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The Key West Food & Wine Festival, Pt.1: The Wrath of Grapes

So, I've got a bone to pick with the folks who run the Key West Food and Wine Festival. The tag line for this winey weekend, which I have written about here and here, is "78 Degrees. 30 Events. 1 Tiny Island." Really? That's like describing Mardi Gras as "Some Beads and Maybe a Parade," or Super Bowl weekend as "There Might Be Hookers, But Don't Count On It." In other words, it doesn't even begin to describe the beachy bacchanal of food, wine, more food, and even more wine -- with a few detours into tequila, whiskey, and Champagne thrown in to keep things interesting -- that is the days-long eating-and-drinking binge known as the Key West Food & Wine Festival or, as I like to call it, "The Ultimate Liver Smackdown."

Day 1: I'll See You On the Other Side

We arrived on a gorgeous January morning after a quick and easy flight.

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Our friend Mark, who runs the festival, had arranged for us to be greeted by a rep for Tesla, one of the event's sponsors. The idea is that they give you a ride into town in the new Tesla Model X, a futuristic pod with falcon-wing doors, a medical-grade HEPA filter comparable to those used in hospital rooms, and more gadgets than the Starship Enterprise, including a self-driving mode -- and during those 15 minutes you agree to drop a year's salary on a new car because it reminds you of the one in "Back to the Future."

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The Model X was gorgeous, no doubt, but there was one tiny flaw . . .

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I told Angel not to bring so much stuff.

Eventually we managed to squeeze everything in, and the car drove itself on over to Old Town, where we'd rented the top floor of an eyebrow house on Olivia Street.

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We'd actually stayed here before, about 15 years ago, and were delighted to find that the amenities we'd enjoyed most -- the private deck, hot tub, and outdoor shower -- were just as we remembered them.

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We didn't have much time for hot-tubbing, though, since we had very important errands to run.

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That evening was the Welcome Party for the Food & Wine Festival on the beach at the Casa Marina.

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Our friends Claudia and Alden had driven down from Key Largo for the night to attend the kickoff party with us.

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We were thrilled and flattered, but they weren't the only ones trying to cozy up to us. Well, one of us, anyway.

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A spectacular sunset rounded out the evening.

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After the party wound down, we headed off to Santiago's Bodega with Claudia and Alden to get some dinner. You know, because we hadn't already eaten enough.

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It is possible that you may have overdone it on the wine when you manage to have a 2+ hour dinner and have nothing more to show for it than a single blurry photo of some flaming cheese.

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You would think that would've been a hint to call it a night, but you would be wrong. And so we set off for The Saint, a chic new hotel that Claudia had been raving about.

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It would have been rude to check out the space without also having a cocktail, so we had two.

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And then we started swinging.

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We had been on something like a 7-hour bender by this point, and it was clearly time to wrap things up. Which is why we thought it would be a fantastic idea to go to The Other Side for a nightcap.

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There, I discovered my new favorite cocktail: The banana nut bread Old Fashioned, made with Jameson Irish whiskey, Brazilian banana liqueur, spiced pear liqueur, and black walnut bitters.

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Even Fredrick approved.

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Day 2: Sweet Caroline

The next day we were off to a slow start, though I cannot imagine why. We decided to take it easy by spending the day at the pool.

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We had the place to ourselves, and spent the morning dozing in the cushy loungers and taking dips in the warm water.

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Eventually our stomachs started growling, and we decided to answer the call. We headed over to Caroline's for a healthy lunch of salad.

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Well, salad with fried chicken. And fried shrimp. And cheese.

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Later that afternoon, we took a spin on our bikes before heading back to the eyebrow house for a soak in the hot tub and a much-needed nap.

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That evening we had plans to meet up with friends Stephanie and Ari at Michael's. We'd never been before, but I knew I was going to love it because MEATLOAF.

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And not just any meatloaf, but meatloaf made of a Wagyu and prime tenderloin blend with house-made spicy ketchup.

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We had drinks, appetizers, and other entrées, too, of course, like a yummy Ruby Sipper with ruby red vodka, cranberry, and fresh basil; meaty crab cakes; snapper meunière with lemon brown butter; a warm chocolate cake; and a bunch of other stuff I could not be bothered to photograph because MEATLOAF.

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Day 3: The Garden of Good and Drunk

The next day we were scheduled to attend several food and wine events back-to-back, so we decided to line our stomachs with a big lunch at (dearly departed) Kelly's to give ourselves a fighting chance.

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Were you wondering why we also had key lime margaritas right before five hours of wine tastings? Scurvy prevention.

Soon it was time for the Tropical Garden Tour and Tasting, which would take us to five different gardens around the island.

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The event was sold out, with folks lined up for a chance to enjoy a glass of Hahn wine and some nibbles paired to go with at each stop.

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Now this lady knows how to dress for a wine tour.

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We boarded the trolley and set off for the first garden, the Memorial Sculpture Garden in Mallory Square.

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There, we enjoyed a glass of Hahn chardonnay and a black pepper popover with warm mushroom salad and goat cheese.

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We moved on to the Oldest House, where we feasted on lobster and avocado gazpacho and delicious little antipasto pinwheels with sundried tomato tapenade.

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Next up, we visited the gorgeous Audubon House.

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Unfortunately, however, there weren't alot of good spots for snacking here.

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By this time, we'd had three glasses of wine and had stuffed ourselves full of popovers and pinwheels, so it was time for a little divine intervention to keep us going.

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Finally, we set off for Martello Tower on Atlantic Boulevard, which houses the Key West Garden Club.

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Completed in 1864, West Martello Tower was used during the Spanish American War for quartering troops, storing supplies, and serving as a lookout.

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Today, it's used to house crowds of revelers scarfing down black bottom key lime pies, chocolate custard tarts, coconut tres leches bites, and some red wine.

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We still had two and a half more days to go, and it is not giving anything away here by admitting that, well . . . I didn't make it.

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The liver is the only organ in your body that can regenerate itself. Take advantage and get your KWFWF tickets here!

Posted by TraceyG 04:38 Archived in USA Tagged key_west key_west_food_and_wine the_saint the_other_side andrews_inn carolines Comments (3)

The Key West Food & Wine Festival, Pt.2: The Wrath of Grapes

That evening was the Grand Tasting at the Southernmost Beach Resort.

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We immediately began stuffing our faces with everything on offer.

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We might have had some wine, too.

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Day 4: Uncorked and Uncouth

The next day we decided that the only cure for that much wine was some good, old-fashioned grease. Lupita's -- with its cheery decor and cheesy enchiladas -- was the perfect antidote.

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Once tucked in at a cozy booth, we feasted on chips and salsa, lobster enchiladas, Dos Equis for Angel, and a Mexican soda for me, since I don't like to drink and drive.

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I do, however, like to match my dress and my flip-flops to my ride.

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We'd no sooner dried out from the night before when it was time to pour even. more. wine. down our throats.

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A bar crawl like no other, Duval Uncorked features over two dozen shops and restaurants along Key West's main drag, each of which offers a glass of wine and nibble or two paired to match.

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One of the first stops was at Wine-O, a stylish new wine bar at the La Concha on Duval.

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Stylish and comfortable.

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From there, we moved on to the frosé with elderflower at the Little Room Jazz Club.

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From there, it was a haze of pour, sip, giggle, repeat.

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Of course, it wouldn't be a bar crawl in Key West without drag queens, sitar-strumming superheroes, and dogs on bar stools.

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I wasn't feeling much pain by the end of the crawl, which is why it seemed like a great idea -- if by "great" you mean "incredibly ill-advised" -- to stop at the Speakasy on the way home.

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It was all downhill from there.

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We'd planned dinner with our friend Steve that night, but I urged Angel to go on without me. You know it's bad when I was worried I might embarrass them . . . in Key West.

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And because he is the leading contender for Husband of the Year, well, every year, Angel surprised me by bringing home a pepperoni pizza since I'd missed dinner . . . and remembering to photograph it.

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But not without a little pit stop for himself first.

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Day 5: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

It was our last day in Key West, and a chilly one at that, so we decided to spend it indoors sobering up so we wouldn't get kicked off our flight that afternoon.

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Oh, you're wondering why we'd go out for pizza, after I just devoured an entire pizza the night before? Hi, I'm Tracey. You must be new here. Welcome!

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Onlywood is tucked away in a little alley off of Duval Street, adding to the cozy feel on a rainy day.

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With Angel busy checking on our flights, I used that opportunity to scarf down all the meatballs we'd ordered.

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Soon our wood-fired pizzas arrived, and between last night's pizza and today's, the dough sponges did their job and we were permitted to board the plane.

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I'm just glad they don't have breathalyzers on those things.
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There's lots in the hopper! There's "The Missing Bling Ting" in Anguilla; yours truly roughing it in the bush in South Africa (sans ironing board!); homemade hooch in the Hudson Valley; a birthday blowout with my sissy in Brooklyn; another pre-Irma trip to Anguilla (remember when Seaborne lost Angel's luggage? I sure do); and a lazy long weekend in Delray Beach. Check back soon, or click here to subscribe and Travellerspoint will do the checking for you!

Heading to the Key West Food & Wine Festival? What doesn't kill you makes for great stories! Get your tickets here.

Posted by TraceyG 04:58 Archived in USA Tagged key_west kwfwf key_west_food_and_wine_festival lupitas duval_uncorked Comments (2)

Key West: A Major Award at the Conch Fritter-Eating Contest

You know it's not going to be a normal trip to Key West when you text a friend who lives in Old Town in order to make plans and he casually mentions, "By the way, you're busy on Sunday . . . because I entered you in a conch fritter-eating contest."

Then again, when is any trip to Key West a normal one???

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We arrived on a gorgeous October morning and were quickly whisked away to the Paradise Inn on Simonton Street, a secluded oasis of calm amid the cacophony on Duval Street of noisy bars, drunken boors, and the kind of people who participate in competitive eating contests.

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But peaceful as Paradise Inn may be, this is still Key West.

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Our "usual" suite on the second floor overlooking the pool was unavailable, so we took the one next door instead.

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After a quick change of clothes, we headed over to Lagerheads, a cheery Caribbean-style spot on the water near the Key West Bight.

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We snagged two seats at the bar, then ordered up crab cakes, fish tacos, some smoked fish dip, and a couple of frozen drinks to get ourselves into island mode.

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Afterwards we biked around for a bit, then headed back to Paradise Inn to laze around the pool.

