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Key West: Walking in a Wiener Wonderland, Part 2

That evening, while I made the final preparations for the pizza party, Angel went to the turtle races with the rest of the gang to try to redeem us after that time I was thisclose to winning the entire jackpot, but got distracted by what was behind door #3 (a bottle of Heinz ketchup) and blew my chance.

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As Angel well knows, you can take the girl out of Pittsburgh, but you can never destroy her abiding love for ketchup. So if we were ever going to win some Turtle Bucks, it was all on him. Luckily he's pretty good under pressure.

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Back at the house, we killed the rum punch, made a sizable dent in the vodka that we'd goaded Todd into buying on Raunchy Ornament Night, devoured three large pizzas, and participated in a rousing game of "Guess The Definition" of a number of unmentionable slang terms on Urban Dictionary, which is how people used to entertain themselves in the olden days before TV.

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Ellen had been plotting for months to bring one of those "Adults Only" cakes from Croissants de France to the party for dessert, but as soon as arguments broke out as to how each of us would be depicted, anatomically speaking, she went with the world's prettiest edible Yule log instead.

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After all this, there was only one place left to go: The Green Parrot.

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Now, sometimes I'm in the mood for a nice glass of Cabernet and quiet conversation. Sometimes I'd like a frosty pina colada and a water view. And sometimes, I can even be dragged out to Sloppy Ho's or one of the other bars on lower Duval for free music and cheap beer. But when I'm in the mood to act like a dancin' fool, only one place will do: The Green Parrot. That night the band was bringing Friends, Funk & Fortitude from New Orleans, and we were more than ready to laissez les bons temps rouler. And unlike most nights when I just stumble on in to the Parrot, this time I was prepared. See, back in early December, Angel, Brian, and I had celebrated Ellen's birthday at NYC's Hurricane Club, a so-tacky-it's-chic tiki spot that specializes in group drinks that are consumed with absurdly long red straws.

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Those straws allow you to suck up much more than you normally might drink in one sitting, which prompted Ellen to remark to me, in complete and utter seriousness, "Your eyes look beautiful in those glasses." Yes. Like space crystals.

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Sensing an opportunity, I gathered up as many of those straws as I could that night, smuggled them home, cleaned them up, and promptly stowed them away in my luggage for this trip. (I can't remember to pack things like toothpaste, but I can remember to pack a slew of two-foot-long straws.)

Thus armed with my super-straws, it was time to head over to the Green Parrot. Fragile Frances had been felled by a bad case of too much rum punch (or, more likely, the volcano-sized pile of nachos she'd inhaled at the turtle races), so only six of us made the pilgrimage. While the guys staked out a good spot near the popcorn machine, kept an eye on our purses, and wisely kept the cameras hidden away, I busted out my mega-straw and began to make my rounds of likely marks. "Helllllloooooooooo!!!" I trilled in my best Mrs. Doubtfire voice, aiming my straw at whatever libation my next victim happened to be holding. "And what have we heeeere???" I am happy to report that my super-straw and I sampled everything from Jack & Gingers (eh) to a few warm Coronas (ick) to a diet Coke (quel disappointment!), all without a single refusal or communicable disease (so far). The night ended with Donna getting down like one of the Solid Gold Dancers up on stage with the band; me twirling a stranger's handlebar mustache (with permission) the wrong way (by mistake); Ellen slipping on the stairs and landing on said stranger; and Angel once again dragging me away just when things were getting good. And I know exactly what you're thinking: What a shame that Frances couldn't be there, what with us behaving like the cast from her beloved stomping grounds, Jersey Shore.

The next day we dropped off the keys to the house and checked in at the Chelsea House, an historic inn where we would spend our last three nights.

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Although the Chelsea House and its sister properties, including the adorable Key Lime Inn cottages, are all perfectly nice (and the staff extremely accommodating), poor Chelsea House, having followed seven days at the most private house we've ever rented, suffered the same fate as whatever you happen to order after the free bacon at 2 Cents: It's nice, but it just can't compare.

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Which is not to say that it was boring, by any stretch.

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After dropping off our bags, we made like a couple of sailors on payday and headed down to the Bight to spend Angel's hard-won Turtle Bucks.

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One of the newest and most beautiful sailboats at the Bight is the Hindu, which was built in 1925 in Maine and has been lovingly restored by the Rowan family.

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Me, I'd be happy with this little boat, so long as the puppy came with it.

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By the time we reached Turtle Kraals, it was 11:45, and therefore almost noon, and therefore time for cocktails.

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Then it was on to the crab and spinach dip with Townhouse crackers, followed by the shrimp Po Boy for Angel and the fried shrimp and a pathetic, naked, boiled corn cob for me . That cheesy grilled corn at Paseo has ruined me, I tell you.

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Frances and Todd showed up just as we were digging in, ostensibly so they could eat lunch, but really so Frances could force me to look at her new Velcro sandals. Yes, Velcro. You know how people always say they'd rather be comfortable than fashionable? God help her, but Frances actually means it.

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If you don't have anything nice to say . . . turn your head and try not to laugh.

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That evening Ellen and Brian treated us to the Commotion on the Ocean sunset cruise on the Fury boat.

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As if that wasn't nice enough, Ellen picked this cruise specifically because they serve meatballs at the small buffet and unlimited margaritas during the cruise, and that is why we are convinced that she and I would clean up at that Friday afternoon Newlywed Game at Southernmost on the Beach.

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The next day we met up with Ellen and Brian at Le Bistro, since Brian wanted a crepe. (Frances and Todd ended up back at their usual spot, Pepe's, due to her powerful addiction to their strawberry eggnog.)

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The food was great: A turkey croissant for Ellen, a chicken pesto panini and some spicy gazpacho for me, and the lobster-and-chorizo Benedict for Angel.

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Oh, and Brian had the scrambled eggs. I guess he pulled a crepe-and-switch.

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Later that evening we decided to revisit some of the inns and houses we'd seen on earlier bike rides to get some photos of their Christmas lights.

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We also came upon the horror of this terrible massacre. God only knows what kind of animal would slaughter Santa, and Tigger, too.

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After spying one particularly decked-out house, we pulled our bikes over and I walked across the street to get my shot. Or, rather, I walked across the street and, distracted by all the sparkly tinsel, didn't notice that big ditch in the street and promptly fell headfirst into it. As I lay on the ground wondering what the hell had just happened, my first thoughts were, in this order: (1) Thank god this fall didn't chip my pedicure; (2) Thank god this fall didn't rip my favorite jeans; (3) Thank god I brought my cute ambulance band-aids; and (4) Did I just break my kneecap . . . AGAIN? Priorities, people.

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The fall left part of my big toe a bloody mess with a sizable flap of skin hanging off of it, and my knee looking like a grapefruit covered in angry red brush burns. (I blew out my flip-flop, too, and I wasn't even wasted away again.) I patched my toe up with a band-aid -- being distracted by sparkly stuff is reason #1 why I carry band-aids on my person at all times -- and tried to get back to taking photos, but soon I could feel my knee stiffening up and, worried that pedaling my bike might soon become impossible, we headed back to the suite to clean my wounds and ice my knee.

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As Angel set me up with a chair to elevate my leg and fashioned an ice pack out of some ice cubes and a washcloth and forced me into a series of excruciating knee stretches every ten minutes, I realized that we were probably going to have to order in for dinner, because both walking and pedaling seemed out of the question.

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But tonight we had plans. Big plans. Plans that were so important that I somehow managed to pedal my bike with one leg and brake Fred Flintstone-style in order to get there.

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One gigantic veal parm, a glass of Pinot Noir, two meatballs, and a handful of Advil later, all was right with the world.

On New Year's Eve we decided to check out the Key West Dachshund Walk, otherwise known as the Wiener Dog Parade.

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I'd been expecting maybe a dozen or so weenies and their owners and a smattering of gawkers, so I was completely unprepared for the throngs that greeted us (along with a blaring loudspeaker playing "Who Let the Dogs Out?").

