A Travellerspoint blog

February 2011

Key West Part 1: I Just Can't Quit These Damn Chickens

"Winter sucks -- so let's get the hell outta here!" That was our rallying cry as we boarded a plane bound for Key West on a blizzardy Friday morning in January. Ahhh, Key West. The very words conjure up images of swaying palms and pina coladas, shady gardens and lazy porch fans.








Long a haven for artists, writers, musicians, and secessionists, this tiny tropical paradise is famous for its Cuban influence, perfectly preserved historic district, and offbeat charm, including a multitude of six-toed cats and feral chickens.









And yet, below the island's genteel if funky exterior lurks the seedy underbelly of the beast: Duval Street. A cacophony of t-shirt shops, tour operators, street artists, and con artists, Duval Street is best known for its wild, anything-goes bar scene and lax open-container laws, which lend the island a drunken depraved debauched laid-back air.






I, of course, do not approve of such shenanigans, and neither does Angel.




On this visit we stayed at the Paradise Inn, a name often applied to accommodations that almost always turns out to be unintentionally ironic. Thankfully in the case of Key West's Paradise Inn it's truthful, if a bit goading to those of us from the Great North.







Our first order of business after checking in was to rent bikes from Eaton Bikes, the shop we like to use thanks to their friendly service and fair prices. Unfortunately the only bikes they had available were black, which were very obviously not pink or turquoise, so Angel mollified me by prettying mine up a bit.


Later, after I'd accidentally almost mowed down a few unsuspecting pedestrians, we returned to the shop to see if I could get a bell to warn others of impending doom. The owner, Chris, explained that the shop doesn't like to equip the rental bikes with bells because the constant dinging drives the locals nuts. "Why do you need a bell to warn people anyway?" he asked. "You're from New York. Can't you just scream obscenities at them?" When I explained that I was trying out a new, relaxed, island-y Tracey, he kindly gave me a bell for free.


In return, I dinged that bell about a million times a day, screaming out "CHRIS AT EATON BIKES SAYS HELLO!!!!" at anyone who would listen. Just kidding! I was actually very restrained with the use of the bell, save for imminent death. Which amounted to just a few hundred times a day.

As has become our tradition, lunch on our first day on the island was in the garden at Kelly's Caribbean, which is housed in the former headquarters of Pan American Airlines. Nothing conjures up visions of delicious food like airplanes!




Kelly's was once owned by actress Kelly McGillis of "Top Gun" fame. Of course, we'd still frequent this place if it was owned by a toothless ex-con, as long as they still served these:


This was our ninth visit to the island, so this time we decided to do something new, something different, something wild and crazy that we've never done before in Key West -- no easy feat on an island known for its enlightened stance on alcohol and public nudity.

So we went on a house-and-garden tour. Wait, what were YOU thinking? You really need to get your mind out of the gutter. Heh-heh.

A house tour usually consists of tramping through a stranger's house and snarkily critiquing all of their art, design, and decor choices. In this case, however, the tour of these exquisite homes consisted of several of the five stages of grief: denial ("Seriously, WHO on earth owns such a gorgeous house?!"); anger ("These lucky bastards probably don't even appreciate this house!"); depression ("It's hopeless; I'll never have a house like this!"); and acceptance ("I'll never have a house like this. Ever.").

1108 Southard Street

631 United Street

425 Caroline Street

This last house is owned by country star Kenny Chesney, who purchased the house but never even moved in before deciding that it wasn't private enough and putting it back on the market. Which proves that what he's really hiding under that ever-present cowboy hat is not baldness, but lack of brains.

Right before we boarded the open-air Conch Train to take us from house to house, a mini-hurricane descended, cold and wet and windy, with the added bonus of turning my hair into something resembling a cross between a wet mop and blonde Silly String. But I soldiered on, and I'm glad I did, because otherwise I'd never have gotten to see The World's Most Awesome Shower.


By the end of the house tour the temperature had dropped to the low 50s, so we decided to grab dinner at the nearest restaurant and call it a night. That turned out to be El Meson de Pepe, which is generally regarded as the touristy version of one of our favorite restaurants, the excellent Cuban spot El Siboney. Luckily for us, a large pitcher of El Meson's sangria turned what would have been an okay meal into an okay-but-giggly one.


Angel ordered a sampler plate, with ropa vieja, shredded pork, and picadillo. Unfortunately, the picadillo was studded with raisins -- neither my nor Angel's favorite -- which are very adept at masquerading as black beans to get people to eat them. Sneaky little buggers.