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Later, we stopped by Louie's to usher in the sunset.

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We checked out some of the island's Halloween decorations on our way back to the hotel.

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Back at the hotel, we devoured the pizza we'd picked up along the way, then called it a night.

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The next day we met up with friends Stephanie and Ari at Hot Tin Roof for brunch.

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It's always nice when they're expecting you.

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Hot Tin Roof has a great brunch deal: For a set price, you can order anything on the menu -- in any order, and as much as you want -- and they'll serve it up with unlimited bottles of Prosecco and OJ, or unlimited Bloody Marys if that's your thing. And so what is billed as "brunch" is really an all-you-drink vodka-and-Prosecco party with everything from chicken and waffles with cayenne maple butter to compressed watermelon salad with tequila and feta to sesame tuna with crispy pork belly. Oh, and pancakes.

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That afternoon, our friend Mark invited us to stop by for a slice (or three) of the homemade key lime pie he'd made for me.

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Which was one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for me, especially after I've shamelessly accosted them on social media every time they post a photo of anything even resembling a pie.

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He even saved the limes as proof that he really made the pie from scratch, since he knows I am suspicious of anyone who claims to use their oven for anything other than shoe storage.

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That evening it was time to start preparing for the conch fritter-eating contest, so I did what any competitive athlete would do: I headed over to Abbondanza for some carbo-loading.

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I love pasta, but I was even more excited about the meatballs.

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That cheesy chicken parm was no slouch, either.

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The next morning we made a beeline for Agave 308 for some last-minute preparations for the conch-fritter eating contest: Tequila for courage and tacos for...ever.

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The conch fritter-eating contest was the brainchild of the aforementioned Mark, he of the fabulous key lime pie and even more fabulous Key West Food and Wine Festival, an annual bacchanal of food and booze at which I have engaged in various questionable behaviors that I have heard rumors about but do not actually remember. The fritter-eating contest was just another of Mark's evil plots to make sure everyone who visits Key West leaves with an XXL pair of elastic-waist pants and plans for a juice fast.

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A big crowd turned out to watch us all make fools of ourselves.

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I checked in with our friend Deb (who was clearly skeptical that a skinny chick like me stood a chance at this thing -- especially one who doesn't particularly like conch fritters), then signed a waiver that said something about how I wouldn't sue if I ended up in a ditch with a belly full of fried dough.

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We'd arranged to meet up with friends Jessica and Jeff, who came to cheer me on (and, in Jeff's case, be goaded into participating himself).

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Of course, I dressed appropriately for the big event.

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Or at least I thought I did.

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I'd told Mark beforehand that I would be wearing a conch dress in honor of the occasion, and at the contest he sweetly presented me with an award for "Best Dressed."

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However, when I tried to duck out of the contest since I'd already "won," he snatched my Major Award back, forcing me to actually participate before he'd turn it over.

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The competitors were grouped into four heats, mine being the last. Of course, because this is Key West, it wouldn't be enough to just have a conch fritter-eating contest; there had to be a twist.

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We couldn't use our hands.

And adding insult to injury, the day was windy. Really windy. I'd worn my hair down and didn't have anything to pull it back with. And so I suddenly realized that while I had no chance of winning a conch fritter-eating contest that day, I stood a very good chance of winning a hairball-eating contest.

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Of course, that didn't stop Mark from drawing a tapeworm on my name card, or stop me from bragging that I'd already won (at least the fashion portion of the competition).

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The first three heats were a tough act to follow, putting up some impressive numbers.

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Jared and Kevin were tied for first with 14 fritters each, but then Big Don ascended the dais . . . and quickly ascended to the top of the pack.

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But not without some not-so-gentle "encouragement" from his girlfriend, who pounded on the table so violently that we figured Big Don was Dead Don if he didn't top 14.

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Luckily, having downed an impressive 16 fritters in three minutes flat, Big Don seemed like a shoo-in to win . . . until my heat. I'm not saying this thing was rigged, but it can't be a coincidence that The Tapeworm was seated between two guys who ended up placing in the top three.

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Sadly, however, I failed miserably when it came to living up to my reputation, at least for eating food. I'd downed roughly 2.5 fritters and an entire head's worth of human hair before giving up and chugging some wine.

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Which did not go unnoticed by at least one disgusted competitor.

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Meantime, Big Don's record of 16 fritters was about to be shattered by the unassuming Pac-Man on my left, Loren, who was gobbling up fritters as fast as they could bring them.

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In the end, Loren bested everyone, including Big Don, to take home the prize, having somehow managed to scarf down a whopping 19 conch fritters in just three minutes.

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It's always the skinny ones you gotta watch out for.
----------------------------------------------------
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Wanna stick it to Hurricane Irma and your own liver? Get your tickets for January 2018 Key West Food and Wine Festival here: https://www.keywestfoodandwinefestival.com/

Posted by TraceyG 09:01 Archived in USA Tagged key_west abbondanza conch_republic lagerheads agave_308 Comments (4)

Labor Day in Key West. Literally.

In the great annals of First World Problems, it's hard to top, "I'm going to miss Labor Day in the Hamptons because I have to spend the weekend in Key West." I know. I knowww. But a new tenant was moving into our condo in Casa Marina, and because we are what some people call "fastidious" and others call "on the spectrum," we decided to fly down to ensure that the place would be ready. (Sure, we could have hired someone to inspect the place and make sure it was up to snuff, but have you ever seen my meticulous husband clean something? You'd think we let Ebola patients lick our plates.) And so we hopped a quick flight to Key West for what was shaping up to be a charmed visit indeed.

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Well, at least until we arrived. Because sweet baby Jesus, it was hot. And lord, it was stifling. It was like being waterboarded by a sopping wet towel fresh out of a hot dryer, which doesn't even make any sense. That's how hot it was.

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We cabbed it over to the condo, where we were mercifully greeted by the shady tropical gardens and inviting pool.

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There's a man in New York City named Jimmy McMillan who turns up every four years to run for mayor. McMillan's political party is called, "The Rent is Too Damn High," a phrase that also happens to be his entire political platform. A reporter might ask about his position on, say, the treatment of carriage horses in New York, and McMillan will respond, "Ain't no money to be takin' carriage rides, because THE RENT . . . IS TOO DAMN HIGH!" Or a debate moderator will ask what McMillan proposes to do about the city's broken educational system, to which he will respond, "All I learned in school is that THE RENT . . . IS TOO DAMN HIGH!"

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I was the Jimmy McMillan of Key West. No matter what anyone said to me, my response was the same. "Where do you want to go for lunch?" Angel would ask, to which I would respond, "Who cares? I'll be dead before we get there because THE HEAT . . . IS TOO DAMN HOT!" "Do you want to ride down Duval or Simonton?" he'd press. "What does it matter? The asphalt's melted clean off of both of them, because THE HEAT . . . IS TOO DAMN HOT!" Everywhere we went, I muttered this phrase over and over under my breath, while the sweat collected in the crooks of my elbows and my hair swelled to angora-rabbit proportions.

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But before we could go oozing around town, we first had to take inventory of our supplies.

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We had a handful of cleaning products, but a closet full of coat hangers. Priorities.

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After a short discussion, we decided that Angel should start working while I rode to the store to pick up the items we still needed.

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I idiotically thought I'd gotten the sweeter end of the deal, until I stepped outside and beads of perspiration popped out of my pores with an audible zoink, like a nervous cartoon character in the face of an oncoming freight train.

But the alternative was scrubbing the walls with a toothbrush, or cleaning in between the hardwood floorboards with a pair of tweezers, or whatever other painstaking projects Angel had invented for himself, so I soldiered on. Despite the disorienting heat, I still managed to remember the most important items on my list: Potato chips and piña coladas.

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Now, Angel has a lot of great qualities, but unfortunately being lazy isn't one of them. When there is a task at hand, he absolutely refuses to slack off or take a break until the task is completed, thoroughly and perfectly. Which is great when the task is buying me a birthday present, but not so great when that task is scrubbing grout.

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Even the Rain Man of Household Chores has to eat, though, and so I dragged him off to Southernmost for nachos and key lime coladas.

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The three-minute bike ride from Southernmost back to our condo was a sickeningly sticky affair, so as soon as we arrived back home, I pulled my bike inside the gate, dropped it to the ground, and sprinted headlong into the pool fully-clothed, crying out, "SWEET RELIEF!!!!" as the pool overflowed with gallons of my sweat.

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That night, Angel calculated that he'd lost approximately 82 minutes and 45 seconds of work thanks to that lunch at Southernmost, so for dinner he suggested that we stay in and order pizza.

The weather outside was an actual pizza oven anway, so it did make sense. Plus, I'd lost approximately 15 lbs. of water weight that day and needed to bulk up. Who needs one of those plastic sweat suits when you've got summer in Key West?

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The next day we woke early to squeeze in a bike ride before the day got too hot.

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We lasted about 20 minutes before calling in for reinforcements.

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Soon it was time for lunch, so this time I dragged Angel to one of our go-to spots, Agave 308.

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We settled in at our usual table in the window and ordered up our favorite drinks on the island: A sweet-tart Paloma made with strawberry-infused tequila, grapefruit juice, and muddled strawberries for me, and a Mexican Mule with ginger syrup, fresh lime, and a skewer of candied ginger for Angel.

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As, er, side dishes, we split an order of chips and salsa, then enjoyed the island gazpacho topped with blue crab salad and the roast pork tacos with spicy slaw.

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Later, the bartender brought us an experimental freebie: A "Samoa" cookie with house-made vanilla tequila, coconut, and dark chocolate. Or as Angel called it, a Girl Scout with a driver's license.

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We worked nonstop the rest of the day, and that evening my furtive texts for help were finally answered when our friends Mark and Steve invited us over for dinner. Angel reluctantly put aside his latest project (I think he was perfecting the trim in the kitchen with an eyeliner brush) and we pedaled over, making a quick stop at funky Vino's on Duval to pick up some wine.

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Mark runs the fabulous Key West Food and Wine Festival, which is a great event if you like food, wine, and seeing how much your liver can take before it cries "uncle." It soon became apparent that Mark had decided to do a dry-run for the fest that evening, serving up everything from grilled lobster and shrimp to steak, corn on the cob, asparagus, and melon and prosciutto skewers, along with roughly 6 bottles of wine . . . per person.

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We enjoyed great food and good, if rather opinionated, company.