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I immediately realized that, like a politician with a camera phone, if I wanted to get some good wiener shots, I was going to have to get closer to the action. Still pretty banged up from my unfortunate meeting with that roadside ditch, I limped my way through the crowd, carefully sidestepping holes and uneven pavement and, you know, air, until I found a small opening in the crowd and weasled my way in. At first I tried shooting the weenies from on high because squatting was difficult with my knee, but I soon realized that if you really want to capture the beauty of a wiener, you've got to get up close and personal with it.

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So I sat down on the pavement, with my good leg tucked under me and the bad one sticking out since it wasn't willing to bend. Which wouldn't have been so bad, except that I was wearing a dress. Once you've flashed your undies to the spectators at a wiener dog parade, you know you're close to hitting rock bottom.

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Of course, the parade mostly featured wiener dogs, though I did spot a few impostors.

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See that lady in the red shirt?

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That wiener-dog-hog brought a container full of bacon in order to lure the dogs over to her side of the street, so that folks on my side couldn't get any pictures. Why didn't I do the same, you ask? Because no matter how badly I want to get the perfect shot, no way am I wasting good bacon on a wiener dog. I mean, I might let him sniff it, but I'm the one who does the eating around here.

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Thankfully, the guy next to me was a talented Weenie Whisperer, enabling me to get some decent shots as well as keep those pesky zombies at bay.

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Obviously this dog can't tell us how he feels about that Hawaiian shirt, but that look, and his extended middle paw, really say it all.

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After the parade it was time for some lunch. With no set plans, I suddenly remembered that the Westin's Bistro 245 serves its own version of that fabulous blackened grouper sandwich on griddled luau bread that we first discovered in Delray Beach and most recently devoured on Lido Key. We arrived and were greeted by this:

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That marvelous feat of engineering is a Disney cruise ship, which presumably holds something on the order of 45,000 children. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I would rather spend eternity tied to a stake while the devil gleefully dangles pizzas and cheeseburgers just out of my reach than spend 10 minutes on that ship. Though the all-meals-included thing is appealing.

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Just looking it started giving us the shakes, so we immediately ordered some drinks (a lemon-lime daiquiri for me; Planter's punch for Angel), followed by the gazpacho, which came topped with crispy toast and tangy cream cheese.

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Although the blackened grouper was tempting, I decided to go with the salad with feta, hearts of palm, pine nuts, and red and yellow tomatoes.

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The afternoon was a flurry of activity -- a quick stop at Kermit's for some key lime cookies; a little pool time; and happy hour with Ellen at Southernmost Beach Cafe, where we enjoyed yet another round of key lime pina coladas -- and soon it was time for New Year's Eve to begin in earnest. We'd originally planned to have dinner at Latitudes at Sunset Key, and called in early October to make sure we'd be among the lucky few to get a reservation. Despite my repeated calls, however, Attitudes at Suckit Key refused to confirm our reservation until the day before New Year's Eve, since they'd been waiting to see if any of their owners or guests wanted our table instead. We turned them down, of course (Donna had already pulled some strings and landed us the best seats in the house over at Hot Tin Roof), making sure to let them know that we'd have been a party of five plus one tapeworm, which was clearly their loss.

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Over at the lovely Hot Tin Roof, we started with some mango martinis, then moved on to a luxurious four-course dinner that included oysters with caviar, foie gras, crab cakes, lobster, and filet mignon.

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Adjacent to Hot Tin Roof, Sunset Pier was trying out a new countdown-to-midnight "drop" this year, a lime wedge in a margarita glass.

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And although Donna and Greg planned to be home by midnight for their puppies (who are frightened by the fireworks) and Angel, Ellen, Brian, and I planned to spend midnight watching the pirate wench drop at Schooner Wharf Bar, Hot Tin Roof had other plans: We hadn't even had dessert yet when the countdown to midnight began. "You're gonna watch our lime wedge, dammit, even if we have to hold your cheesecake hostage to make it happen!"

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But considering that the food was fantastic, and the generous manager gave us a locals' discount on the bill and bought our first round of drinks, we really had no cause for complaint. Plus, we'd spent the evening with great friends, and there was a burlesque show, and I think I might have even seen some boobs, and isn't that what New Year's Eve is really all about?

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After saying our thanks and good-byes to Donna and Greg, and with the crowds thinning out, we figured it was safe to brave Duval Street on our walk home.

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We even stopped at Angel's beloved Willie T's for our first drinks of the New Year.

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Finally, we stopped at Bourbon Street to see the aftermath of Sushi's midnight shoe drop.

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Was it the most debauched New Year's Eve on record? No, but when you have to check out of your hotel by 11:00am on New Year's Day and your friends are scheduled for an early morning jet-ski tour, it's probably best not to wake up with your pants on backwards . . . or missing altogether.

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As is always the case, our last day on the island was a beauty: Vibrant blue skies, plentiful sunshine, just a whisper of a breeze, and my knee had returned to close to its normal size.

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With Ellen and Brian on their jet-skis and Donna and Greg busy back at the Ranch, Angel and I decided to enjoy a leisurely lunch on the water and then spend the day at the pool at our condo soaking up some final rays of sunshine. We made a beeline for Louie's, where we luxuriated in the hot sun and sipped our fruity cocktails and had an excellent burger topped with melty Provolone and roasted tomato chutney.

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Over at the condo, we spent three blissful hours lounging, reading, swimming, and asking ourselves for the hundredth time why we don't just move here already.

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Sure, it sounds like a great idea, but we'd better stay put for now.

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I hear that too many key lime pina coladas can kill yer brane cellz.

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Up next, more liver damage at the 2013 Key West Food & Wine Festival, a Cheesesteak Throwdown in Philly, and a boating trip around the Abacos. Did I mention that we're operating the boat ourselves? Subscribe here and you'll be the first to know how many docks we end up having to rebuild.

Posted by TraceyG 06:24 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys louie's_backyard hot_tin_roof turtle_kraals green_parrot chelsea_house Comments (2)

Key West Food & Wine Fest: Barefoot, Uncorked & Unhinged Pt1

I think my favorite sport in the Olympics is the one in which you make your way through the snow, you stop, you shoot a gun, and then you continue on. In most of the world, this is known as the biathlon, except in New York City, where it is known as winter. -- Michael Ventre, L.A. Daily News

What Mr. Ventre doesn't mention is that you might want to point that gun at yourself. Once the magical wonderland that is Christmas in New York has packed up and left town, reality slides an icy-cold finger down the back of your neck: It's bitterly cold, the trees are bare, and you know it's just a matter of time before the slush arrives and you have to step into one of those black puddles that could be three inches deep, or three feet. There aren't even any good holidays to look forward to: Celebrating groundhogs and Abe Lincoln isn't nearly as much fun as celebrating gluttony and greed like we do on proper holidays.

To escape these winter doldrums, Angel and I like to head south. As we did last year around this time, we booked a trip to Key West, this time to coincide with the Key West Food & Wine Festival. (This is a real event, not just how I refer to every visit to Key West.) We ended up with VIP tickets, which entitle you to attend all of the scheduled events during the four-day festival, but sadly do not entitle you to the new liver that you will require at the end.

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The festivities began on Thursday night with the Barefoot Beach Party, a wine-soaked event at Key West's South Beach at which no one is actually barefoot. That suited me just fine, since I was already wondering how I was ever going to find my sandals again if I had to bury them in the sand to prevent someone from stealing them. (You can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the girl.) There we met up with some old friends, Donna and Greg, and some new friends, Claudia and Alden. Don't worry if you can't remember their names; by the end of the night, I couldn't either.

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Angel gallantly volunteered to wear both VIP passes so that my necklace wouldn't get tangled up in the lanyard, and to carry the camera so my shoulder wouldn't get sore from the strap. Yes, he is a saint. Saint Sherpa.

