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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)

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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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)

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