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For dessert, Mark's friend Joey, a pastry chef extraordinaire, brought some coconut cake. If you've ever seen an episode of "When Animals Attack," then you know how the cake came to look like this after about 30 seconds.

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The next day we gathered up anyone who wasn't still passed out from the night before and hoofed it over to Santiago's Bodega for a little hair of the dog.

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The fire was just to make sure everyone was fully awake.

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That afternoon we divided up the remaining tasks at the condo: Angel spent the afternoon using one of those CSI-style ultraviolet lights to ferret out invisible stains on the plantation shutters, while I lounged in the pool with a key lime colada.

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After a few hours we assessed our progress and decided that the house was probably clean enough to pass inspection by the folks who sterilize hospital burn units, which meant that Angel was somewhat pleased with our work thusfar. We decided to celebrate at Kelly's happy hour, because nothing says a job well done like a bowl full of melted cheese.

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The key lime margaritas at Kelly's turned into dark rum pina coladas at Louie's, and at that point there was no turning back: It was time to get down with our bad selves, as well as any poor unsuspecting bystanders, at the Green Parrot.

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I decided to take the next morning's sluggish pace as a sign that Angel was due for a break and, more importantly, I was due for a burger. And so we headed off to Frita's Cuban Burgers, where the menu promised an explosion of flavor on a freshly-baked Cuban roll.

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Frita's manages to squeeze an impressive amount of tropical bric-a-brac, homages to Cuba, and even bartender roulette into its charming little space.

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If you need to eat-a-Frita on the fly, there's also a food truck outside.

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We grabbed two seats at the tiny bar inside and ordered up a round of the house special, sangria slushies.

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We both had to try the signature frita, a beef and pork patty seasoned with garlic and Spanish spices, then topped with spicy ketchup and crispy shoestring fries.

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To that we added cheese arepas, freshly-baked empanadas, and a plate of rice 'n' beans that put all others to shame: Coconut-ginger jasmine rice with black beans, sweet plantains, and salsa verde, all smothered in melted cheese.

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And a cute little flan for Angel.

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The next day was our last full day of work, and it was sure to be a long one. We decided to fuel up with egg white omelets and fresh juice.

Just kidding! We had cheesesteak spring rolls.

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In addition to the Breakfast of Champions, the Rum Barrel on Front Street also has some healthy options, like fresh green salads and grilled fish.

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Along with that "juice" I mentioned earlier.

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It was our last evening on island, so we met up with friends for dinner at Azur to take advantage of their locals'-only summer special.

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All food and wine was half-off, so we decided that the best way to get our money's worth was to order everything on the menu and let the savages fight it out.

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I don't know who thought it would be funny to pile up all those wine glasses in front of me for this photo, but the joke's on you if you think you're getting your glass back afterwards.

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On our last day, our writer/blogger/photographer friend Claudia drove down to Key West for a planned stay on nearby Sunset Key, and invited us over to the island for lunch. Although our flight home was scheduled for that afternoon, the timing seemed doable, so I agreed.

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I knew, however, that Angel would consider every possible scenario, and a whole bunch of impossible ones, before ultimately deciding that it would be way too risky to make the 10-minute boat ride over to Sunset Key on the same day that our flight was to depart. What if the boat breaks down? What if it sinks? What if it is torpedoed by a wayward Navy jet, or destroyed by a large mechanical shark? The variables were many, and thus my chances of getting Angel to agree were slim.

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Or so I thought. Turns out, inhaling all those cleaning-product fumes was good for something.

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As fate would have it, we ended up on the same boat over as Claudia, which gave us a little extra time to get caught up before lunch.

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Or, you know, to post a quick Snapchat.

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A cruise ship was in port as we departed, and while cruises are not my cup of tea, it's hard not to marvel at how man can design 150,000 tons of steel to stay afloat, but cannot invent a pair of pantyhose that doesn't run within 20 minutes of putting them on.

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Upon arrival, we asked for a table indoors so we could eat in air-conditioned comfort, which is really a crime at a place as lovely as Latitudes. Still, it beat branding my forearm on one of those wrought-iron chairs baking outside in the sun.

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After settling in, we ordered up an assortment of libations and then got down to the serious business of food styling.

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Next up, a photogenic tuna tartare with miso-yuzu aioli, a perfectly posed lobster and crab cake with grilled corn salsa, and a casually candid fish sammich with key lime tartar sauce.

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Our lunch was over all too quickly, and soon it was time to say our goodbyes and head back to Key West to catch our flight.

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As usual, we skidded into the airport with just minutes to spare, worn out and exhausted, and even though the airport was nice and cool, I found myself again thinking of Jimmy McMillan's catchphrase, but tweaked just a bit.

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"THIS VISIT . . . WAS TOO DAMN SHORT!"
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What's up next? A marvelous Moondance in Anguilla, death-defying feats of stupidity in the Hudson Valley, a boozy "swingers" weekend in Philadelphia, and a rockin' New Year's Eve at an old folks home on Anna Maria Island. Check back soon or click here to subscribe and you'll receive an email when a new post goes up!

Just want more Key West? Come on vacation, leave on probation.

Posted by TraceyG 04:51 Archived in USA Tagged key_west santiago's green_parrot key_west_food_and_wine_festival southernmost_beach_cafe Comments (12)

Xmas in Key West: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation, Pt 1

Of course, we didn't really leave on probation. But if eating too much, drinking too many, laughing too loudly, and lazing around too often were crimes, I'm pretty sure we'd be sentenced to life without parole after this trip.

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As it was, we compiled a pretty impressive rap sheet during our ten-day spree.

Count 1: False Advertising

On this visit we were joined by our friends Ellen and Brian, who had just started new jobs in California when we began making our travel plans. And so, by the time the four of us coordinated our schedules and decided on the dates for our visit, most of the rental houses we were interested in were already taken. And it didn't help that we wanted a nightly rental, not a weekly, Saturday to Saturday one, and that the house we originally settled on went to someone else due to a mix-up on the rental agency's part. And so we picked the best of the bunch from what was left, the Bahama House on Amelia Street.

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The outdoor space was fantastic.

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The pool was plenty big enough for four and heated to just-short-of-hot-tub, and was surrounded by comfy loungers, a covered porch with seating for four, and a small gated garden that was perfect for storing our bikes.

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The inside, however, was apparently decorated by vampires. Neither bedroom had a mirror. Neither bedroom had a dresser. All of the hurricane shutters were nailed shut, blocking out all the natural light. And there wasn't a single hook for a bathing suit, wet towel, or black cape in the entire house.

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There was nowhere to unpack anything, so we lived out of our suitcases. We hung our panties from the doorknobs and dangled our bras from the light fixtures. Within days, there was so much lingerie hanging around that folks thought a new bar had opened in Key West.

When we ran out of doorknobs, I fashioned this lovely underwear shelf out of a plastic platter.

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We had a washer and dryer, but no laundry detergent, and even if we had, the dryer didn't work for the entire duration of our stay.

If the planet runs out of fossil fuels in your lifetime, you can just blame the four of us. No dryer, plus no hooks for drying (and all shade outside), meant that we went through approximately 400 towels in 10 days, each used exactly once before it was left for the maid so we could get a dry one.

Heck, we didn't even have plates.

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Okay, I'm kidding about that last one. But we did have only two wine glasses, even though the house sleeps six. Which, if we're counting down crimes, is probably the worst one on this list.

Count 2: Petit Larceny

Tequila and law-breaking go together like Tracey and tacos, which is why we made not one but two trips to Agave 308 on this visit.

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Key West is home to dozens of bars, but you could probably count on just a few fingers those that serve drinks that aren't syrupy-sweet or made from bargain-basement booze. Agave 308, underneath the Rootop Cafe, is one of those few. Sure, the décor consists of sugar skulls and a multicolored marijuana-leaf lamp, but when the food and drinks are this good, you can decorate the place with poison ivy for all I care.

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My favorite drink at Agave is the Paloma de la Fresa, which combines house-made strawberry-infused tequila and muddled strawberries with fresh lime and tart grapefruit to temper the sweetness.

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One Paloma is good, and two Palomas are better. Three Palomas is just asking to be hauled away in handcuffs.

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Angel's favorite, the Mexican Mule, is made with Milagro silver tequila, ginger syrup, fresh lime, ginger beer, and candied ginger, for a hot-sweet treat, served in a traditional Moscow Mule copper mug to keep it perfectly chilled.

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Best of all, Agave serves the best pork tacos north of the border, made with house-roasted shredded pork, spicy slaw, and pico de gallo.

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Okay, so they might be a little greasy.

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But they're also so delicious that at two for just eight bucks, it almost feels like we're stealing them.

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Almost.

Count 3: Aiding and Abetting

To get to Key West, our friends Ellen and Brian drove an hour from San Jose to San Francisco, boarded a red-eye for a 6-hour flight to Miami, changed planes there for yet another flight, then finally landed in Key West nearly 12 hours after they'd left the house the day before. (That's what you get for moving to a place where going on a hike, not nursing a hangover, is the preferred Saturday-morning sport.) They arrived at the house dazed and exhausted, plopping down in a travel-weary pile on the sofa for what surely would have been a nice, long nap.

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If we hadn't dragged them off to brunch, that is.

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I knew Ellen was still upset about missing the all-you-can-eat-and-drink Christmas Day brunch at the Casa Marina on our last trip, and I wasn't going to let her miss it a second time. And so we splashed them with some tonic water, waved some margarita salts under their noses, and dragged them off to the Casa. For their own good, of course.

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The Christmas Day brunch at Casa Marina features carving stations, a mile-long dessert table, and unlimited mimosas that start arriving the minute you sit down.

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The day was glorious, with vibrant blue skies and reggae-tinged versions of our favorite Christmas songs floating on the warm breeze.

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Of course, even on Christmas Day your teenagers will ignore you in favor of their iPhones, but at least they'll look festive while they're doing it.

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Count 4: Identity Theft

Key West might be a tropical paradise, but you certainly wouldn't know it at Christmas. Over the holidays, the island disguises itself as a Christmas-y wonderland, complete with Christmas trees, snowmen, Santas, and Abominables.

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Of course, the island can't shed its beachy identity completely for the holidays. Then again, maybe those are Jesus fish?

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Count 5: Reckless Endangerment

After a week spent shoveling down everything from tacos and meatballs to pot pies and cheesesteaks, even I needed a break. And so we headed off to Banana Café for a much-needed green salad.

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But this is Key West, where healthy hearts and functioning livers go to die. And so the salad I so dutifully ordered came topped with . . . mayonnaise.

