150 to haul 6 pieces of luggage to Key West, only to forget basics like mascara and hair gel.
Mid-week we were joined by two more friends, Ellen and Brian, who were more than ready for a re-do after their last trip to Key West involved weather so unusual that folks went kayaking . . . down Duval Street. Throw in the fact that Ellen had just quit her job, Brian works enough hours for two jobs, and both of them treat Happy Hour like it's a competitive hot-dog eating contest, and you can see why I put some bail money aside just in case.
After running a few errands on arrival day (picking up our bikes, making a Fausto's run, and buying a 22-gallon drum to hold the rum punch we planned to make for our last night in the house), our first order of business was to jump on the Conch Train Holiday Lights tour that was departing from N. Roosevelt Blvd. The tour consists of the train's driver cruising up and down the streets of Midtown and Old Town looking for the most ostentatious Christmas lights, blaring Christmas carols from a set of immense speakers, and encouraging his passengers to scream "WOOOO!!!" as the train lingers in front of the most impressive displays.
After we'd stopped and screamed in front of the third or fourth house, I figured the beleaguered homeowners inside were doing exactly what I'd be doing if I lived there: Flipping that train the bird with one hand while loading my BB gun with the other. But this is Key West, which means that not only did these homeowners not call the cops on us -- they actually welcomed us. At least once on every block the proud occupants came outside to greet us, dressed in festive Santa hats and waving like they were on a float at the Macy's Thankgiving Day Parade. By the end of the night I was half-expecting them to throw candy at us. Or, you know, Mardi Gras beads and beer cans.
After the tour we met up with Frances and Todd for a late dinner at Cafe Sole.
Angel and I like this place for their out-of-this-world mushroom soup and free bottles of wine, while Frances and Todd like it for the hogfish, a local fish that feeds on shrimp and other shellfish and therefore comes, as Todd put it, "pre-stuffed."
And everyone loves the bananas Foster.
The next day we decided to revisit the home of the fabled Free Bacon Happy Hour, 2 Cents Gastropub, for brunch. If we could get a couple of slices of bacon for free at happy hour, I figured, just imagine how much could we get our hands on if we actually paid up!
Much like the little brother that I never had (unless you count Trina), Frances delights in grossing me out with tales of things like having the cyst/devil horn sprouting from her head surgically removed (that really happened), knocking her front teeth out on a jet-ski (that really happened), and ingesting drinks like the Herbal High, a concoction of fresh sage, grapefruit juice, and Miller High Life that could give Syrup of Ipecac a run for its money (that really happened).
Although there were lots of tempting choices, I settled on the Eggs Sardou, which was basically eggs Benedict topped with creamed spinach and with mini artichokes standing in for the English muffins. Normally vegetables should never be permitted to muscle out stuff like bread, but those little artichokes were pretty good, not to mention cute. I also had the Sauvignon Blanc with lemonade, which only sounds white trash-y.
In addition to the egg dishes that Frances, Todd, and Angel selected, the four of us also shared two sides of bacon and two orders of silver-dollar pancakes with raspberries and, yes, more bacon.
That afternoon we biked around a bit and took in some holiday cheer.
Oh, and looked at decorations, too.
That evening we headed over to Colombian Grace, a spot I'd been wanting to try ever since I heard about a dish there called the Cartagena, which immediately makes me go, "Joan Wiiilder? Zee Joan Wiiilder???" in my head.
Made with shrimp and calamari sautéed in basil, garlic, and fresh tomato broth, the Cartagena is offered only as an appetizer, which was surprisingly large enough even for me.
Just to be safe, though, I "shared" the arepas -- grilled white corn cakes with melted cheese -- with Angel, and had a side of empanadas, too, just in case he was serious about that whole sharing thing.
Angel had the shrimp with white wine, butter, lime juice, garlic, mushrooms and tomato, while Todd had the Bandeja Paisa (red beans, rice, chorizo, skirt steak, bacon, sweet plantain, green plantain, and two fried eggs), which I believe roughly translates as the "Paul Bunyan Special." For her part, Frances went with the Petronia Chicken glazed in orange juice, rosemary, brandy, and a little spicy sugarcane sauce. If your mouth is not watering by now, you need to stop looking at this on your iPhone and get to a real monitor.