Despite the lovely homes featured on the house tour, I'm really holding out for one of these. Donations being accepted now at 1-800-FAT-CHANCE.





For now, though, I really can't complain (not that that ever stops me): Two years ago we took the plunge and bought a small condo in the Casa Marina neighborhood of Old Town, with the intention of renting it out for now and using it ourselves once we can finally afford to retire (projected date: 2098).





It was either that or pay the college tuition for the kids we don't have, which is how we sold this cockamamie idea to our financial planner.








One of the things that we like best about the condo is its proximity to the Southermost Beach Cafe, one of our favorite casual lunch spots.





Situated right on the sand, Southermost has an inexpensive lunch menu and boasts a drink list longer than Angel's . . . arm. This is one of their specialty drinks, the Sunkiss, which contains three different rums as well as pina colada/strawberry/passion fruit/mango mixes. A few of these and you will be drunk/trashed/wasted/blitzed.


I always order the Chef's salad, partly because green vegetables are a nice shock to the system after several days in Key West, and partly because of the Caribbean vinaigrette dressing, which is sweet, tart, mustardy, and highly addictive.


Angel decided on the fresh catch of the day, a blackened mahi-mahi sandwich with batter-dipped fries. There's a vegetable in there somewhere . . . I think.


Finally, we split an order of conch fritters, which are really just an excuse to eat some fried dough. These came with a delicious sweet & spicy chili sauce.


Near the restrooms is a huge map in which people stick pins indicating where they're visiting from. I wanted to stick a pin in Antarctica just to shake things up, but in the end I'm just a big conformist.



One thing that we've noticed over the years is that folks in Key West adore their pets, and often go out of their way to make life easier for them. Like this little kitty door/staircase, for example. Because everyone knows that cats are terrible at jumping.



When a beloved pet occasionally goes missing, an island-wide campaign must be undertaken to find him. Some are fortunately easier to identify than others.


Hard to believe they got such a clear picture of him, huh?

This is Pickles. He is not currently missing, but when you leave a dog that cute alone in a car with the windows down, don't come crying to me when he ends up in my suitcase.


Even the strays in Key West are pretty spoiled.


On Sunday it was a bit chilly, so we scrapped our plans for brunch on the water and instead headed over to Martin's on Duval Street. Okay, I'm lying. It wasn't "a bit chilly." It was cold. Really cold. Practically freezing, by Key West standards.



Martin's is owned by a couple of Germans (who know a thing or two about cold weather), who are so blond and blue-eyed and chiseled that the rest of us (okay, me) are left feeling like amorphous blobs of dubious national origin.




Angel and I both ordered the lobster benedict, which is served with steamed spinach and a thick, lemony hollandaise that was so good that we had no choice but to order the German bread to mop it all up.



And even less choice but to wash it all down with mimosas.



German or not, Key Westers aren't typically shy about expressing themselves, whether that takes the form of bumper stickers, signs, t-shirts . . .






. . . or a gigantic replica of the tiki idol in that really scary episode of "The Brady Bunch."


Or this piece of sh . . . artistic expression. If nothing else, it's sure to keep those annoying trick-or-treaters away at Halloween.


Now that's alot of pot.


Later that night we biked over to Abbondanza, a romantic little trattoria that's a bit off the beaten path (that term being relative on an island that's all of 4.2 square miles) and has the best meatballs in town.



Now, you might think it strange that we went out for meatballs on a tropical island known for its seafood, but that's because you've probably never had the meatballs at Abbondanza. These tender, garlicky little orbs are just the thing to replenish you after a day spent lazing around, and let's face it: Being thin is nice, but stuffing your face full of meatballs is even nicer.


I fought the meatballs and the meatballs won.


One of the things that we've always loved about the island is that it is a study in contrasts, the rich rubbing elbows with the poor; the literary-minded mingling with the simple-minded; the type who'd belong to a yacht club . . . being the same type who'd attach gigantic bull horns to his Jeep.


Me? I'm the type who'd write a trip report but only publish half of it. Part 2 to come is now posted! Find it here: www.traceyg.travellerspoint.com/24/

Posted by TraceyG 10:39 Archived in USA Tagged key_west casa_marina florida_keys southernmost_beach_cafe Comments (18)

Key West Part 2: Wanna See Something REALLY Interesting?

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 . . .


And 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.


Can't get enough of the Conch Republic? Read more here and here.

Posted by TraceyG 09:32 Archived in USA Tagged key_west peppers amigos florida_keys schooner_wharf_bar cafe_sole seven_fish Comments (7)

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