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No, I don't mean a mayo-based dressing. I mean actual mayonnaise.

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A few days later I tried again to eat something that wasn't fried in lard, covered in lard, or actually was lard. I remembered that Caroline's Café had a good selection of salads, so off we went again in search of greens.

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I forgot, however, that the best salad at Caroline's comes topped with bacon. And fried chicken. And Ranch dressing.

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My taste buds gave me a round of applause. My arteries gave me the finger.

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Eventually I just gave up on the salads and had some corn. Fresh, healthy corn.

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Slathered in mayonnaise and cheese.

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Count 6: Arson

Is it a crime to set someone's mouth on fire with a toothpick? If so, then Peppers of Key West would be guilty as charged.

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An emporium of all things hot, spicy, saucy, and sweet, Peppers is the perfect place to mosey up to the bar and get your face melted off.

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We started with the milder sauces -- like the fantastic coconut mango, a figgy steak sauce, and a sweet-but-spicy teriyaki -- and then Angel moved on to the ones so hot that they are stored in little coffins and carry warnings about death, diarrhea, and death by diarrhea.

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You are instructed not to let the toothpick touch your lips, or they will shrivel up and fall off, and to wash your hands before using the restroom, or certain other parts may shrivel up and fall off.

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So far Angel is still intact, but I'm keeping an eye on the situation.

Count 7: Harassment

On every visit to Key West, we stop by Eaton Bikes to harass our friend Chris, who with a patient smile attaches accoutrements -- flowers, streamers, and a bell that reads, "Get the %$#@& Out of My Way" -- to my bike, even though he knows that I am a menace on two wheels and that I will spend the next ten days ringing that bell nonstop like a deranged Quasimodo.

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But how else am I supposed to get around? Sure, I've crashed my bike into a mailbox (2010), a truck (2011), a curb (2014), and Angel (1999-present), but if that makes me clumsy on two wheels, you should see me on two feet.

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Count 8: Bootlegging

In the early 1900s, 105 Simonton Street in Key West housed a Coca-Cola bottling facility. Today, it is home to Key West's first legal rum distillery. Next time your grandpa goes on about how great everything was back in his day, you can refer him to this shining example of progress.

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We decided to do the short guided tour of Key West Legal Rum, during which our guide, Mike Ehrmantraut, explained the distilling process and showed us all these cool machines and Angel impatiently tapped his toe waiting for the tasting portion of the program to begin.

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Paul Menta, the chef at Amigos Tortilla Bar, is the brains behind this operation, cranking out homemade hootch infused with natural flavors like vanilla brûlée, key lime, and mojito mint.

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Best of all, next time you crash your bike into a mailbox or feel like eating a bowl of mayonnaise for lunch, you've got a ready-made excuse.

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Count 9: Fraud

About a month before we were scheduled to meet up in Key West, I received a two-word text from Ellen: "Meatball Cruise?" That, of course, is how we refer to the Sunset Sail on the Fury catamaran, which offers crappy margaritas and a decent live band and a great crew and who the hell cares because MEATBALLS! I naturally said yes and then quickly put together one of those "Christmas Countdown" chains, but instead of counting down to Christmas, I was counting down to MEATBALLS!

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They didn't have the meatballs.

I don't know. Maybe people complained last time that the meatballs kept rolling off their plates and some skinny blonde girl kept swooping in and scooping them up? I'm sorry, but the five-second rule applies in international waters, too.

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The sunset that evening was spectacular, a fiery orange that faded to a wisp of pink as we made our way back to Key West.

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Although we were forced to sail along in meatball-less melancholy, they did have fried chicken, which, even when it comes frozen and is reheated in a Soviet-era microwave rusted out from salt spray, still beats not having fried chicken.

It does not, however, beat meatballs.

Count 10: Criminal Impersonation

I am often guilty of judging a restaurant by its nondescript cover, and Deuce's Off-the-Hook is one of them.

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Plus, I like booze as much as the next guy, but happy hour at 8 a.m. is a bit much even for me.

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Still, when friends Mark and Steven told me that Deuce's was one of their favorite new dining spots, I took a peek at the menu. And then I jumped on my bike and pedaled over there faster than you can scoop a rogue meatball off a boat deck.

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That's because Deuce's has lobster pot pie sandwiches. Let's just let that sink in for a moment: Lobster. Pot pie. Sandwiches.

We started off with the smoked fish dip and an order of spanakopita for the table, followed by the fish sammie for Angel, the gyro with sweet potato tots for Steven, and an entire deep-fried sea creature on a bun for Mark.

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And the Lobster. Pot pie. Sandwich. for me.

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Okay, so it's not even remotely a sandwich. But when your lunch entrée arrives and it looks like this, are you really going to split hairs?

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----------------------------------------------------
Next up, PART 2! Hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your food.

Posted by TraceyG 15:13 Archived in USA Tagged key_west Comments (6)

Xmas in Key West: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation, Pt 2

Our Key West crime spree continues with loitering, breaking and entering, and one cleverly staged home invasion.

Count 11: Loitering

Key West is the world capital of loitering, and one of the best places to do that is at the Southernmost Beach Café.

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Of course, there's a fine line between "loitering" and "I've had so many frozen drinks I can't get out of my chair." You know who you are.

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The weather during our visit was hot and mostly sunny, so we also spent a fair amount of time loitering around the pool.

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When it wasn't already occupied, that is.

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Count 12: Breaking and Entering

On Christmas morning, my friend Mark posted the following message on Facebook: "Look what Santa left this morning: Homemade coconut cream pie. Come over and help me eat it." Didn't he realize that the house we'd rented was less than a block from his own? I threw on a dress and was barreling through his front door less than 3 minutes later, brandishing my weapons: A fork in one hand and an insulated to-go bag in the other.

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As Mark and I wolfed down the best coconut cream pie I've ever had, Mark's partner Steve decided it would be the perfect time to whip up some homemade macaroni and cheese. Look, guys: If you want me to move in with you, all you have to do is ask.

On top of all this, the pair had just returned from Brussels, and surprised us with a box of decadent Belgian pralines for Christmas.

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They bring me good chocolate; I bring them battering rams.

Later that week, Mark made the mistake of telling me that he'd spent three hours making homemade enchiladas for a dinner he'd planned to host for Steve's father and his partner.

I think you know what happened next.

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Count 13: Coercion

A few days into our visit, we noticed a pattern developing: Ellen and Brian would walk down to Southernmost Beach Café, grab lunch, and then spend the day on a couple of loungers at the beach. But when Ellen developed a blister from all the walking and Brian could recite the lunch menu at Southernmost by heart, we knew it was time for a change. And so we convinced them to rent bikes and meet us down at Salute on the Beach for lunch.

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It was something of a disaster.

First, it rained. Have you ever ridden a bike in the rain? The back tire kicks up muddy rain water. Raindrops pelt you in the face. The seat gets uncomfortably slippery. And you arrive at your destination looking like a drowned rat. Or, in my case, Bon Jovi circa 1986.

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Second, the restaurant was packed. And so we waited, and waited, and waited some more, occupying the time by making mitts out of toilet paper to dry ourselves off.

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Finally, parched and starving and covered in stray bits of wet TP, we were seated.

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I decided to try the antipasti sandwich, which looked normal to me but, according to Angel, was freakishly huge. And coming from someone who's lived with me for nearly 20 years, that is not a statement to be taken lightly. So let's just go ahead and assume that my sandwich looked like one of those ones in the Guinness Book that's 200 feet long and feeds an entire town.

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Even though my hair, and my belly, had both puffed up to twice their normal size, I agreed to pose with the empty plate. Angel, and Bon Jovi, would be proud.

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Count 14: Home Invasion

The last time we visited our friends Stephanie and Ari in Key West, I fell in love with their sweet little dog, Babka, and may or may not have attempted to kidnap her by folding her up and stuffing her into my handbag.

That is, until I saw the newest addition to their family. Meet Latke, the most adorably ridiculous-looking animal I have ever seen.

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(No, she's not growling; that's just her face. And yes, that's a mohawk.)

As usual, I managed to finagle a dinner invitation by raving about some dish and having someone who actually knows how to cook take pity on me. When Steph and Ari came to NYC last fall, one of the restaurants they chose is an old favorite of mine and Angel's, Osteria Morini. As soon as I found out they would be there for lunch, I implored Steph and Ari to order my favorite dish, the sformato, which is a savory custard made from Parmigiano-Reggiano, butter, and whipping cream, and delivered to Earth on silver platters borne by baby angels.

Osteria Morini didn't have the sformato.

And if I'd known that ahead of time, it would have been one of the most ingenious plans I'd ever hatched, at least since that time I convinced Angel I had Prader-Willi syndrome and had to eat every 30 minutes due to my, er, condition.

Because as it turned out, my obsession with the sformato prompted Stephanie to generously offer to make me one on our last night in Key West. Which explains all those salads on this trip: I was saving up.

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Of course, because Stephanie is a Jewish mother (of two canines named for cakes), serving us a ramekin stuffed with 10,000 calories would not do for dinner. So she also made salad . . .

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. . . and the sformato, topped with wild mushrooms sautéed in butter . . .

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. . . and snapper with pesto, accompanied by grilled vegetables topped with goat cheese . . .

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. . . and chocolate soufflés with fresh strawberries . . .

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. . .and homemade coffee ice cream.

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It was quite a meal, and Stephanie succeeded in making sure that by the end of it, I was way too full to chase her dogs around and stuff them into my purse. I guess I'm not the only one with ingenious plans.

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Count 15: Conspiracy

In criminal law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime at some time in the future. If plotting to consume your own body weight in sangria is a crime, then our group dinners fit the bill.

Our first outing was to A&B for Christmas dinner, since there is no better way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus than with cocktails and chocolate cake.

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A few days later, we met up with Mark, Steve, Steph, and Ari for dinner at Santiago's. In advance of our reservation, the six of us spent weeks haggling over what we were going to order and arguing about who was going to go hungry if they had to sit next to me.

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After dinner we stopped by the Orchid Bar. I may have a tapeworm, but our Key West friends have hollow legs. And arms.

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Speaking of crimes . . . this many pairs of dimples in one place really should be illegal.

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We returned to Santiago's the very next night with Ellen and Brian for another go-round.

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We probably shouldn't have had the flaming cheese two nights in a row, but you know what they say: A cheese a day keeps the doctor . . . on speed-dial.