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Among the tasty nibbles at the Beach Party were carved roast beef, shrimp and fish tacos, assorted cheeses, and tropical fruit, all of which were very good considering that they weren't bacon double cheeseburgers.

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Oh, and little rum cakes! Big rum cakes are good, too, but almost everything tastes better when it's miniaturized.

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After the Not-So-Barefoot Beach Party, we all piled into one of the Old Town Trolleys that transported us to the next event, the Wine Around the Neighborhood Strolls. The word "stroll" implies nattily-dressed couples ambulating arm-in-arm, perhaps under a pointy ruffled umbrella, but trust me when I tell you: this was no stroll. This was a tipsy, giggly, Wine Around the Neighborhood Stumble.

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Having chosen the Bight Stroll, which featured restaurants along Key West's historic seaport, we began at Conch Republic Seafood Company, where we were treated to bacon-wrapped scallops with pineapple chutney and Thai peanut sauce, which was paired with a Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc Viognier. (Kudos to anyone who can pronounce "Viognier" after two hours of wine tasting . . . or any time, really.)

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Despite the presence of large barrels that would have made fine tables for balancing our wine glasses and the slippery scallops, in our clouded judgement we instead decided that we'd sit on some tree stumps and balance the tiny plates on our laps . . . which is how poor Donna ended up with a scallop-shaped bacon grease stain on her lovely white pants. As for me, I'd no sooner carefully balanced my plate on the tree strump stool when my scallop slid off and landed in a perfectly scallop-sized little cranny in the stump. Unable to decide whether I'd get more enjoyment out of digging the scallop out and eating it anyway, or waiting around to see if someone might sit on it, I did the only sensible thing I could: I wandered off in search of more wine.

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Our next stop was the Commodore restaurant. I immediately tried to sober up a bit upon realizing that this was a classy joint, as was apparent from the fact that we could sit on bar stools instead of greasy tree stumps.

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You see, while herds of wine-soused VIPs clambered off the trolley and into the various restaurants participating in the Stumble, the restaurants in question were actually open for business. And so, if you were in the midst of having an elegant meal at the Commodore or A&B Lobster House when we barged in and demanded, "More food! More wine! More Rolaids!" it's really your own fault. That's what you get for trying to have a fancy dinner in a town that boasts a shrunken torso at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium.

After settling into some seats at the bar to enjoy our lobster cakes with roasted red pepper sauce, I immediately felt something strange and reached under my rear end, only to come up with this:

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That's right: After mercilessly teasing Donna about her stained pants, I accidentally sat on a piece of frisee. Karma. It really is a bitch.

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Other stops included A&B Lobster House, where we enjoyed a delicious puff pastry topped with Maine lobster, escargot, and wild mushrooms in lemon butter sauce, paired with a Louis Martini cabernet . . .

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. . . and White Tarpon Wine Bar, where I immediately flung that roast beast aside to get at the delicious potato gratin underneath.

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The final stop along the Neighborhood Stumble was the Blue Mojito bar at the Hyatt, where we were to gather around a campfire and make our own S'mores.

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That is when I realized that the folks who run the Key West Food and Wine Festival are bunch of sick $&#%s. Why else would they wait until the very end of the night, when most of us could barely see straight, to equip us with long, pointy metal sticks and encourage us to play with fire? The fact that I still have both of my eyes and both of my eyebrows after this event proves the mantra of drunkards everywhere: When faced with imminent danger, one really can sober up in a hurry.

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You might think the fact that the six of us escaped without third-degree burns or puncture wounds would have sent us scurrying home to count our blessings, but no. After four-and-a-half hours of never actually seeing the bottom of my glass, it was off to Grand Vin for a bottle of Champagne. Here's to cirrhosis!

Oh, I almost forgot: Earlier that day, we'd decided to bike over to El Siboney for lunch. Why would I down a huge platter of Cuban food right before an all-night food and wine event? If you have to ask, you must be new to this blog. Welcome!

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Anyway, do not be put off by the fact that this looks like a dry cleaners in a bad neighborhood (an oxymoron if ever there was one). El Siboney attracts an extremely brisk lunch crowd, all of whom come for the hearty portions of well-prepared Cuban classics, which I usually wash down with sangria, but on this day was washed down with a cocktail of diet Coke, Advil, and Pepcid AC.

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I went with the Ropa Vieja, which means "old clothes," while Angel settled on the Chuletas a la Plancha, or grilled pork chops. Both dishes, accompanied by a mound of yellow rice, a cup of black beans, and some fried plantains, were delicious and filling, and the total tab was well under $50. The fact that the eyes of two dozen cigar-store Indians are boring into you while you eat is a small price to pay for greatness.

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The Food & Wine Festival events continued on Friday with a seminar, Tasting Everything Italian, in the garden at Blackfin Bistro.

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We started off with some Prosecco and an olive oil tasting, which sounds exciting until you examine this roulette tasting wheel and realize that some of the flavors you might encounter include moldy hay, fetid milk, and baby vomit. Or your own vomit, depending.

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After the olive oil came mortadella, prosciutto, and speck. All of it was fantastic, as might be expected from meats with a 50% fat content.

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Next we got to try some Roma and San Marzano tomatoes. Even though San Marzanos are more expensive, and purportedly higher quality, nearly everyone at the tasting found the Romas to be much sweeter and more delicious.

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In between tastings, Key West chef Alice Weingarten and a rep from Gordon Food Service spoke about prosciutto, olive oil, tomatoes, and other Italian eats.

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Lastly, we were served this incredible risotto made with porcini mushrooms and mounds of parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Chef Alice, I'm not sure if you made this outstanding risotto, but if you did, then I take back everything I said about those chef pants/PJs you were wearing.

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Overall I enjoyed this event, despite the unfavorable lecturing-to-eating ratio. If people are going to flap their gums at a foodie event, I prefer them to be chewing, not talking.

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Angel enjoyed it, too, despite the murderous stares of strangers.

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Later that evening was the Grand Tasting at the Key West Aquarium. By this time I'd already started having nightmares about being chased by giant wine bottles with skinny little legs, but I needn't have worried: Considering that it was approximately 112 degrees in the aquarium, the never-ending flow of wine pulled triple duty as ice-breaker, thirst-quencher, and forehead-chiller.

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One of the many highlights of this event were these little key lime tarts in a chocolate crust.

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Since I'm not much of a chocolate fan, I stayed classy by sucking out the key lime guts instead.

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Outside, cooler temperatures brought great joy to the sweaty masses.

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Despite some truly fantastic wines at the Grand Tasting, one of my favorites wasn't wine at all, but the Kai coconut and lychee vodkas served at this booth. The reps were mixing the Coconut Pandan vodka with pineapple juice, and the vodka was so smooth that you'd have sworn you were drinking a virgin pina colada . . . until it was too late. Which explains why I think Donna and I might have mud-wrestled for the last serving, but I honestly can't be sure.

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After two hours of wine and other tastings, our group of six piled into a taxi and headed off to Pisces, where we ordered a multi-course dinner . . . and two more bottles of wine. the excellent Cakebread Chardonnay, to be exact, which means we weren't wasting a drop, even if we had to waterboard someone to get it down their throat.

Our table at Pisces was perfect, right in the front near the window, which is one of the perks of getting engaged here (as Donna and Greg recently did - congrats!) and then come back with a bunch of friends who won't leave until they've tried everything on the menu or have to have their stomachs pumped, whichever comes first.

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We started off with a fantastic salmon mousse delivered by our Southern-gentleman waiter, whose accent was thick as molasses and demeanor sweet as honey.

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Post-mousse, we enjoyed a host of appetizers: the lobster bisque special for me, grilled shrimp with curry-mango ice cream for Angel, and the Pisces Aphrodite -- a sinful puff pastry filled with lobster, shrimp, and scallops and topped with lemon-tarragon butter -- for Donna and Greg. Unfortunately I've forgotten what Claudia and Alden had, but if it could beat a lobster, shrimp, and scallop pot pie, I'm sure I'd remember it.