On Christmas Eve we headed over to Louie's to catch up with Donna and Greg, two local friends whom you might remember recently threw a fabulous, Champagne-and-sweat-soaked wedding on a sailboat, and who are to be commended for guiding us through last year's Key West Food and Wine Festival without once passing out (that we know of).
This time around, though, Donna and Greg were knee-deep in moving boxes, as their cottage on Big Coppitt Key was set to be demolished so that a roomy new two-story house can be built in its place, which will have sweeping water views and a bedroom just for me (I guess Angel can sleep there, too). While the new house is being built, however, they will be living in a camper on a friend's property, which Donna has eloquently named the Redneck Ranch. The idea of the lovely, perfectly polished Donna -- she of the little black dresses and sky-high stilettos and perfect manicures -- ruling the roost at the Redneck Ranch is so ridiculous that I can't believe people spend their time watching Honey Boo-Boo when this kind of entertainment is available in person for the price of a plane ticket.
After lunch, Donna and Greg met us back at the house with a few bottles of wine. Soon we were joined by Frances and Todd and, as is usually the case, where Frances goes, trouble follows. This time, the trouble started with Donna needing to make a Christmas ornament for a friend's Naughty Ornament Party that evening; Frances making like a pervy MacGyver and dropping fifty bucks at Walgreen's to buy supplies that included condoms, an assortment of rubber balls, and some paper clips; the three of us sending Todd out on an emergency vodka run while Angel and Greg pretended not to know us; Frances concentrating like she was making the next atom bomb in order to send Donna off with the perfect dirty ornament . . . and Tracey and Angel deciding to crash said house party.
It ended with Angel having to drag me out of the party (it is apparently bad form to refuse to leave if you were never invited to begin with) and me being angry because (1) Did I mention they had a buffet? and (2) I was right in the middle of a conversation with the deputy at the jail about that giant pig who died at the petting zoo there. Yes, a petting zoo. At the jail. Where else would you expect kids in Key West to have their field trips?
It really didn't feel like Christmas when we woke up the next morning: The sky was bright blue, the sun was hot, and nobody had spent the night on a guest futon covered in cat hair. And somehow we'd managed to rent the only house in Key West without a single Champagne glass, so our traditional Christmas morning mimosas were sipped from mismatched martini glasses.
Nor was there a towering Christmas tree surrounded by presents, but both Frances and Angel came through nonetheless, the former getting me a flip-flop bottle opener and matching coasters and wrapping it all up in the world's cutest gift bag, and the latter finally admitting that he married a 13-year-old boy and getting me a "best of" DVD of Beavis & Butthead.
Even Ellen, who arrived later that day, brought me a fabulous gift: A huge, round, hot-tub-sized raft that looks like a lime and that I cannot wait to hog the whole pool in the Hamptons with. That I repay all of these people by picking off their plates at dinner just goes to show you what good friends they really are.
On top of all that, Frances and Todd had breakfast at their usual spot, Pepe's, and kindly brought me back a to-go order of their fantastic grilled mashed potatoes.
I turned my back on those potatoes for one second to grab a fork, only to see this when I returned:
Like he ever had a chance.
Later that morning we biked over to the elegant Casa Marina for their Christmas Day brunch buffet.
Tapeworms and buffets go together like Frances and raunchy ornaments, so I was obviously in my milieu, and I didn't waste any time. After an eggnog shooter and my second mimosa of the day, it was time to dig in.
That is au gratin potatoes, rice pilaf, a block of chestnut stuffing with cream sauce (why hasn't anyone thought of that sooner?), and, off to the left there, a mound of pepperoni and hard salami. The Caesar salad is there in order to create a well-balanced meal with vegetables.
Next up, more potatoes, more stuffing, and some pizza. You've heard of the Atkins diet? I'm on the Fatkins.
Ellen and Brian arrived that afternoon, and we'd chosen A&B Lobster House as the perfect spot for a celebratory Christmas dinner.
From the outstanding lobster bisque to the moist, meaty crab cake, to the sweet-and-tart Tropical Martini, everything I tasted was delicious . . . and my own meal wasn't bad either. And because it was Christmas, I only got stabbed in the hand with a fork once.
The next day, Frances and Todd went on a fishing charter, leaving me, Angel, Ellen, and Brian to fend for ourselves for lunch. We decided to try Caroline's Cafe since none of us had ever been there.