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Count 16: Disorderly Conduct

I attended college at a party school in the late 80s, before the age of AIDS and campus assaults and frowning upon binge drinking. It was an idyllic time, filled with hookups, hangovers, frat parties, and the occasional bench warrant.

And not a day goes by that I don't thank God that there was no such thing as the Internet back then.

Which is why we never, ever bring a camera to the Green Parrot, and especially not when we're pre-gaming with my infamous rum punch. I'm pretty sure Ellen walked into the pool fully clothed and Brian started licking the walls last time I made a batch, but like I said: That's why we don't allow cameras.

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Over the years, I have acted quite the fool at the Green Parrot, egged on by my friend Mount Gay and begged to stop by my friend Angel "My Wife is a Train Wreck" Gonzalez. I've dirty-danced with men old enough to be my great-grandpa. I've invited myself to sample strangers' drinks with a two-foot-long super-straw. I've twirled handlebar moustaches unbidden, and impersonated Mrs. Doubtfire, and belted out my own lyrics to various blues songs at the top of my lungs, none of which rhyme and all of which utilize words that cannot be printed on this blog.

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By comparison, I was well-behaved on this visit, sucking (my own) beer out of a flamingo straw and decorating my bottle with ornaments "borrowed" from Green Parrot's Christmas tree, which is why I agreed, just this once, to go ahead and snap a few photos.

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As soon as I tried to climb inside the popcorn machine, however, all bets were off.

Count 17: Public Intoxication

Friends who live in Key West often lament that there are only two things to do here: Get drunk, or fry yourself in the sun. (They're missing the obvious third option: Get drunk and fry yourself in the sun.)

Not being ones to defy local custom, we spent most afternoons at Louie's, soaking up the sunset and sucking down the pina coladas.

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Evenings were whiled away at Kelly's, keeping company with their fantastic key lime margaritas.

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In between it was mojitos at lunch, wine at dinner, and the aforementioned rum punch for breakfast. There's OJ in there, ya know.
-------------------------------------------
Part 3 is now posted! Click here to see if we rang in the New Year by commandeering a big red shoe.

Posted by TraceyG 08:36 Archived in USA Tagged key_west Comments (6)

Xmas in Key West: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation, Pt 3

And finally, public lewdness, assault, and some open container violations . . . or, you know, just another Saturday night in Key West.

Count 18: Public Lewdness

You don't really need to go anywhere special in Key West to encounter public lewdness, but it can't hurt. And so we set off for Better Than Sex, a dessert-only restaurant where you can have a satisfying one-night stand without worrying about how to get rid of the guy in the morning.

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The space is bordello-chic, with lipstick-red walls, dimly-lit crystal chandeliers, and secluded banquettes made for cozying up to your loved one, distracting him with your feminine wiles, and stealing his heart dessert.

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After perusing the extensive menu, I knew I had to try the Fork-You Fondue, which was described as "liquid vanilla cheesecake fondue." If those aren't the four sexiest words you've ever heard, then you need to get some new porn.

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The others had the "Between My Red Velvet Sheets" cheesecake (which sounds hot but not sexy), the Twist and Stout (which I guess can be sexy if you're into those kind of guys), and the Jungle Fever (which I can assure you is plenty sexy. Ahem.)

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Count 19: Assault with a Deadly Weapon

Angel and I last visited Latitudes on Sunset Key in 1999, where we rang in the new Millennium with Champagne, fireworks over Key West, and a midnight kiss. Well, two out of three, anyway.

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You see, I grew up in Pittsburgh, a city with obsessed with everything from the Stillers and chipped ham to classic rock and mullets. Lesser-known, however, is the city's obsession with fireworks. Although most people like fireworks, a 'Burgher will drop everything -- and I mean everything -- for some fireworks. When I was growing up, it was taken for granted that no matter what you were right in the middle of -- driving a car, giving birth, performing brain surgery -- the minute you heard fireworks, the aforementioned task was immediately abandoned because OOH! LOOK!! FIREWORKS!!! Thus, a typical telephone conversation might go something like, "So I told that jagoff to kiss my OOH! LOOK!! FIREWORKS!!!" CLICK.

And so, as couples everywhere counted down the last seconds of 1999 and prepared to greet the new Millennium, I heard the sound of fireworks down at the beach . . . and promptly jumped out of my seat and ran like a bat out of hell, leaving poor Angel in the dust. I think he might have kissed a waitress in my absence.

Which explains why we haven't returned to Latitudes in 15 years. But at Ellen and Brian's urging we relented, and hopped aboard Lil Princess for the short boat ride over to Sunset Key.

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In the years since our last visit, we'd almost forgotten how lovely the place is.

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Soon we were settled in at a table in the sand, drinking in the idyllic surroundings . . . and some mango martinis.

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I kicked things off with the rich, creamy lobster bisque, followed by the tuna tartare with sweet chili, soy pearls, seaweed salad, and miso-yuzu aioli.

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Ellen, Brian, and Angel all ordered the same entrée, the cumin and coriander crusted snapper. This, I noticed, happened at almost every meal -- the three of them ordered the exact same thing, presumably as part of some pact to spread the pain around a bit: I'd beg a few bites from each of them, instead of just commandeering Angel's entire plate.

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But on this night, I was happy to be the odd man out. That's because we'd just dug into our meals when Angel pulled an inch-long fish bone out of his mouth. A few minutes later, Ellen did the same. (Brian claimed not to have found any, but I did hear a strange crunching noise coming from his end of the table.) Within 15 minutes, each of them had enough tiny fish bones lined up on their plate to make a decent-looking fossil.

Though we hate to complain, especially on vacation, nobody wanted to get stabbed in the gums with a fish bone, so we mentioned it to our waiter, who summoned the manager, who removed all three entrees from our bill. It was a generous and gracious thing to do, and as a result we will definitely return.

Though Angel is still banned from kissing any more waitresses.

Count 20: Stalking

Our friend Randi is an adorable little blonde lady with a fantastic sense of adventure, a wicked sense of humor, and just enough sense to disable the GPS on her phone when she knows I'm in town.

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I guess she wasn't expecting that I'd just stalk her on Facebook.

So when I saw that Randi was at La Te Da one fine afternoon enjoying a strawberry-lemon mimosa with fresh basil, I knew what I had to do. I jumped on my bike, mowed down a few mailboxes, and skidded into La Te Da just in time for happy hour.

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One mimosa turned into two, which turned into key lime pie martinis with a sidecar.

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Which inevitably turned into pizza.

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But as soon as Angel started trying to teach Randi how to change the privacy settings on her phone, I knew it was time to go.

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Plus, I'd only had two cocktails and half a pizza, and I didn't want to risk being late for dinner.

Count 21: Solicitation

The vampire cave/house we rented for this trip was conveniently located next door to the Rum Bar, whose cat typically hangs out at the bar there.

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But because I enjoy having a pet around when I'm on vacay, I naturally decided that the cat should live with me while I was in town. It didn't take long to lure her over.

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And it took even less time for her to make herself right at home.

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Soon she was even making herself useful, chasing chickens off the property for us.

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Of course, she wasn't too happy when I wouldn't let her eat the entire bag of treats as a reward.

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By the way, are you wondering how I'm so sure it's a girl? Because after I spent a week feeding her treats, this happened.

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Story of my life.

Count 22: Escape in the Third Degree

Every once in a while, you find a restaurant that's comfortable, comforting, and feels like "your" place. In Key West, we are lucky enough to have a few such escapes, one of which is Café Sole.

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Then again, it's not hard to feel at home when they are serving bowls of crack masquerading as mushroom soup.

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Plus an addictive chickpea spread that I guess is supposed to be spread onto bread, but is more easily spooned directly into your mouth.

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On this evening, as on most others, we ordered our "usual" dishes: the hogfish for Angel, and the shrimp risotto for me.

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For dessert, Angel had the key lime pie. That sounded good to me . . . but not as good as a bowl of gazpacho.

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Our other "go-to" restaurant is Seven Fish, a cozy spot with just 40 seats tucked away (at least for now) in a residential neighborhood on Olivia Street.

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People often complain that Seven Fish is noisy and the tables are too close together, but we're New Yorkers: Half the fun of going out to dinner is eavesdropping on the couple next to us.

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On this particular night, we started with the wild mushroom quesadilla for Angel, and the Caesar salad with tangy goat cheese and a hunk of Seven Fish's deliciously salty, squishy rosemary focaccia for me.

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That was followed by two orders of the coconut-curry snapper over rice.

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And just a tiny bit more of that fabulous focaccia.

Count 23: Open Container Violations

You might remember that two years ago, we spent New Year's Eve in Key West as hostages, forced to eat cheesecake and watch strippers and cheer for a lime wedge. This year, we were determined to make things more interesting.

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Way more interesting.

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We'd purchased VIP tickets for the shoe drop at Bourbon Street Pub on Duval, which entitled us to an open bar, a buffet of everything from crab cakes and cocktail weenies to key lime tarts decorated with chocolate palm trees . . . and, of course, a bird's-eye view of the craziness on Duval from Bourbon Street's balcony.

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The crowd was filled with folks in wigs, tutus, and all sorts of other get-ups, but nobody looked better than the guy with the disco-ball drink holder.

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Sushi made her grand entrance about an hour before midnight, signing autographs and posing for photos before climbing into her shoemobile.

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Soon it was time for the countdown to midnight.

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We stuck around for a while after midnight, watching a seven-foot-tall drag queen get down with a bunch of male strippers. Which is a sentence I write all the time.

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There was no way I was leaving without getting in that shoe, even if Bourbon Street hadn't given us permission. I figured I'd be long gone before the cops could make it through the mob.

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But 15 long years later, did Angel finally get his midnight kiss?

I'll never tell.

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---------------------------------
Up next, pot pies in New York City, pig parts in Charleston, and pastries aplenty in Paris. Click here to subscribe and you'll be notified when a new post goes up!

Posted by TraceyG 06:57 Archived in USA Tagged key_west Comments (8)

Back to Key West: I'm Sorry I Ate Your Birthday Present

Of course, I didn't mean to eat someone else's birthday present. Especially since it was intended for a man of the cloth.

More precisely, it was intended for the Reverend Gweko W. Phlocker, a delightfully raunchy Key West DJ, who then proceeded to tell the entire island about my transgression on the radio.

But let's start at the beginning.