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Next up was a refreshing lime sorbet palate cleanser, which was no match for a table full of people whose palates had spent the last two hours being bombarded by wine, rum, coconut vodka, and key lime cannolis.

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Shortly after, our entrees arrived. Angel went with the hogfish special, which was served with scallops and a creamy lobster sauce, while I couldn't resist a filet mignon with bordelaise sauce and shallot confit. I know, I know, Pisces is a seafood restaurant. But the heart wants what it wants, and mine apparently likes the challenge of continuing to tick in the face of repeated abuse.

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It boggles the mind to think what Angel could have found so offensive as to lick his plate clean, yet refuse to touch these two. I guess he didn't want to look like a pig.

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Surely we didn't order dessert after all this? Surely you jest.

Donna and Greg had raved about the prune-and-Armagnac ice cream, but just to hedge our bets in case we didn't like it, Angel and I shared that and the raspberry ice cream, while Claudia and Alden shared some chocolate thing that they wisely kept to themselves. I think after I ate every single part of Claudia's entree that she wasn't interested in -- including a zucchini gratin, fingerling potatoes, and a mushroom-stuffed tomato, plus Donna's basmati rice and her stuffed tomato -- she was starting to understand why Angel likes to build a little fort around his dinner plate.

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In addition to giving me free food, I also liked Claudia because she was willing to pose contemplatively with this Warhol depicting Tony Soprano's shrink.

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The prune-and-Armagnac ice cream was good, although the French brandy was a little overpowering for my taste. But the raspberry? How I do love thee, oh raspberry ice cream. You are almost as good as a seafood pot pie.

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After dinner, Claudia and Alden decided to go back to their hotel to detox relax, but Donna, Greg, Angel, and I weren't finished yet. Back we went to Grand Vin, where we had yet another bottle of Champagne. At this point it occurred to me that trying to keep up with two Key West locals was a little like trying to go a few rounds with Mike Tyson: You might be able to fake it for a round or two, but eventually you're going to end up flat on your back, covered in bruises, and wondering who the hell bit off your ear.

CLICK HERE TO READ PART 2!
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Posted by TraceyG 16:36 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys key_west_food_and_wine_festival Comments (4)

Key West Food & Wine Fest: Barefoot, Uncorked & Unhinged Pt2

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, prompting us to make a valiant attempt to shake off the previous night's excesses. Of course, everyone knows that the best cure for overindulging is hurling a misshapen object at some plastic pineapples, so that morning we set off for Blue Heaven for some Coconut Bowling.

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Visiting Blue Heaven is like being dropped into an episode of Hoarders, with the addition of live chickens. Along with others like Schooner Wharf Bar, Green Parrot, and B.O.'s, places like Blue Heaven do a brisk business in Key West, since you never know when you're going to need a rusty license plate, an old toilet seat, or an electric duck.

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Blue Heaven might be the only one of these with its own Rooster Cemetary, though.

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Soon the Coconut Bowling got under way.

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Donna was up first. She made sure to bring her own bowling shoes.

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I was up next. Unfortunately, despite my serious game face and careful choosing of both the perfect coconut and the perfect coconut-palm dress, I couldn't have knocked those pineapple pins down if they'd let me play with a wrecking ball.

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Donna didn't fare much better, but she did win this coconut cup for "Most Pins Jumped," and the raffle . . . twice. Must have been her lucky shoes.

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At first we were just playing for fun, until I spotted the grand prize . . . The Golden Coconut.

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Oh, how I wanted that Golden Coconut. I wanted it more than I have ever wanted anything in my whole life, even more than I want to own a miniature piglet with a palm-tree collar who will ride around in the basket of my bike that will be decorated with turtles and cheeseburgers and aliens and who will live with me in my Conch house with the French pocket doors and the huge pool and the outdoor pizza oven and the fridge full of pepperoni, all of which will be right near Louie's so I don't have to walk too far.

You know what that means, right?

No pressure, Angel.

Apparently Angel realized that if he ever wanted to see me naked again, he had to win that coconut come hell or high water. Suddenly, the crowd grew quiet. Only the lonesome strains of a spaghetti Western shootout and the rustling of rattlesnakes hung in the humid air. A tumbleweed drifted by, but I think it was just part of Blue Heaven's decor. Angel wiped the sweat from his brow. He said a little prayer to the patron saint of marital relations. And then he drew his weapon: the largest, heaviest coconut he could find.

Appropriately armed, he settled into his stance. He raised up his coconut. With laserlike precision, he focused on those ten pineapples like Tracey focusing on a bowl of meatballs.

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And then he did this:

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That's nine pins! NINE!!! Enough to tie up the game and force a four-person Coconut Bowl-Off.

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Up first, Angel did me proud by scoring . . . another nine! NINE!!! And on his second go-round, he took out the tenth pin. A perfect ten! Enough to win the Golden Coconut, right?

Wrong. This is Angela.

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And that is The Golden Coconut. The Golden Coconut she won by bowling a strike on her first turn and knocking out two more pins on her second. Given that she probably has a coconut palm in her backyard and plays in a Coconut Bowling league in the off-season, Angel came in a very respectable second-place, bringing home the Silver Coconut or, as we like to call it, the Platinum Coconut.

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And you know what? I love that Platinum Coconut just as much as the Golden Coconut. Perhaps even more, considering how hard-won it was -- and by a damned Yankee, no less. It now occupies a special place of honor in our apartment in New York, and soon we will be installing a special spotlight so that all who visit may admire the Platinum Coconut in all its shimmery, silvery splendor.

After a quick power nap it was time for our last food and wine event of the weekend, Duval Uncorked.

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Duval Uncorked is essentially a bar crawl gone yuppie, which means that instead of chugging cheap beer at every stop, we chugged wine.

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Over 40 businesses along Duval Street participated in this year's Uncorked, offering either food, wine, or both. That's 40 businesses in four hours, and time was therefore of the essence.

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In order to ensure that we didn't waste any time standing around dithering over the map, our fearless leader, Greg, took charge and corralled me, Angel, and Donna like an epicurean drill sergeant: "Move, maggots, move: They've got Stag's Leap over here!" "Abort! Abort! They've run out of crab puffs!"

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Thanks to Greg, Operation Blotto was Mission Accomplished.

One of our first stops was at Cork and Stogie, where we sampled riesling with spinach-artichoke dip, then it was on to lush bar at The Green Pineapple, where we sampled something called Orange Colombo, an orange liqueur from Provence.

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Next it was on to Sweet Tea's, where you might recall that I once ate so much cheese that our waiter became concerned that I might suffer the same digestive fate as Jamie Lee Curtis. So it was a welcome surprise when Sweet Tea's served a luscious lobster mac & cheese . . . like they knew I was coming.

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Next up was the Key West Key Lime Pie Co., which has at least two too many "keys" in the name. They redeemed themselves by serving us these:

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Then we deployed to Grand Vin, where we sampled the Coppola wines, including a new favorite for me, the Sofia riesling.

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That was followed by a quick stop at Flamingo Crossing for their malbec and riesling sorbets, which I would have loved even if they didn't taste so good, because look how purty!

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Onward we marched to Orchid Bar, where the onslaught of wines continued.

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At Nine One Five, this woman was flashing such a lovely grin because she represents Oregon's Cubanisimo Vineyards, whose estate Pinot Noir gave even the white wine drinkers among us a serious case of pinot envy.

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Still more wine and nibbles at Blackfin Bistro and Croissants de France . . .

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. . . and then it was time to hunker down at Tropical Inn for some wine-filled cheesecake pops. You heard that right: Wine-filled cheesecake pops.