There, we started with an assortment of rum drinks and the kind of salads that allow you to tell people you had a salad for lunch, when in fact you had a plate of fried chicken garnished with some lettuce.
And oh, what fantastic fried chicken it was. They really ought to sell these tasty little nuggets in go-bags so you can walk around and snack on them without getting the insides of your pockets all greasy.
As we were finishing lunch, I noticed a small white chicken under our table, so naturally I wanted a picture of it.
Our waitress then helpfully informed us that there was a much larger, friendlier rooster around named Abby . . . and that we could pick him up. Never being ones to turn down a dare, Ellen and I immediately shot out of our seats and began searching the restaurant for Abby. Finally, another waitress tipped us off to his location: They'd chased him out back because the health inspector had shown up. (Note to potential restaurateurs: Numerous small chickens on the premises are acceptable, but one large rooster is a no-go.) Round the back we went, where we were greeted by a small turtle named Shelby, a Yoda-topped Christmas tree, and a little Asian man who realized he'd hit the photography jackpot when Ellen burst onto the scene chasing a giant rooster. Weird, it was.
We had to approach Abby carefully, of course, since everyone knows what happens when a chicken in this neighborhood gets angry.
Plus, there's always the danger that if you can't fool the chicken, it will gleefully peck your eyes out at the first opportunity. Luckily Ellen was more than up to the task.
Finally: success! Ellen grabbed hold of Abby, hoisted him up light as a feather, and even gave him a peck on the head for good measure. All puns intended, of course.
That evening the six of us headed over to Rooftop Cafe to celebrate Todd's birthday (and Ellen's brave handling of Abby).
Several of us were excited to try Rooftop's version of one of my favorite frozen concoctions, the key lime pina colada, but the frozen drink machine was down . . . which is the Key West equivalent of McDonald's running out of buns. No matter. Brian went with the second runner-up, the key lime pie martini, while Angel, Todd, and I used a few of those ubiquitous "free glass of wine" coupons to score some free hooch. There was also a pineapple-y rum punch for Ellen, and a ginger-pear martini for Frances that can best be described as having your mouth washed out with soap. (We know this because the first thing one says after tasting something awful is, "Ewww, gross. You have to try this!").
An assortment of crab cakes, fish, pasta, and risotto later . . .
And it was time for dessert, delivered by the mischievous Christopher, whose hilarious sendup of Frances politely ordering a cup of coffee sent booze flying out of noses all around the table. Only in Key West does use of the word "Sir" sound so formal that you might as well take up residence at Downton Abbey.
The next morning Frances and Todd had another fishing trip scheduled, so Angel and I took advantage of having the house to ourselves and ordered lunch in. I'd heard good things about a new sandwich shop, Paseo, and the crowds gathered outside every time we rode by seemed to confirm the good reviews, so Paseo it was. In particular, I'd heard about their fantastic grilled corn on the cob, and today was the perfect day to order it, since, like Oreos, corn on the cob is one of those things best eaten at home with your toothbrush at the ready.
The food from Paseo -- the Caribbean roast pork sandwich for Angel, and the marinated pork loin for me -- was delicious, even though that pork loin did look suspiciously like the cube steaks my mom used to beat into chewy submission when I was growing up.
But the grilled corn on the cob? Let's just say that while I generally don't make a habit of licking aluminum foil, sometimes exceptions must be made.
Half an hour after demolishing a pork loin, a plate full of rice and beans, and the best grilled corn this side of Mexico, it was time for a little palate cleanser. So off we went to our appointment at Lush bar for a wine and chocolate tasting.
When he isn't busy dreaming up new ways to give folks the gout, our friend Mark, the cirrhosis-courting mastermind behind the Key West Food & Wine Festival, also runs the adorable Lush bar inside the Green Pineapple store on Duval Street.
Yes, those dimples are real, and, no, you can't stick your fingers in them. That's my domain.
After I took this photo, I teased Mark about being just like Angel, whose random limbs are always showing up in my photos.
"Can't you get your damn elbow out of my picture?" I asked. Sure, he responded.
No wonder those two get along.
At Lush, Mark specializes in wine pairings with chocolate, honey, and, if you tell him ahead of time that you don't much care for chocolate, generous cheese plates with this cool goat cheese/brain.
The pairing began with some historical background on chocolate, which is made from the fermented, roasted, and ground beans of the cocoa tree. The raw beans are crunchy and somewhat bitter, and therefore more to my liking than actual chocolate.