For this trip we stayed in a charming Conch cottage in the Meadows, which satisfied my four main requirements for a vacation rental: Lots of outlets, lots of towels, lots of privacy, and lots of goodies left behind in the fridge.

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We unpacked our things, plugged in the 17 iPads/Pods/Phones we'd brought along, and inventoried the aforementioned fridge, before jumping on our bikes and making a beeline for the Southernmost Beach Café.

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There, we had a couple of key lime coladas for lunch.

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Oh, and sandwiches.

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We spent the rest of the day in a haze of sun, salt water, and wine, which in Key West is called "Tuesday."

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As is so often in the case in Key West, we were joined by a random cat. We didn't know her name, so we decided to call her Joan Jett. Obviously.

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Soon it was time to get ready for our visit to Big Coppitt. Yes, I know that name sounds vaguely dirty, and it sounds even dirtier when you consider that it's a derivation of an old English word meaning "thicket." But our friends Donna and Greg live on Big Coppitt, and you might remember that last time we saw them, they'd been living in a trailer dubbed the Redneck Ranch while they waited for their new home to be built. The new house was completed last year, but we'd had yet to see it, so Greg kindly drove into Old Town to pick us up, then ferried us back to Big Coppitt to check out the new place and enjoy some wine on the deck for sunset.

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The new house is gorgeous, with spacious rooms, richly stained wood floors, and a fantastic wine cellar.

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But even that wine cellar had a hard time competing with the view.

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After a few bottles of wine, a lovely assortment of cheeses and crackers, and no small amount of drooling over the size of Donna and Greg's closets, we headed back into Key West for dinner at Square One . . . where they tried to kick us out.

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But let's start at the beginning.

After the short walk over to twinkly Duval Square, we arrived at Square One and were led to a private corner table, which I have noticed is always the case when I am out with one of my girlfriends. Between the foul language, the reckless imbibing, and the oinks of laughter, we just aren't fit for public consumption.

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We started with a lovely un-oaked Chardonnay, then moved on to goat cheese ravioli, seafood ceviche, a creamy pasta with seafood, and scallops in a rich balsamic drizzle. I'm not sure what Angel, Donna, and Greg ate.

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We were just enjoying our desserts when the lights went out. Or, rather, Square One not-so-subtly hinted that it was time for us to go home by cutting the lights. Later they claimed that someone had turned them off by accident, but I guess they also "accidentally" forgot to turn them back on again.

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Not fit for public consumption indeed.

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The next morning we had plans for brunch with our friends Mark and Steven at Hot Tin Roof. But what was supposed to be a sedate brunch for four ended up turning into the Prosecco version of the Ice Bucket Challenge for eight.

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But let's start at the beginning.

The Sunday brunch at Hot Tin Roof is one of the best deals on the island, particularly if you like to start drinking before noon and plan to continue straight through to Happy Hour. Service begins at 11:00 a.m., and then it's all the food you can eat, all the Prosecco you can drink, and all the hangover you can handle until 3pm, a cutoff which has to be strictly enforced since they can't just turn the lights out on you at that hour.

I was the first to arrive while Angel secured our bikes, and as the host led me to our table, someone called out, "Oh! You come into town and you don't even call me?" I wasn't sure if it was my parole officer, that guy whose handlebar mustache I twirled the wrong way at Funk Night at the Green Parrot, or one of the poor souls I doused in Champagne at the Let Them Eat Cake party, but thankfully it was only Stephanie, a woman whose dog I tried to stuff in my purse last time I visited her house. Whew.

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And so, joined by Stephanie's friends Darren and Denis, we pushed the tables together and started calling out orders like a bunch of tipsy auctioneers: "Baaaaaacon-cinnamon-rolls-lobster-mac-and-cheese-key-lime-stuffed-French-toast, do I hear short-rib-hash-and-another-mimosa from the young lady in the blue dress?"

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This contraption is a dual salt-and-pepper shaker. I'm sorry, but asking me to operate anything more complicated than a fork at an unlimited-booze brunch is asking way too much . . . and even the fork is really pushing it.

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We continued to order food like drunken sailors on leave, the Prosecco continued to flow like water . . . and then the tongues came out.

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Although no Prosecco ended up being poured over anyone's head, I kind of wished it had. Because have I mentioned how face-meltingly hot it was during our visit? Meteorologically speaking, 95 degrees + 100% humidity x 0 breeze = hot enough to have fried that key lime French toast on my forehead.

After brunch Mark invited us over to see his orchids, so we made a pit stop back at our house to grab our bathing suits. Not because we expected to go swimming, mind you, but because at this point we realized that if you're going to sweat through your clothes anyway, you might as well be prepared.

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And so we showed up at Mark's just in time for . . . more Prosecco.

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Of course, we didn't intend to drink his entire supply. But when it's 122 degrees outside, it's not like you have much choice.

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The orchids were spectacular. Then again, New Yorkers are easily impressed with anything that doesn't grow through cracks in the sidewalk.

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The next day, Mark berated me for being a bad influence. "But we only had three or four bottles of Prosecco at brunch!" I protested. "Right . . . plus the three or four at my house," he reminded me. Oh, right. I can't imagine how I forgot about those.

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That evening we were feeling a little too, um, forgetful to do much, so we ordered a pizza, floated in the pool for a bit, and then called it a night.

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The next day we awoke early to get in a bike ride before the day got too hot.

And by "bike ride" I mean, "raiding the gift shop at the Casa Marina, followed by pina coladas at Louie's Afterdeck."

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Later we swung by Old Town Bakery to pick up some sammiches for lunch.

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We both decided on the Italian, which came with ham, soppressata, basil pesto, fontina, spinach, tomato, and a prescription for Lipitor.

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Angel once read somewhere that drinking a hot beverage on a hot day can help the body stay cool, so he suggested we stop by Cuban Coffee Queen on the way home. I'm pretty sure that I read somewhere that drinking a hot beverage on a hot day can help the body throw up, so I went for cupcakes instead.

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That evening we met up with Mark and his partner, Steven, for dinner at Abbondanza. Mark hates this place, Steven loves it, and I don't care what either of them thinks because meatballs.

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My family is of Irish, German, and eastern European descent, but we have always wished that we were Italian, for the food. And so when I was a kid my father fibbed his way into a membership at the local Italian Social Club, where we'd go for Sunday Gravy most weekends. The little old Italian grandma who cooked at the Club knew her stuff, including gigantic, tender meatballs just like Abondanza's.

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Are these polpette in the same league as, say, Locanda or The Little Owl? Of course not. But they are the closest thing I've ever found to that Italian granny's meatballs, and that's good enough for me.

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The next day we biked over to Santiago's Bodega for lunch.

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Obviously, they understood how hot it was and that one might need to, er, freshen up a bit before entering the restaurant.

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Santiago's is one of our regular haunts in Key West, so this time around we decided to try a few new items, including the burrata with walnut pesto and the beef short ribs with cherry-hoisin glaze and orange-miso slaw.

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Then it was on to some old favorites, like the patatas bravas with aged Gouda, and the croquettes, which are pan-fried potatoes stuffed with ground prosciutto and provolone cheese and served with scallion-studded sour cream.

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Later that afternoon we stopped by Louie's again, this time to meet up with some folks from our condo community.

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The condo contingent had warned us that they might not be able to make it, and after Angel had downed a few of Louie's dark rum mojitos in quick succession while we waited, I was secretly glad they didn't.

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The next day we again set off for an early-morning bike ride to beat the heat.

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Soon we found ourselves sitting outside the 8,000 degree kitchen at Sandy's while Angel nursed a 185 degree coffee. Forget air conditioners and swimming pools for keeping cool, Key West. What you really need are more coffee shops.

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Later we stopped by Bad Boy Burrito for some takeout.

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I went back and forth between waiting in the shop, where it was approximately 115 degrees, and out on the sidewalk, where it was approximately the inside of a clothes dryer. No matter where I stood, though, I couldn't help feeling that I was being watched.

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We devoured our burritos in sweaty silence, then spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between floating in the pool, sunning ourselves on the deck, and arguing over a cat.

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One of my and Angel's long-running disagreements is what to do about cats that we meet on vacation. I, of course, am happy to give them free rein of the place.

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But Angel steadfastly insists that they remain outside, which often results in a sneaky game of cat and Tracey, in which I repeatedly sneak the cat inside and Angel repeatedly deposits it back outside. On this trip, however, because the pool area led directly to our bedroom, Angel put his foot down. Although he claimed to be worried that Joan Jett might get so comfortable that we wouldn't be able to get her to leave when we checked out, I knew that he was really worried about finding a single cat hair on one of his shirts. And so Angel refused to allow her inside at all.

Which is how we ended up with one very disgruntled cat outside our door for the next three days.

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And one very disgruntled wife.

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On our last day, we headed over to Lush Bar so Mark could show us his new toy: Wine on tap.

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Despite my pleas, however, he wouldn't let me stick my head under the tap and pour the wine directly into my mouth. I guess after the Prosecco Incident, he was afraid I'd drain the tap.

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In addition to wine-on-demand, Lush Bar offers carefully selected wine and chocolate pairings, beer tastings, coffee and tea, plus dozens of organic and fair-trade chocolate bars. Get 'em liquored up, then set 'em loose in a room full of sugar. If this place doesn't need rubber walls, no place does.

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Mark closed up shop a few minutes early and we popped across the street to the Speakeasy Rum Bar.

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It wasn't long before I dumped both Mark and Angel and cozied up with this cool cat who'd just walked in and sauntered up to the bar. Not being the jealous type, however, Angel shrugged his shoulders and said, "Canoodle all you want, but you can't take him home."

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The Speakeasy boasts a menu full of yummy rum-based concoctions, including our beloved Painkillers.

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As we sipped and gabbed, Mark suddenly spotted a friend of his. "Oh! You have to meet this guy!" he exclaimed, dragging me by the arm to make the introduction. "Tracey, this is Mozzarella Mike," Mark said. "Um, actually, it's Mark," his friend replied. "Whatever," Mark replied to his namesake. "Listen, Tracey has a tapeworm and a blog. You two should know each other."

After some polite chit-chat, I got right to the point: Do you make mozzarella? If so, where is it? And more importantly, can I have some?

And like a mootza-rell magician, Mozzarella Mark pulled a plastic-wrapped log of fresh mozzarella out of his backpack . . . along with a cutting board and an 8-inch butcher knife.

