One of the many things we love about Key West is that it is full of relaxed, laid-back watering holes, none more so than the Schooner Wharf Bar, which bills itself as "a last little piece of old Key West." And they're not kidding: There are literally thousands of discarded old pieces of Key West -- everything from alligator-shaped kayaks to statuettes to road signs to Mardi Gras beads -- hanging from every available surface in the place.
Along with malt vinegar and various hot sauces, there is hand sanitizer on the table here. Which is either a really good sign . . . or a really bad one.
Luckily the hand sanitizer makes perfect sense, when you consider that there are dogs. At the bar.
For lunch we had Painkillers.
Oh, and some vegetables, served American-style.
Of course, Schooner Wharf isn't the only bar in Key West that serves dogs. Ain't nobody gonna turn away Tuffy, what with that threatening spiked collar and all.
For dinner that night we biked over to Cafe Sole, a little Provence-style restaurant known for its hogfish.
A large, flat fish, hogfish is a Key West delicacy, as it feeds almost exclusively on shellfish, giving it a mild, almost lobster-like flavor. I once saw a feature on the hogfish on Keys TV, which explained that hogfish are caught exclusively by divers wielding long spears. Apparently the hogfish, being quite curious, will approach the divers and, being so flat, will turn to the side to get a better look at them. When they do, they create a huge fish-shaped target for the diver to easily spear the hogfish. Sadly, it appears that no friendly deed goes unpunished.
But the thing you've really got to try at Cafe Sole is their award-winning portobello soup, which is made with portobello mushrooms, onions, white wine, port wine, and "a touch" of cream, according to their web site. Right, and I am "a touch" broke from all this travel. Anyhoo, I have two words for Cafe Sole regarding the portobello soup: BIGGER BOWLS.
The next day we decided to grab lunch at Amigos, a new place on Greene Street that's becoming known for its fresh, authentic rural Mexican food, like this dish:
Ok, maybe not, but are you really going to turn down a basket of tater tots just for the sake of authenticity? I didn't think so.
Amigos does, however, serve real Mexican Coca-Cola made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup which, if the recent television ads are to be believed, will kill you faster than a Mexican drug lord who thinks you've stolen his stash.
The delicious tacos at Amigos are square-shaped, which means that you will end up with more filling in your mouth and less down the front of your shirt. A win-win!
But the main reason to get yourself to Amigos, STAT, is their caramelized onion salsa. This stuff is incredible. Amazing. Fantastic. Hell, it's better than Mexican coke -- the stuff in the bottle, that is.
Besides that incredible salsa, you should also go to Amigos for these:
And for the low tabs . . .
And the comment cards, which encourage you to describe your experience in pictures instead of words, just in case you've had too many of the aforementioned margaritas, or have completely lost your mind over that caramelized onion salsa.
Directly across the street from Amigos I spotted this little guy, whose name is Oscar de la Mayer.
His kind owner allowed me to snuggle him (the dog) and stroke his velvety ears (again, the dog -- minds and gutters, people!), and even trusted me to babysit while he made a quick trip to the restroom. He warned, "Now, don't go lettin' anyone beguile little Oscar while I'm gone!" Little did he know that I was already quite beguiled by Mr. de la Mayer myself, and was secretly trying to figure out if I could get a 19-inch-long wiener dog to fit into my 10-inch-long handbag by folding him in half.
After lunch we decided to stop by one of our favorite shops, Peppers of Key West. Every time we come in this place I immediately devolve into a 13-year-old boy, snorting and snickering at the double entendres and downright dirty labels on the hundreds of hot sauces and barbeque sauces for sale.
The hottest sauce that Peppers sells is called 357 Mad Dog, the recommended "dosage" for which, per gallon, is this miniature spoon, apparently too small to even be photographed properly without a macro lens.
At Peppers they dip the end of a toothpick into the sauce and instruct you to lick it, without getting the sauce on your lips, presumably because they will shrivel up and fall off if exposed to the searing 600,000 scoville units of heat that this sauce packs. (No, I don't know what a scoville unit is. Probably another made-up unit of measure, like that Metric system.)
Angel, for whom no spice or sauce can ever be hot enough, of course decided that he had to try it.
Sure, he's smiling now . . . but 20 minutes and a bottle of water later and his mouth was still on fire. Crybaby.
We also like Peppers' relaxed stance on business hours. Clearly I'm working in the wrong place.
Although we are not big fans of Duval Street, that does not mean we aren't big fans of bars. One of our favorites is the Green Parrot.
It's difficult to get a good shot of the Green Parrot without this "Do Not Enter" sign getting in the way, which actually serves as a pretty good warning: If you're not up for some weird, don't even bother.