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While I photographed these orgasmic orbs of sinful delight, Angel waited in line to get us each one. Unfortunately, however, by this time all the wine was apparently starting to go to his head, because the fool came back with only . . . one. Worse, we were then forced to share it because the line had gotten too long for a second pass through without running the risk that Greg would make us drop and give him twenty for jeopardizing the mission. At least Angel got us a good one: the Zintuous Zinfandel, which was drizzled with white chocolate ganache. I don't know what "zintuous" means, but I'm pretty sure it's not a synonym for "virtuous."

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Next up was the lovely Vino's on Duval for more wine and a gander at their funky chandeliers.

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Then it was on to 801 Bourbon. Here we were served something called Dragon Juice, which was pretty tasty given that it looks suspiciously like stomach bile . . . and probably performs the same function.

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It is bad enough when a drag queen is prettier than you, and even worse when she is handier with an eyeliner. But having bigger boobs is really crossing the line.

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Next up, we sampled some pork osso buco at DeRubies Gallery, followed by wine wine wine more wine oh good god there is so. much. wine. Which is both a shameless boast and a cry for help.

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Oh, what's that? You are exhausted just reading about all this? But we are only halfway through, soldier! Now do you understand why I've already placed myself on the liver transplant waiting list . . . and the gastric bypass "just-in-case" list?

Next up, we stopped into Evolution for miniature cupcakes which, as we have already established, are preferable to normal-sized ones because tinier is tastier. These adorable little minis, in yummy flavors like key lime and guava, were supplied by Key West Cakes and were so cute, and decorated in such gorgeous colors, that I almost couldn't bear to eat one. And so I ate two.

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Next on our list was DJ's Clam Shack, one of those new-to-me places that I might never have tried were it not for Duval Uncorked. And that would have been a shame, since at DJ's we were treated to one of the best clam chowders I've ever had. Most clam chowders rely on vats of cream for their flavor, and this one was creamy, too, but with the unexpected addition of lots of black pepper, which gave the chowder a really nice bite that we all were raving about.

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Before I went inside, someone on the porch mentioned that some girls seemed to be getting extra-large pours at DJ's when they flirted with the bartender. "But isn't that the case everywhere?" I asked. To which this guy pulled a face and responded wearily, "Blondes. It's always the blondes that kill ya." I think he took the words right out of Angel's mouth.

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Only in Key West can a grown man make a living -- and likely a damn good one, too -- painting pictures of an ostrich popping up in unexpected places.

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Next up, a quick stop at Fin, whose gorgeous interior was right up my alley. Anyplace that gives me a little pillow so I can take a quick nap after stuffing myself silly is A-OK in my book.

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And then a painfully short visit here.

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Then it was on to Fast Buck Freddie's for Ibis Bay's stone crab chowder . . .

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And then Wet Paint Gallery and Montage for still more wine, and the Key West Olive Oil Co. for creamy, delicious polenta squares with corn puree and balsamic syrup.

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After four hours of this . . . why, yes. We did go out to dinner, now that you mention it.

Unable to get reservations at Santiago's on such short notice, and not quite feeling up to the fancy-pants tapas at Fin, we ended up at Finnegan's Wake, which was new for us. Angel loved this place because they served Smithwick's on tap; I loved it because they served pretzel bites and other munchies with a bowl of spicy melted cheese.

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Donna, a woman after my own heart, skipped the pretzel bites and went straight for the bowl of cheese.

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She claimed that there was some sort of vegetable under there, but that's just what people who eat large bowls of cheese tell themselves in order to feel less heart attack-y.

The next day was a bit windy and overcast, which wouldn't normally be ideal weather, but in this case was actually perfect, since this was the day we planned to bike over to Stock Island to have lunch at Hogfish Bar & Grill. Angel had told me some lie about how it would only take half an hour and was downhill both ways, but after about 20 minutes of pedaling I was already trying to remember if that taxi company's number was all 6s or all 7s and whether it might arrive faster if I mentioned that I'm a good tipper . . . and blonde.

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One thing we noticed on our ride was that someone has been plastering graffiti all over Key West. Normally this might not be welcome news, but when the graffiti looks like this, it's really hard to be angry.

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Remember how I thought that guy in Charleston with the cheeseburger bike bell was my true soul mate? I might have to rethink that.

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On we pedaled, all the way to Stock Island. Stock Island is one of those places that everyone likes to refer to as, "Key West the way it used to be." If that is true, then Key West back in the good old days used to have way more pawn shops and way fewer folks with all their teeth.

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Hogfish is perched on a working fishing dock at the end of a sketchy road lined with even sketchier trailers, which serve as a pungent reminder as to why you should never, ever pee in your own yard. Despite this unappetizing lead-in, Hogfish itself is decorated in a funky hodgepodge of signage, sculptures, and used license plates, and the smells emanating from the kitchen set my mouth a-watering.

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Best of all, they have an advertisement for El Shrimp Bucket, which is how I will henceforth be referring to anyone shorter than me.

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Angel started off with the Bahamian conch chowder, which I skipped because I was planning to order a dinner entree for lunch. (All that pedaling!) That turned out to be Mistake #1. That chowder was fantastic: flavorful, spicy, and loaded with potatoes, red peppers, tomatoes, and of course chunks of tender conch.

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My dinner-entree-for-lunch turned out to be Key West pink shrimp stuffed with crabcake stuffing and served over rice. Right off the bat I thought this would be a winner: double carbs! That was Mistake #2. While the shrimp were nicely cooked and the portion was quite generous, the entire dish suffered from an overall lack of seasoning. Which doesn't mean that I didn't finish it, just that somebody needs to turn it up to eleven.

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All was not lost, however.

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That's because Margaritaville? It's everywhere.

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During lunch we met this little sweetheart, Zoe, whose owners declined to leave her with me while they went back to work.

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I mean, it's not like I was going to stuff her in my bike basket and ride away or anything. Hell, I was so tired that I couldn't have pedaled across the street right then.

For his entree, Angel went with Hogfish's signature dish, the hogfish sandwich. So often a restaurant's signature dish is a letdown, but not at Hogfish. Their hogfish was sweet, tender, and perfectly seasoned. I might even say that it didn't even need that gooey layer of Swiss cheese on top, but that would just be crazy talk.

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Which leads me to Mistake #3 - not getting my own side of French fries. See, Angel's sandwich came with a side of skinny, crispy fries lightly dusted with Old Bay seasoning, which of course went perfectly with the Ranch dressing that came with my side salad. The fries were so good, in fact, that after lunch I ordered my own batch . . . and some more Ranch. (Again, all that pedaling. Do you understand how far 3 miles really is? On a bike it's like they're measured in dog years.)

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Just down the dock I saw this gorgeous silver bengal cat. Don't worry, Other Cat. You're pretty too.

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Upon our return to Key West, we pedaled around deliriously in search of liquids to replenish ourselves after La Tour de Stock.

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That evening we were set to meet up with two new friends, Ryan and Melissa, at the Gardens Hotel for jazz and (god help me) more wine. Ryan and Melissa knew me from this blog and, although I didn't know what they looked like, it wasn't really a problem: We just had to find the one couple who weren't card-carrying members of AARP and voila, there they were. The Gardens Hotel: It ain't for whippersnappers.

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We enjoyed two bottles of rosé poolside before moving on to dinner at Grand Cafe, where our slick waiter explained that our "free bottle of wine" coupon was good for a free bottle of cheap house wine, or it could be used for 50% off one of the more expensive bottles on their menu. Being that the four of us have more taste buds than money, you can guess which one we chose.

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And since none of us are mathematicians, we ordered two, because it was like getting one for free or half-off or two-for-one or whatever. I never was very good at trigonometry.

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You know what I hate almost as much as when one of my favorite dishes gets taken off the menu? When they change said menu item but neglect to tell anyone. Did you really think, Grand Cafe, that I wasn't going to notice that you left that quart of heavy cream out of the Key West shrimp over penne pasta? And all of the truffle oil? This, after I talked nonstop about it for weeks and even convinced poor Melissa to order it, too? Granted, it was still very tasty, but a dish without cream is like a day without sunshine: Not so Grand.