And what better place to store them than in a redneck wine glass? I bet Donna has a whole cabinet full of these over at the Ranch.
Each of the subsequent pairings was designed to match the wine to the chocolate both in terms of geographic origin and flavor notes -- in other words, if it grows together, it goes together. Our first pairing was a glass of sparkling wine from Washington's Willamette Valley, which was paired with a dark salted-almond chocolate from Seattle.
A succession of red wines followed: An Argentinian Malbec paired with an Ecuadorean chocolate; a French blend paired with a Trinitario chocolate, which is one of only three types of cacao trees in the world; a South African Cabernet paired with a spicy cinnamon-and-Sakay- pepper chocolate from Madagascar that almost melted my face off (in a good way); and a Portuguese porto with an Askinosie "El Rustico," which was my favorite of the chocolates I tried because it was laced with vanilla bean and had an appealingly gritty texture.
For each pairing, the idea was to sip the wine, taste the chocolate, and then sip the wine again to note the differences between the first sip and the second. For me, however, it went something like, sip the wine, take another sip, harass Mark a little bit, eat a hunk of cheese, take another sip of wine, nibble on the chocolate, take another sip of wine, harass Mark some more, and then eat another hunk of cheese.
We were joined during our tasting by this woman, Megan, who left her kid back at the hotel with her husband so she could hang out and drink wine and eat chocolate undisturbed . . . and who should never, ever get divorced.
Also during our tasting, we were approached by a lovely woman named Donna from West Palm Beach, who recognized me from this blog. I am always amazed when people recognize me, but I guess I shouldn't be. A few weeks ago I walked into the H20+ store on Madison & 53rd, a shop I usually visit every six weeks or so but hadn't been to in a while, as they'd been closed for several months due to a fire. As soon as I walked in, the saleswoman greeted me in very heavy Russian accent, "Oh, you are back! I remember you. Your face, it is not so popular." Indeed.
Our tasting wrapped up with a glass of Mt. Difficulty's "Roaring Meg" riesling, served with milk chocolate drizzled with honey and dusted with sea salt. Which I'd think is what heaven tastes like . . . if I didn't already know that it tastes like bacon double cheeseburgers.
Also, did you notice how Mark ended the tasting with a wine from Mt. Difficulty? Obviously it would be paranoia to take that as some kind of hint. Right? Right?
Afterwards I decided to do a little shopping at the Green Pineapple, which sells everything from jewelry to tunics to chocolates to stemware.
That night Mark was stuck with me again, as was his partner Steven, plus Donna and Greg and two friends from Key Largo, Claudia and Alden.
I'd reserved a table for 8 at Santiago's Bodega and made sure to let them know ahead of time that we expected flaming cheese, and lots of it, and they'd better not run out. That's because Donna, Claudia, and I might flame you on our blogs if the food isn't good . . . and at least one of us might have a meltdown if there isn't enough of it. (As it was, there was so much flaming cheese that we set off the smoke alarms.) Luckily the army of servers assigned to our table, including this cutie named Ivan (who is, by coincidence, our Key West tenant), came through with nary a singed eyebrow.
Before the saganaki, however, our evening started with a gratis pitcher of sangria (thanks, Ivan!), a bottle of white wine (thanks, Alden!), a bottle of red wine (thanks, Mark!), then devolved into a melee of saganaki and meatballs and more sangria, and ended, finally, with Steven and I mock-heckling a lounge singer at La Te Da while plotting to pick up frat boys together at Irish Kevin's and, once again, Angel dragging me away before things could get interesting.
The next day we met up with Ellen and Brian for lunch at Southernmost Beach Cafe.
I decided to eat light in preparation for the pizza party we planned for that night, which was our last night in the house, and for which Angel and I had whipped up the aforementioned batch of rum punch. So I had a turkey burger, some pasta salad, and one of my beloved key lime pina coladas, which is like a boozy Shamrock Shake with a better straw.
Our go-to rum punch recipe calls for orange juice, pineapple juice, guava nectar, grenadine, amaretto, nutmeg, a whopping 64 ounces of rum, and Angostura bitters, this last of which actually took some effort to find. The kids these days must be huffing them, seeing as how they are stashed away behind the counter like they're the good Sudafed.
Little did we know that by the end of the night, we'd be wishing we'd kept that rum punch hidden away, too.