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Eyeing this spread, my brain was immediately flooded with questions, to which I received the following responses: No, he's (miraculously) never been mugged for his backpack full of mozzarella. No, that knife has never (accidentally) poked through the backpack and stabbed him in the butt. Yes, I could (thankfully) have some mozzarella. No, we (happily) don't have to share it with anyone else.

And yes, he's (definitely) from Jersey.

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And so we drank and chatted and scarfed down pinwheel after delicious pinwheel of fresh, creamy hand-made mozzarella rolled up with salty prosciutto and peppery arugula, while I thanked my lucky stars, and both Marks, for my good fortune.

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When we finally gave up after eating almost three-quarters of the log, Mark distributed the last few bites to the other patrons at the Speakeasy, then started packing up his significantly lighter, but still magical, backpack. "So, yeah . . ." he began, "I guess I'm gonna have to explain this somehow . . ."

Wait, explain what?

Oh, just that the log of mozzarella I'd just devoured was actually intended for the aforementioned Reverend Gweko W. Phlocker's birthday, to which Mark had been en route when he (naturally) had to stop for a drink.

Reverend Phlocker, I'm sorry about that ugly paperweight you probably ended up with for your birthday. I'd like to think that if I'd known that mozzarella was supposed to be your birthday gift, I would have restrained myself.

But who are we kidding???
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Want more Key West? Two more trip reports are on their way, including an 11-day visit over the holidays. Click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know if I manage to eat anyone's Christmas present.

Posted by TraceyG 15:52 Archived in USA Tagged beach key_west abbondanza louie's_backyard bad_boy_burrito santiago's hot_tin_roof Comments (7)

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: Hotter Than a Summer Bride In a Feather Bed, Pt. 1

When our friends Donna and Greg announced that they would be getting married on a sailboat in Key West over Labor Day weekend, they didn't have to ask us twice (or really even once - we aren't too proud to beg). Angel and I immediately said yes, then set about making our travel plans. I mean, who wouldn't want to spend a long weekend in a town where you can get a drink before you even claim your luggage?

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And when Angel told me that he wouldn't be able to depart until the day before the wedding due to some prior work commitments, I did what anyone living in a city of 8 million people in an apartment only slightly bigger than a tool shed would do: I planned to arrive early in order to spend 60 blissful hours . . . completely alone.

After careful consideration, I decided to stay at Simonton Court because 4 pools + 0 children = happiness x 1,000.

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Shady nooks for reading or emailing gloating photos to Angel were tucked about the property.

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Plus, they have cats. And because there were no children to follow me around, the cats picked up the slack.

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I stayed in the Royal Palm townhouse, which was bright and spacious and had a lovely view from the balcony.

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With its numerous pools and abundant shade, Simonton Court turned out to be the perfect choice because oh, it was hot. Scorchingly, searingly, eyeball-meltingly hot. It was so hot that I contemplated buying one of those Uzi-style squirt guns and shooting myself in the face whenever I felt that I might pass out. It was so hot that everywhere I went, I could feel the sweat pooling between my boobs . . . and I don't even have boobs.

Oh, you think I'm exaggerating? It was so hot that I could barely eat.

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And it was most definitely too hot to go out alone for a meal - I couldn't risk that some friendly Key West local might try to chat me up, then recoil in horror when they noticed the rivulets of sweat sliding off my chin and plopping into my food. Which explains how I came to subsist on personal pan pizzas and fast-food cheeseburgers for two days, with a round of mimosas thrown in to prevent scurvy.

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Not that I'm complaining.

Donna and I met up at Banana Cafe on Friday for a quick lunch in the midst of her final preparations for the wedding.

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She arrived by car, looking cool and crisp, while I arrived by bicycle, looking on the verge of sunstroke. Is it an unwritten rule, I wondered, that when two friends in Key West meet up between the months of May and September, that each is to pretend that the other smells fine and doesn't look like she has just completed a marathon? If not, I'm going to start attaching a number to my back to discourage any untoward comments.

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After the aforementioned round of mimosas, we both decided on the turkey and swiss salad, Donna because she was no doubt watching her weight for the wedding, and me because I knew I'd never have the energy to pedal that bike and a stomach full of food back to my hotel in that sweltering Easy Bake Oven known as Old Town.

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That evening I met up with Donna again, along with Greg and a few of their local friends, at Grand Vin on Duval Street. As Donna reintroduced me to the group and we shook hands, each person greeted me warmly with nearly the same words: "So nice to see you again. WHERE'S ANGEL?" And you wonder why I spend all his money and eat all his food.

A large cloud had settled over the island by the time Angel made his apparently much-anticipated arrival the next day, bringing the temperature down to something less bubbling cauldron-y, and Angel was lulled into thinking that it might actually be safe to leave the house. Ignoring my warnings about the risk of immediate spontaneous combustion should the sun peek out from behind that cloud, he suggested that we bike the few blocks over to Amigos for some lunch.

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Amigos makes its own corn tortillas, plus a killer salsa that comes in both hot and mild versions and is mashed up in a giant mortar called a molcajete.

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As soon as the smells of carne asada and roast pork hit my nose, I suddenly realized that, thanks to the heat, I hadn't been eating nearly enough, and I decided to make up for lost time. So I ordered three tacos -- the pulled pork with adobo sauce, the shredded beef in traditional rojo marinade, and the beef short ribs with Mexican barbeque sauce -- plus an order of chips and salsa, a side of rice and beans, and a basket of tater tots -- and told Angel to stand back. And maybe don a beekeeper's suit, just to be safe.

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The quality of the food at Amigos has gone downhill a bit since our last visit -- the amazing caramelized onion salsa that I raved about last time is now a mushy puree of barely-cooked onions, and the tacos were unfortunately quite soggy -- but they surely weren't the only things damp and soggy around these parts, so I will give them a pass for now.

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The sun stayed thankfully hidden for the next hour or so, allowing us some time to take in the island's quirky charms.

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Although I have my heart set on a VW Thing, any of these would work, too.

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You gotta love a town that can support a business that sells nothing but pirate costumes . . . all year round.

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Well, this can only mean one thing: The lawyers have discovered Key West.

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As soon as we saw that, we beat feet outta there and headed for the more civilized part of town.

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As soon as the sun returned, Angel basked at another of Simonton Court's pools while I slathered myself in sunscreen and tallied up all my new moles.

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That evening we attended Donna and Greg's rehearsal party at Vino's on Duval, where Donna had arranged for Blackfin Bistro to provide a generous spread of hors d'oeuvres including fruit, cheese, pâté, and sliders. Everything was delicious, but it would have been impolite to eat every single slider on the table, so we spent a few hours chatting it up with new friends and old, then ducked out for some dinner at Seven Fish. We'd made reservations to sit at the bar despite the fact that, after sharing a bottle of wine at Vino's, we certainly didn't need anything more to drink.

Not that that ever stops us.

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Would that all glasses of Champagne could actually be this big in relation to their bottles.

Now, I know that some folks find Seven Fish too loud, too crowded, and too rushed, but that is precisely why we like it: In the same warped way that New Yorkers have convinced themselves that unfinished brick walls are cool and bathrooms bigger than broom closets are for suckers, most of us wouldn't be caught dead in an empty restaurant where we're not sitting in our neighbor's lap and screaming ourselves hoarse over the din.

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More importantly, in all the years we've been coming to Seven Fish, we've never had a single dish that was less than excellent. Indeed, there is only one dish on the entire menu that I haven't tried, and what with the heat sapping my will to live appetite, I finally decided to tackle what will henceforth be referred to as the Mother of All Meatloaves.

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Yes, I know that ordering a meatloaf in a place called Seven Fish is akin to ordering the food at a Hard Rock Cafe, and I relayed my hesitation to our server, Fred. But when he asked pointedly, "Of everything you've ever had here, was there anything you didn't like?" I took that as a reminder that the food at Seven Fish is really, really good . . . and that I might have more in common than previously thought with that one species of shark that eats beer cans, old tires, and anvils.

For his part, Angel went with the snapper in a Thai curry and ginger sauce over rice, which was so good that it almost made me wish I'd ordered that instead. Just kidding!

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It was difficult finishing that meatloaf, after what I had for lunch earlier that day. Gotcha again!

Naturally, the meatloaf could only be followed by one thing: the strawberry-whipped cream pie.

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Consisting of a gigantic cloud of whipped cream studded with sliced strawberries sitting on a crust of graham crackers topped with a thin layer of chocolate sauce, this pie makes it socially acceptable to eat an entire tub of whipped cream with a spoon in public. Which Angel proceeded to do, with a little help from me. You know what a glutton he is.

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The next day we decided to bike over to Santiago's Bodega for lunch. By this time the ungodly heat had returned, so I spent the bike ride over daydreaming of swimming pools and air conditioners and Siberian gulags in an effort to stay cool. But it didn't work: I still arrived looking like an escapee from a dunk tank.

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Smile though your face is melting . . .

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Well, at least this helped.

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The Spanish-influenced decor at Santiago's leans toward colorful tile, ornate chandeliers, and inspiring artwork gracing the warm sage and ochre walls.

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Normally I am not a big fan of tapas because (1) I hate sharing, and (2) I hate sharing. But everything at Santiago's is so delicious, and in such generous portions, that I agreed to split everything with Angel . . . at least while the waiter was watching.

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We started with the shrimp bisque, which was fantastically rich and spicy, followed by the portobello soup, which had a surprising amount of flavor considering that, for some inexplicable reason, it hadn't been thickened with cream.

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Next it was on to the patatas bravas, which I liked because they blended the sour cream into the tomato sauce instead of just throwing a dollop on top, and the saganaki, which I liked because it's broiled cheese floating in oil.

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That was followed by the proscuitto- and provolone-stuffed croquettas, which reminded me of Angel's mother's rellenas de papas, the only thing she knew how to cook without burning it to the bottom of the pan. Ah, memories!

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Finally, we shared the pork skewers with apple and mango chutney, which Angel liked because there were two of them, so he had a fighting chance.

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After lunch we passed a few more hours at the pool before it was time to get ready for Donna and Greg's wedding.

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While I am happy to report that nothing so dramatic as forced evacuations and almost setting my own head on fire occurred at this wedding, that doesn't mean it was without its, er, more interesting moments. Click here to read Part 2!

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Posted by TraceyG 08:09 Archived in USA Tagged key_west western_union grand_vin Comments (2)

Key West: Hotter Than a Summer Bride In a Feather Bed, Pt. 2

Donna and Greg's wedding took place on the historic Schooner Western Union, which is appropriately moored right outside the Schooner Wharf Bar. We set sail on a perfect evening with just enough clouds to ensure a fantastic sunset.