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Although Monday was our last day on the island, there was still one thing to look forward to: Meatloaf Monday! And so we headed off to Harpoon Harry's.

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While I thought the meatloaf was pretty good, Angel decided that the meatloaf was too mushy for him and declined to finish it. Although I agree that a nice charred crust would have been nice, refusing to finish a meatloaf is like turning down a winning lottery ticket because you hit for $100 instead of $1,000. I guess it was my lucky day, though, since Angel then proceeded to cut off a large chunk of his meatloaf just for me.

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You know what happens a few hours after mashed potatoes, gravy, and 1.5 meatloaves, don't you? No, not a trip to the emergency room. Pizza!

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Although I'd already packed away the camera and had to rely on my iPhone, I think you can still tell that Bobalu's pizza is made exactly right: Greasy, saucy, not too much cheese, and tons of pepperoni. In other words, it is the perfect food after a long night of drinking.

Or a long week, as the case may be.

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Posted by TraceyG 16:35 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys key_west_food_and_wine_festival Comments (5)

Return to Key West: A Cheesy Clucking Top 10 List (Part 1)

So, I know what you're thinking. You saw the title of this blog post and thought to yourself, Return to Key West? Wasn't Tracey just in Key West a few months ago? But more to the point, you're probably thinking: This better be good. No boring rehash of the last trip, lady.

Well, you're in luck: It just so happens that this trip marks our tenth visit to Key West, and I can't think of a better way to honor the occasion than with . . . a Top Ten list! See, I love making lists. In fact, I am somewhat obsessed with them. I am constantly making lists of very important things, like vacations I want to take, and things I want to eat, and stuff I want to buy, and chores I want Angel to do. And so it makes perfect sense to count down The Top Ten Things I Learned on Our Tenth Visit to Key West.

#10: Twenty Bucks Ain't Gonna Cut It

One of our first stops on this trip was a new spot on Upper Duval that's been getting rave reviews, Sweet Tea's.

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Sweet Tea's menu reads like my list of all the things I'd order for my last meal if I were ever on death row: meatloaf, pot pies, grilled cheese sandwiches, stuffing, macaroni & cheese . . . . Recently, however, thanks to being sucked into one of those "Lockdown" marathons on the Nat Geo channel, I learned that most prisons limit your last meal to just $20. Twenty dollars! How the hell am I supposed to order all of the above, PLUS a large pepperoni pizza, on a measly twenty bucks?! Of all the reasons to avoid ending up on death row, this one might be the most compelling.

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Sadly, none of the things I'd hoped to order at Sweet Tea's were on the lunch menu, so the breakfast I'd skipped in order to save room for the Great Meatloaf & PotpiePalooza was all for naught. I therefore consoled myself by ordering the cauliflower-Colby soup, a grilled ham and cheese sammie, and a side of macaroni and cheese.

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Our waiter, clearly concerned that the restaurant might actually run out of cheese if I ordered anything else, warned me, "Honey, you eat that much cheese and you won't be regular for a week!" Little does he know that if you eat enough fried food, the cheese, it slides right down.

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Later that evening we decided to head down to Mallory Square before dinner. Yeah, sure, they have that sunset celebration and a few tightrope-walking cats, but that's not why I went down there. Don't you know me at all by now?

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Now, this man may look old and, well, he is.

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But enough about Angel. This old codger, known as Mr. Mojito, whips up some of the best mojitos in Key West, which I suspect is because he lets the lime and mint hang out together ahead of time, allowing them to marinate in the sun until a drink is ordered. A great method for making mojitos, but you probably shouldn't try this with shrimp.

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Whatever his secret, these mojitos strike the perfect balance of lime to mint, and are just sweet enough to cut the lime without overpowering it. Bravo, Mr. M! Well muddled.

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#9: Choose Your Mate Carefully

In addition to list-making, Hot Fries, baby turtles, ketchup, flip-flops, miniature piglets, flying saucers, cheeseburgers, and my hair, one of the things that I am obsessed with are bath products. Bath gels, body lotions, body scrubs, perfume . . . if it smells good, I must stockpile it. In general Angel doesn't mind shopping, but he is easily overwhelmed by too many competing fragrances and sometimes tries to set limits on how many things I can force him to smell. "You get three smells!" he'll threaten as I shove yet another candle or shower gel under his nose. "You only have one smell left," he'll warn as I approach with a tub of salt scrub or body butter. "Is this one really worth it?"

No, I don't know why I married him.

Anyway, I naturally made a beeline for this adorable store, chock full of fancy lotions, potions, and other girly stuff. It's called Besame Mucho, which means "give me lots of kisses."

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After shopping here, however, I think it might be better translated as "give me lots of money." Which I happily did, but not before surreptitiously snapping a few photos while Angel distracted the cashier with some questions about their men's products. Teamwork!

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On our past few visits Angel has settled into a routine of biking over to Sandy's Cafe in the mornings for some cafe con leche and Cuban toast.

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I'm not much of a coffee person, but I could eat Sandy's pillowy, buttery Cuban toast every day. And that is yet another reason why I love Key West: Because eating a loaf of buttered bread every morning for breakfast here in NYC, the World Capital of Eating Disorders, would be considered only slightly less shocking than eating a newborn baby. And so I was especially thrilled when Angel brought a loaf back for us to share, and didn't even bat an eye when I gobbled up the entire thing.

I guess that's why I married him.

#8: There's No Such Thing As Too Much Cheese

For lunch on Monday we decided to try Harbourview Cafe at the Pier House resort. Angel started with the conch chowder, which was so rich that he couldn't finish it. At which point I squawked with glee and swooped in like a seagull to scarf down the leftovers.

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And yet I look so inocente.

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Of course, we had some other stuff, too.

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Angel had ordered that chowder because he wanted to try the lobster sliders for lunch and was worried that the portion of tiny sandwiches might not be filling enough.

I don't think he had anything to worry about.

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Answer: Pretty much nothing. Question: What is better than a whole bunch of ketchup bottles?

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I, of course, had the cheeseburger, which was ordered medium-well and arrived somewhere around beef jerky. Still, it had a tasty, charcoal-broiled crust on it and a melty slice of American cheese, and THAT is how you look on the bright side.

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But what impressed me most about this meal is that even the potato salad came topped with cheese. It's like they knew I was coming.

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After lunch we spent a few minutes at Pier House's small beach, where the water was so clear that I was immediately reminded that it's been exactly 8 months, 1 week, and 6 days since I was last in the Caribbean. Not that anyone's counting.

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#7: I Told You I Can't Quit These Damn Chickens

Key West is known for its come-as-you-are, live-and-let-live mentality . . . except when it comes to chickens. Half the island wants to save the little cluckers, and the other half wants to throttle 'em. Where I stand on the issue depends on whether there's one within earshot of my bed on a given morning.

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I also have a certain fondness for the, er, artistic side of Key West.

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In addition, Key West rivals New York City when it comes to being able to buy one-of-a-kind items. Or even two of a kind. Heh-heh.

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You're definitely spending too much time in Key West if the first thing you notice about this picture is that her tag is sticking out.

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Step up and be a man, man.

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Also, maybe it was the unseasonably warm weather, but this trip really brought out the animals.

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But my favorite was this guy, who, despite the presence of wings, decided to walk up the stairs.

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Quite gracefully, too, which is more than I can usually say for myself.

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But the wildest animal of all had to be this guy. Warning: Objects on your monitor appear larger than they actually are.

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#6: I Really Am a Human Garbage Disposal

One of our favorite lunch spots on the island is Kelly's Caribbean Bar & Grill. I know I'm veering dangerously close to Boring Rehash territory here, but Kelly's remains on our must-do list because we like their killer mojitos and lovely garden, in that order.

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The food at Kelly's is really beside the point, but that's never stopped me from eating like I don't know where my next meal is coming from. I decided on the pulled pork sandwich, which is slathered in a mango BBQ sauce and piled so high that you end up looking like a baby who's just eaten his first bowl of spaghetti by the time you've finished this thing.