The Green Parrot isn't trendy -- about the fanciest drink they serve is beer in a bottle instead of a can -- but they do have cheap drinks, a machine that cranks out free popcorn, and an assortment of patrons that could give the cantina scene in "Star Wars" a run for its money.
Back on Duval Street, there is one bar that we have a soft spot for, Willie T's. A few years ago, right after we closed on our condo, we decided to undertake a mini-renovation to get the place ready for tenants. Angel and my brother-in-law, Joe (whose formidable construction skills and work ethic make HGTV's Mike Holmes look like a real slacker), flew down and did the work themselves, purchasing tools and supplies and putting in grueling 18-hour days to get the job done. Back in NYC, I acted as the off-site foreman, which entailed calling every night to harangue them about getting more work done and staying out of the strip clubs.
Anyway, most nights, dirty and exhausted, Angel and Joe would head out in search of a quick, inexpensive meal, and the only place that was still serving food at such a late hour was Willie T's . . . or so they told me.
After a while, though, I started to suspect that Angel and Joe were hanging out at Willie T's a little more often than they were letting on, and not just for the food. That suspicion was confirmed when I saw this . . .
Yep, that's exactly what you think it is: Every single dollar that we'd budgeted for the condo renovation.
As always, our last night arrived too soon, and to console ourselves it was off to dinner at our favorite restaurant on the island, Seven Fish. A quick aside: No matter where or when I am taking a photo, Angel somehow manages to end up in it -- there he is in the background, or there's his hand, or part of his head, like a family pet who unwittingly manages to wander into every family photograph. And sure enough, the first shot I took of Seven Fish? There was Angel, reflected in the front door. You know what this means, right? That even when he's standing behind me, that sneaky #$% manages to end up in my pictures. I'm just sayin'.
Anyway, it may not look like much from the outside, but inside this tiny, spare building is some of the best, most imaginative cooking on the island, including an insane banana chicken with caramelized walnuts, which I promise to order and photograph next time. On this visit, however, we branched out a bit from our usual choices, with excellent results.
First up was the three-cheese Caesar with Parmigiano-Reggiano, asiago, and goat cheese, the last of these adding just the right amount of unexpected richness and tang.
In addition to their regular menu, Seven Fish offers three different fresh fish dishes each night. I decided on the red snapper with Thai curry sauce over sticky rice, which Angel said was the best dish that HE had on the entire trip, after scarfing down two-thirds of it. My, how the tables have turned.
Angel ordered the gnocchi with sauteed fish, which was drenched in a creamy, mellow bleu cheese sauce with capers and sauteed onions.
I liked it because it was clearly fat-free.
On the last afternoon before our flight was to depart, we headed over to Alonzo's Oyster Bar, home of the best half-price Happy Hour in town. These are their key lime mojitos, which were tasty but not very boozy, much to Angel's dismay -- mostly for obvious reasons, but also because there's much less kicking and screaming as I'm dragged to the airport if I'm half passed out asleep.
We proceeded to order an assortment of artery-clogging favorites, like fried calamari with diablo and key lime aioli dipping sauces, sweet corn mashed potatoes, and buffalo shrimp with a side of creamy bleu cheese.
Double-fisting, New Yorker style.
After we ate, Angel settled up the bill while I walked around the boardwalk to take a few pictures.
As I trolled for my next shot, a man approached me and asked, "How would you like to take a picture of something really interesting?" This being Key West, I immediately averted my eyes, lest he drop his pants right then and there, but instead he turned and walked down to the private dock running perpendicular to the boardwalk, and I followed. Again, this being Key West, it suddenly occurred to me that I was probably going to be held hostage on some boat in exchange for reefer and rum, but that fear subsided as soon as I spotted the "really interesting" thing he'd brought me down to the dock to see: A pelican. The man told me that the pelican had been sitting there for days and that many of the boat owners had gotten close enough to pet it. I took one look at that huge beak and immediately started weighing the pros (getting to pet a large but probably disease-ridden pelican) against the cons (being pecked to death by said pelican and not even having it make the top five weirdest events on the Key West evening news) and reluctantly decided against petting him. There's always next time.
As I continued taking photos, at one point I looked down into the water below and saw a huge, unidentifiable fish.
Now, if you've read the Anguilla posts on this blog, you already know what I was thinking: TARPON! Later I overheard someone at a neighboring table ask the waitress what that large fish he'd seen earlier was and, without missing a beat, or even seeing the fish, she confidently replied . . . "Oh, that? That's a tarpon."
Sure it was.