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Although I normally take all of the photos on this blog, once on board I asked Angel to share in the camera duties because there was both food and Champagne, and I have my priorities straight.

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The beautiful bride wore a traditional gown that she'd had tailored into a high-low style in order to show off her gorgeous shoes . . .

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. . . and her New York Yankees garter.

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Donna's friend Robin, a Culinary Institute-trained chef, had prepared a delicious seven-course tasting menu, which included inventive appetizers like chilled melon soup with mint and the crowd favorite, deconstructed French onion soup on crostini.

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And Robin's sister Kellee exhibited great restraint by not gobbling up every delicious morsel before serving the rest of us.

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Soon we'd dropped anchor for the ceremony, as Donna's best friend Wayne walked her down the aisle and gave her away.

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At the end, Donna and Greg released a pair of lovebirds, which went as well as can be expected when wild animals are involved.

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But the highlight of the evening was the best man's toast. Greg's best man, Craig, also happens to be his partner in a sailfishing charter boat business, and over the years the two men have caught countless fish, many of which have served as trophies to be mounted on their walls. You know where this is going, don't you? That's right: The best man compared Donna to a trophy fish . . . that Greg can mount over and over.

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Also in attendance was Mark Certonio, the liver-loathing genius behind the Key West Food and Wine Festival, where you might recall that Angel was crowned the winner of the prestigious Silver Platinum Coconut at Coconut Bowling, and I was crowned Most Likely to End Up at Betty Ford.

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Mark graciously invited me back to blog about the upcoming festival, and piqued my curiosity by mentioning that one of the new events for 2013 is a masquerade Champagne-and-cake dance party called "Let Them Eat Cake." Can you imagine how many more trips I can make to the buffet if I'm wearing a mask? That sealed the deal.

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The evening was so humid and still that Donna's idea to hand out fans, along with her foresight to keep the chilled Champagne flowing like water, were the only things keeping me from jumping overboard.

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That, and I didn't want to ruin my dress.

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I couldn't wait to wear this gown thanks to the delicious melon color and floaty layer of sheer chiffon, but I also knew that it was just a matter of time before somebody or something snagged it or stepped on it. Which doesn't explain why I was still surprised when I got in the taxi, only to find that my leather seat had been torn to shreds and haphazardly taped back together with duct tape, emperiling the back of my dress, and that the bows on my sandals threatened the hem with every step I took. Tipsy wedding guests holding glasses of red wine on an even tipsier boat spelled disaster at every turn.

But nothing could have prepared me for how my dress eventually met its doom.

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It was the end of the evening, and the boat was on its way back to the marina. After spending the past few hours on my feet chatting with the various wedding guests, I decided to sit down for a few minutes with a chilled glass of Champagne, which was served in a plastic flute. I had just set the flute down beside me when, suddenly, a rather rotund wedding guest approached and, like a circus elephant lowering itself onto a little stool, began to sit down . . . right on top of the Champagne. "NOOOOOOO!!!!" I screamed. "Don't sit down!" When it became clear that he wasn't paying attention, I did the only thing I could: I yelled, "Fire in the hole!" and ducked for cover.

But not before he sat down squarely on top of that flute, crushing it under his rear end like a booze-filled water balloon, sending plastic shrapnel flying in all directions and drenching the entire side of my dress with Champagne. And you know what? Sure, my dress was ruined, but I'm not going to lie: That cold Champagne on my sweaty legs didn't feel half bad.

As soon as we disembarked from the sailboat, the open-air CityView Trolley was waiting to transport us to the reception. Naturally, after three hours on a boat with an open bar and nary a whisper of a breeze, we boarded the trolley looking like a pack of clammy, giggly, well-dressed hyenas. Much to the trolley driver's relief, just a short ride later we found ourselves at Grand Vin for the outdoor reception.

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There we spent most of the evening catching up with our friends Claudia and Alden, who live up north, meaning Key Largo. Alden is in the liquor business and Claudia is a writer, so together they equal one Ernest Hemingway.

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One of the best things about this reception, besides the fantastic company and excellent food and seemingly endless supply of wine, was the cake made of cupcakes.

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There are worse ways to spend an evening than chatting and laughing and indulging in Champagne and a cupcake or three.

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The next day Donna and Greg had arranged to take a group of about 25 of us out to Snipes Point, a short boat ride away from Big Coppitt Key, where the bride and groom live in this adorable little cottage. Or, as Donna put it, where two hillbillies live in a dilapidated mobile home. Either way, it beats the hell out of living in a shoebox in Manhattan.

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Three boats were lined up and ready to go on the canal outside of Donna's neighbor's house, so off we went, 25 of us trudging through the neighbor's yard carrying enough beer for the entire British Navy and enough food for about ten people plus one Tracey.

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Our little procession made its way through the canal, then fanned out into the open sea, which was like glass on this particularly calm day.

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All boat captains should look so salty . . . and give such great best-man toasts.

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This is our friend Paul. Originally from Ireland and now living in Bulgaria, Paul and his lovely wife Sinead are interesting, well-traveled, and lots of fun, but the last time we went out for drinks with them, we woke up the next day just in time for breakfast . . . at 4:30pm. That's what we get for trying to keep up with the Irish.

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I didn't actually see a sandbar at the sandbar, but there was sand, and we treated it like a bar, so close enough.

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At lunchtime we feasted on Dion's fried chicken (which in true Key West style can only be purchased at gas stations), as well as Cuban sliders, chips, salsa, potato chips, and every kind of beer, wine, and Champagne that could fit into the boats' massive, ice-filled coolers.

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About an hour or so into our visit, it began to rain, just briefly at first, and then a full-on downpour that lasted more than an hour. Not that we weren't warned, as it got dark . . .

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And darker . . .

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And Apocalypse.

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And during it all, nobody moved. Well, that's not true - almost everyone made a move to cover their drink. But planted in the water we remained, still wearing our straw hats and baseball caps and sunglasses, chatting it up while the rain pelted our heads and the booze and conversation continued to flow.

During this marathon bull session we met two friends of Donna's named Lisa and Pete. I once accidentally mistook Pete for a dog (I'm sorry, but in this age of interconnectedness, if you don't have a Facebook page and no one knows your last name, obviously I have no choice but to assume that you are someone's pet), so he probably wasn't too excited to meet me, but Lisa certainly was (wine will do that). Which is how we ended up at dinner at La Trattoria with two people we'd just met that afternoon, plus Pete's former military buddy Rich and his wife Elvie, whom Rich picked up in the Philippines at a shoe store, and both of whom are now living in the land that time forgot, otherwise known as Gulfport, Mississippi. Got all that?

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Much laughing, teasing, and imbibing ensued, and Elvie didn't even blink when I finished off her leftover pasta, so all in all a lovely dinner was had by all.

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Of course, this mile-long martini list probably helped.

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I ordered the Pick-Up, which was appropriate considering how we'd come upon our dining companions.

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For my entree, I went with the lasagna, while Angel had the seafood ravioli. Both were delicious, and the lasagna had the added advantage of being the only thing I'd consumed that day besides a half-bottle of Sancerre, some fried chicken skin, and an entire bag of potato chips. It's a good thing New York City just banned big-gulp sodas, or my diet might really be in trouble.

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The next day we biked over to Salute on the Beach for lunch. By now I had grown so accustomed to feeling like I might die from heatstroke that I actually agreed to sit outside . . . on the ocean, under a fan.

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Salute is known for its spaghetti and meatballs, but I didn't order it. Too hot to eat, I tell you!

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Instead, we started off with some frozen drinks, and then I had the gazpacho, which was thick and spicy and delicious.

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That was followed by the blackened mahi-mahi sandwich for Angel, and the caprese salad for me.

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You might be wondering why I had nothing more than a bowl of gazpacho and a small salad for lunch, but that's because I wanted to be good and hungry for what was to come. And so, after picking up some souvenirs and spending some time at the pool, at precisely 4:30 we made a beeline for 2 Cents Gastropub on Applerouth Lane.

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2 Cents offers a unique selection of cocktails and beer, including beer shakes, which should obviously be served with French fry-stuffed cheeseburgers.

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Lots of places in Key West offer specials at Happy Hour, of course, but 2 Cents offers something so awesomely fantastic that I can only compare it to finding a magical land where unicorns fart rainbows and the sky rains $1,000 bills and meatballs grow on trees.

What could possibly be that amazing?

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That, my friends, is free bacon. FREE. BACON. Holy crispy, greasy, porkaliciousness, but I love me some bacon.

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Now, I admit that when I first heard about Bacon Happy Hour, I was picturing a long table laden with a bunch of those big silver chafing dishes you see at breakfast buffets, perhaps with some tongs to make it a bit more civilized, where I could load my plate with mounds and mounds of bacon and then go back for more, so these tiny bacon votives were something of a disappointment. Even more disappointing was the fact that once the bartender saw that I was an insatiable bacon-eating machine, she stopped refilling our little votives and forced us to actually order our own snacks.

I'd hate to be the menu item that has to follow the free bacon, but the cheesy, bubbly artichoke dip put on a fine show.

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We also had a few cocktails and got to talking with the locals seated next to Angel, Michelle and Alan, whom you are allowed to hate because they were sitting at a bar eating free bacon on a random Tuesday afternoon instead of slogging away at work like normal people. In her spare time, Michelle runs the Crazy Shirts store, where you should definitely go because they dye the shirts with cool stuff like chocolate and wine, and Alan works at the Rum Barrel, where you should definitely go because there is rum there.

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As soon as we told Alan how many times a year we visit Key West, he threw up his arms and said, exasperatedly, "For god's sake, just $#@%ing move here already!" Cheers to that, Alan.

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Soon it was time to go, and as usual we skidded into the airport a little tipsy, drenched in sweat, and with approximately 10 seconds to spare. As the plane began its ascent and the Conch Republic grew smaller and smaller in the window, I reflected on what another fantastic trip it had been and how lucky we were to have been invited to share in Donna and Greg's special day.

But mostly I thought, Thank god it's air conditioned in here.

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Can't get enough Key West? We're headed back in December with a bunch of friends, so click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know if we need you to post bail!

Can't wait that long? Check out our other Conch Republic adventures here and here!

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Posted by TraceyG 08:08 Archived in USA Tagged key_west salute la_trattoria two_cents Comments (7)

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)

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