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Here I am grinning like a loon because I am wearing my palm tree dress and the sun is shining and the waitress is bringing me a daiquiri. In other words, this is as happy as I get without some serious meds.

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Angel ordered the lobster club, which was about 30% lobster to 70% mayo. Depending on how many junked cars are sitting in your front yard, that's either a really bad ratio of lobster to mayo, or a really good one.

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Boring Rehash Alert! Later that night we headed over to Abbondanza, a cute little Italian place on Simonton Street.

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One of the many things I like about Abbondanza is the little salad that comes with your meal. First of all, coming from New York, the idea of so much as a sprig of parsley being included in the price of your meal is pretty exciting. Second, Abbondanza's salad is loaded with tomatoes and cucumbers that have been thoughtfully diced into little cubes, which I appreciate because (1) I am lazy, and (2) tinier is tastier.

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Over the years I have devised a number of different strategies to be able to finish Abbondanza's gargantuan bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. These include the "eat all the meatballs first" strategy, which failed miserably (apparently it is physically impossible to ignore an entire bowl of spaghetti); the "one bite of meatball for every bite of spaghetti" method, which also failed (ratio of spaghetti to meatballs determined to be too high); the "bite of meatball - sip of wine - bite of spaghetti method" (led to both failure and a hangover); and the "TWO bites of meatball for every bite of spaghetti," which started out promising but once again ended in a score of Meatballs, 1; Tracey, 0.

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Still, I made a pretty impressive showing, which might lead you to wonder: Who could eat ANY meatballs, let alone a whole bowl of them, just hours after they've devoured an entire pulled-pork sandwich??

The Human Garbage Disposal, that's who.

The Top Five is next! To continue reading, cluck click here: http://TraceyG.travellerspoint.com/30/

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Posted by TraceyG 18:35 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys paradise_inn besame_mucho Comments (5)

Return to Key West: A Cheesy Clucking Top 10 List (Part 2)

And now, the Top Five Things We Learned on Our Tenth Trip to Key West . . .

#5: Beware of Internet Scammers

On Friday evening we met up for rum punches at Louie's with some new friends on the island, Donna and Greg, with whom we became acquainted online.

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Donna and Greg are generous, funny, charming, and, most importantly, they always use proper punctuation in their online posts. Indeed, their only fault is that they were easily roped into spending an evening with the likes of me and Angel. Suckers!

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As we got to talking, we discovered that Greg grew up in Vermilion, OH, and graduated from Vermilion High School. When I was growing up, my family vacationed every year at a cottage on the beach. No, not in Wildwood, or Hilton Head, or Myrtle Beach, but in . . . Vermilion, OH. Really, now, what are the chances of two people meeting up in Key West who have both spent time in the vacation capital of the Corn Belt? Probably about the same as the chances that I grew up in a normal household.

After the sunset we made our way over to Roof Top Cafe for some dinner, where we ordered an assortment of lovely seafood dishes, of which I do not have a single decent photo thanks to the rum punches at Louie's.

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Then it was on to Orchid Key for cocktails, where Donna's friend Andrew and his Famous Hands tend bar. See, a few months ago the New York Times ran one of their frequent articles about Key West, and they filmed Andrew mixing a drink for a video that was to accompany the article. What ended up in the Times, however, was a video not of Andrew but, rather, of Andrew's disembodied hands. Fame, it can be so fleeting.

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I don't know if it was the proximity to such celebrity or the fact that I'd been drinking since 6:30 pm, but I proceeded to flirt shamelessly with poor Andrew, despite the fact that #1, he's gay, and #2, Angel was standing right there. It is a true testament to the power of rum punch that only #1 seemed to pose any impediment whatsoever to my tawdry plans.

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#4: No, Seriously: Choose Your Mate Carefully

Since I started writing this blog I've received hundreds of wonderful comments from folks all over the world (thank you!), some of whom say how much they enjoy my writing and "Angel's" photographs. Angel of course thinks this is hilarious, since I actually take all the photos (except for the ones of myself), while he takes the misplaced credit. When I complained to him about this, he just shrugged his shoulders. "What do you want me to do?" he asked. "I'm just the eye candy."

No, really: Why did I marry him again??

On Saturday night we decided to return to Hot Tin Roof, a lovely spot on the water at Ocean Key that we hadn't visited in a few years.

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We settled in with some cool drinks and a sunset view and perused the menu, which had changed since our last visit.

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I started with the tomato and mozzarella appetizer, which was loaded with both fresh and oven-dried red and yellow tomatoes, the latter of which were concentrated into incredible juicy sweetness.

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I guess you could say I liked it.

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Angel had the ceviche with local snapper, lime, onion, cilantro, and . . . corn nuts, which I suppose is akin to eating a lobster tail with some pork rinds. But what really made the dish was the glowing blue ice in which the corn nut ceviche was nestled. It's from the future.

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As a main course, I chose the caramelized mahi-mahi with coconut, corn, carrots, and poblano peppers, plus a whole bunch of red and yellow peppers that the sneaky menu writer forgot to mention. I'm not the biggest fan of peppers, but this dish was a real knockout: the mahi was sweet and caramely and perfectly cooked, while the sauce was both sweet from the coconut and spicy from the peppers. AND it was served in a cast-iron skillet. Everyone knows that food served in a cast-iron skillet tastes better than food served on a plate.

Angel decided to go with the paella. As soon as he ordered it, I secretly predicted that he would foolishly fill up on the seafood and chorizo and I'd get to finish the giant skilletful of rice, which, in my book, could be bested only by a skilletful of cheeseburgers.

And then he tasted it. And he gave me a taste. And lo, it was bland. The seafood tasted like it had simply been boiled and placed on top of the rice, which itself had been boiled and placed in the skillet. (That's right, not even a cast-iron skillet could save this dish.) No butter, no oil, no salt, no . . . anything. And the seafood was joined by some chorizo that even a white chick like me could tell was not a good specimen.

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But we were in a lovely setting, and we hate to complain, so Angel pressed on, by which I mean he dumped an entire salt shaker on it and ate all of the seafood (which was portioned quite generously). Our waiter, however, noticed that my skillet had practically been licked clean, whereas Angel's paella was only about half-eaten, and so he graciously removed that entree from our bill (without us asking) and brought Angel a replacement dish, the same excellent mahi that I'd enjoyed.

And so it came to pass that Angel, he of the willpower and self-restraint, crossed over to the dark side and ate not one but two entrees in a single night.

I could not have been prouder.

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#3: There's Only One Thing Better Than Lobster . . .

On Monday it was time for my favorite activity on Key West, biking around and drooling over Conch houses and hoping that one of their owners will take pity on me and write me into their will.

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Could it be any more obvious that I should be living here??

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Later we stopped in at the shops on Lazy Way Lane, a name which makes it doubly obvious that I should be living here.

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We also popped into the Key West Pretzel Co. for a refreshing frozen key limeade with mint, which was quite delicious considering that there wasn't any alcohol in it.

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Then it was off to Kermit's for all things key limey and free sampley.

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If you've ever biked around Key West, you've probably noticed the smell of lobster and drawn butter in the air. Often the smell is so strong that I'm convinced restaurants are pumping it into the air just so you'll get a good whiff and then drop a few hundred bucks on a lobster dinner. Like I would be stupid enough to do that just because I smelled some lobby.

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It was a gorgeous evening, so we splurged on a nice bottle of Chardonnay. Thankfully the fancy monogrammed butter was free.

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I started with the lobster bisque, while Angel had the stone crab claws.

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After that I had the Florida lobster tail.

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You know the only thing better than a lobster tail? A lobster tail topped with a crab cake, which is what Angel ordered. Ever since that two-entrees-in-one-night episode, he's like a new man, I tell you.

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Plus it came with this adorable little pattypan squash, which was too cute to eat. Even for Angel.

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#2: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Drag 'Em

Besides booze with breakfast, the New York Times, and sinking into a deep depression about having to go to work the next day, Sundays can only mean one thing: Drag Queen Bingo!

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I had really been looking forward to this because it's hard to beat being surrounded by a bunch of good-looking men who think I'm fabulous, and they did think I was fabulous . . . but only because I had the sense to bring Angel. That little Hershey's Kiss scored not one but two free rounds of shots from the bartender, a kiss on the cheek from our neighbor on one side, and a goosing on the rear end from our neighbor on the other, who happened to be our waiter from Sweet Tea's who'd been so concerened about my digestive health (I of course let him know that things were moving along quite nicely).

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Angel the Man Magnet certainly didn't mind the attention; I am going to chalk that up to revenge for my shameless flirting with Andrew's Famous Hands at Orchid Key anddon'tyoucontradictme. Still, there was another guy at DQ Bingo who was nothing short of a walking, talking poke in the eye. This guy kept yelling over and over about how he NEVER EVER EVER EVER WINS, after which he proceeded to win the very next round . . .

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. . . and to win the raffle at the end of the night. It's like he was channeling Charlie Sheen. Winning!

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This being our first time to DQ Bingo, I briefly wondered if I was going to stick out like a sore thumb there. So imagine my horror when this guy approached me and announced, "Well, you're not from around here!"

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When I asked how he knew that, he responded, "Oh, honey, that's easy. You have a great hairstyle!"

Have I already mentioned that I should be living here??? If my hair is what passes for a "style" around these parts, call the moving van, stat!

But the highlight of the evening was our bingo caller, who told me that he fashioned his lovely placenta hat and neck wrap? brooch? scarf? out of a dollar-store platter . . . by setting it on fire.

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Still, it is hard to compete in the style department with someone who matches her shirt, her hat, and her beer cozy to the walls.

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Also, there was PIZZA! For free! And it was good pizza to boot. So good that I didn't dare put it down and take a picture of it, lest someone snatch it out from under me. You know how people get around free pizza.

#1: We Survived the Great Shortages of 2011

As you probably remember from my last trip report about Key West, we love the Paradise Inn.

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The suites are large and sunny; the property is landscaped beautifully; and the pool is cool and inviting.

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So WHY OH WHY are they rationing the towels like it's World War II and they're made out of metal?? Granted, it was very hot and humid during our stay, and we were showering approximately fifteen times a day, but still . . . not once did we have enough towels in our room, or enough towels at the pool. Towel-less. Eventually we resorted to staking out the laundry bins and pilfering clean ones when the cleaning staff wasn't looking.

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I know, you think I'm exaggerating. And I might have agreed with you, until one afternoon I saw Angel toweling himself off after a swim. With a bath mat.

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For brunch on Sunday we decided to try Azur, which is a favorite of many locals and visitors but had never made it onto our list, primarily because they tease you with just a little "sampling" of their menu online. How am I supposed to ponder all my options and plan out what I'm going to order and start dreaming about it before I even arrive on the island, if you won't show me the whole menu? I guess they figure, We could tell you about the roast chicken, but then we'd have to kill you.

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Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, we settled in at a comfortable table near a little pond on the patio, where we were nicely shaded from the sun and serenaded by the sound of rushing water from the pond's waterfall. I immediately scanned the menu for the homemade gnocchi that everyone raves about and . . . nothing! No gnocchi! See? This is why you should show people the whole menu. Nothing casts a pall over a Sunday morning faster than a gnocchi bait-and-switch.

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Smile though your heart is breaking . . .

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Instead, I ordered the crab cake BLT, which is served on a ciabatta roll that's been grilled and slathered with enough butter to make Paula Deen blush. It's topped with a perfectly vine-ripened tomato and some deliciously greasy strips of bacon and a tangy salsa verde mayo, and served with an orzo salad studded with tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, and ribbons of basil.

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Angel had the frittata with prosciutto, fontina, and caramelized onions, which looked like a delicious, cheese-covered Frisbee.

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The food was excellent, and we enjoyed every bite. I mean, really enjoyed it. Because there I am, my hands covered in so much butter from that ciabatta roll that I could have birthed a baby calf, and there's Angel, in grease up to his eyeballs from devouring a veritable cornucopia of cholesterol, and each of us has only one napkin, which is of course in our laps. So we flag the waiter down and ask if we could please have more napkins. He obliges and returns with exactly . . . ONE. Yes, just one paper napkin, which (after our giggles subsided) we tore into two ragged halves and shared. Alas, this half-napkin was no match for the greasefest taking place at our table (which is by no means an insult), so a few minutes later I got the attention of a different waiter and asked if I could please have some more napkins. He, too, obliged, and returned with exactly . . . ONE. This time, however, we almost tore each other in half over that one lousy napkin. Perhaps one of the intrepid reporters at The Citizen should investigate why napkins are suddenly so hard to come by. Have the Real Housewives bought up the world's supply of napkins to pad their bras? Is there a spitball war brewing in the Middle East? Are rich people using them to dry off after their showers due to the apparent shortage of towels? Inquiring minds want to know.

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And so, in the end, Azur earned a split decision from the judges. Food: 10, Napkins: 2 (per person). They just couldn't spare a square.

The next day we decided to grab lunch at Southermost Beach Cafe and then spend some time at the beach.

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Things started off well enough, with a mango daiquiri for me and some Planter's punch for Angel.

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Angel decided on the blackened mahi sandwich, while I had the Caesar salad.

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Sadly, however, I was forced to order that salad right after The Universe decided to spit in my eye. It started as soon as were were seated, when I giddily said to Angel, "I don't even need to open the menu - I know exactly what I'm getting!" and he replied, "Of course, your usual," which is the chef's salad with SBC's incredibly delicious and addictive Caribbean vinaigrette dressing. But just to show that I'm not completely anal a creature of habit, I opened the menu anyway, and saw THIS:

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That's right . . . the chef's salad is GONE! MISSING! TAKEN OFF THE MENU! Nobody ever cried harder, or downed a drink faster, after hearing such devastating news.

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Except, perhaps, someone whose hair looks like it could hide a nest full of baby birds.

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But that isn't even the worst part (the salad, not the hair). No, the worst part was when I asked our waitress why they took the chef's salad off the menu, and she answered, "Um, I think it's because they can't get turkey and ham anymore. Yeah . . . there isn't any turkey or ham." This of course caused my head to explode. What is she talking about?? Does this mean there just isn't any turkey or ham here, right now . . . or does this mean that there isn't any turkey or ham anywhere, ever again?

We may never know, but we do know one thing: That's two more items to add to the growing list of worldwide shortages. Start stockpiling your vodka now.

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Posted by TraceyG 18:33 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys azur louie's_backyard hot_tin_roof paradise_inn drag_queen_bingo Comments (7)

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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:

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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.").

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631 United Street
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425 Caroline Street
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Even the strays in Key West are pretty spoiled.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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Now that's alot of pot.

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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.

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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.

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I fought the meatballs and the meatballs won.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Luckily the hand sanitizer makes perfect sense, when you consider that there are dogs. At the bar.

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For lunch we had Painkillers.

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Oh, and some vegetables, served American-style.

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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.

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For dinner that night we biked over to Cafe Sole, a little Provence-style restaurant known for its hogfish.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Besides that incredible salsa, you should also go to Amigos for these:

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And for the low tabs . . .

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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.

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Directly across the street from Amigos I spotted this little guy, whose name is Oscar de la Mayer.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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And this.

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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'.

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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.

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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.

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Angel ordered the gnocchi with sauteed fish, which was drenched in a creamy, mellow bleu cheese sauce with capers and sauteed onions.

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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.

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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.

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Double-fisting, New Yorker style.

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After we ate, Angel settled up the bill while I walked around the boardwalk to take a few pictures.

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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.

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As I continued taking photos, at one point I looked down into the water below and saw a huge, unidentifiable fish.

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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.

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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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