A favorite destination for Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Buffett, and many more, Key West is known for its palm lined streets, gingerbread architecture, water sports, and for “the” freshest locally caught fish. With a distinct mixture of cultures, the island is not only home to a strong seafood scene, but to a tantalizing fusion of cuisines. At night, the streets are lit with vibrant sidewalk cafes that lure in passersby’s with the delicious scents of their specialties. Live music and hopping bars are the perfect pairings to watch the sunset into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Florida Keys is home to five districts, each with their own personality and attractions that make visitors feel like they are a world away. The southernmost paradise, Key West, is just miles from Cuba and is home to an enviable temperate climate and a delicious array of fresh seafood set to a beautiful sea backdrop. Bringing together a multitude of cultures that have made Key West home during its history, Key West’s food scene has delicious flavors, like African and Cuban, that are difficult to find anywhere else in the US.
As a guide to the restaurant and seafood landscape, Paul Menta can tell you all there is to know about the area. A professional chef, community advocate, and pro kite surfer, Paul is the perfect person to tell you about the best secret dining spots in Key West. The Philly native began his culinary career in Spain and France and eventually came to Key West to continue his love for competitive kite surfing. An athlete, distiller, chef, and entrepreneur, Paul has made it his mission to tap into all that Key West has to offer.
His most recent venture, Three Hands Fish, is a community supported fish market in Key West. Its members, chefs and home cooks, have access to the freshest fish, shrimp, stone crabs, oysters, and lobster that come to the docks each day. As Paul describes it,” the first hand is the hand of the fisherman, the second the market, and the third is when the fish makes it into the hands of the individual or restaurant”. Paul is proud of his market as it brings local, traceable seafood to the people with plenty of variety, thus avoiding over fishing a specific species.
Key West has seafood unlike anywhere in the world and the crucial ingredient is the water. The Gulf of Mexico mixes with the Atlantic ocean making a perfect nursery for a plethora of fish, crab, and lobster. The fishermen of the region have come together to create a sustainable plan for the future of their industry, naturally controlling over-producing populations that threaten to take over the ecosystem. “Not only are visitors able to jump on the boat for themselves and go fishing in some of the clearest waters, but they are able to sit back and relax, knowing they can find the same fresh fish in local restaurants,” says Paul.
If you are looking for a taste of the freshest seafood right on the dock, Paul suggests visiting The Stone Crab restaurant. This restaurant serves up some of the best of what Key West is known for, the stone crab, but they also do it in a stunning setting with an unbeatable view of the water. Housed in a resort built in 1956, the restaurant keeps alive the tradition of the fishermen bringing their catches straight to their dock, something that is no longer happening in other areas. And if you are looking for a place to stay, Paul recommends Ibis Bay Resort, home to The Stone Crab, which has a retro feel. Stop in for fun cocktails and great seafood that the restaurant catches themselves. Head here for stone crab, lobster, Key West shrimp, and more local fish. Be ready for a good time at The Stone Crab!
For the die-hard cooks, go for a ride on a private charter to catch the freshest fish for yourself. Paul recommends Lucky Fleet, chartered by Captain Moe, to take you on this adventure and help guide you in hooking the best seasonable seafood. Moe has been fishing the waters around Key West for over 30 years and knows his way around. Whether you are an avid deep-sea fisherman or fisher-woman or this is your first time, Captain Moe will take you on a great adventure, not just a boat ride. From sailfish to tuna to grouper, they will lead you to the right spot.
To learn how to prepare the seafood you just caught, take a class at Isle Cook where Paul himself will teach you how to cook local recipes and healthy meals with seafood. “Being a chef and commercial fisherman I can tell you there is no better teacher of how to use, care for, store, cook and eat a product than a fishermen. They have ideas and techniques that most chefs would die for….but they have to ask…..so we spread the word to them,” says Paul.
When visiting Key West, be sure to try fish you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get at home. Considered local to Key West are the Hogfish, Mangrove Snapper, and, as of late, the Lion Fish. Paul’s favorite? The Hogfish. This fish is caught by spear fishing, which is a fun challenge to try. Speared by yourself or someone else, Paul suggests serving the fish whole and he affectionately calls it the “Key West Turkey”, because it can be stuffed with lobster, onions, and herbs.
While you may have heard of Key West’s conch fritters, which is fried conch meat that is actually native to the Caribbean, Paul prefers to make grouper fritters. Fisherman of Key West are able to catch the grouper right off the coast, so this is a true local specialty. Similar to the conch fritter, the grouper is mixed with onions, carrots and a traditional Key West seafood seasoning made by the Key West Spice Company and it contains celery seed, salt, paprika, and red pepper. It is a simple preparation, but fresh grouper doesn’t need overpowering flavors. Once the batter is made, Paul fries the fish balls until golden and enjoys them in a sandwich or as an appetizer sitting by the beautiful water. You will find his recipe below:
- 1 pound grouper
- 1/2 cup onions
- 1/2 cup carrots
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Key West seafood seasoning
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons Key Lime juice
- 1/2 cup flour
- Coconut oil, for frying
Finely dice the onions and carrots and mix with the grouper.
Add the Key West seafood seasoning.
In a medium bowl mix together the egg yolk and the key lime juice.
Add the flour and mix until a batter forms.
Use a tablespoon to make balls and fry the grouper balls in coconut oil or bake them in the oven on a sheet tray until brown. Serve with your favorite dip or sauce.
To make the grouper mixture into a sandwich filling instead of an appetizer, form the mixture into larger patties or rounds and cook as described above.
Key West Inspired: Strawberry Salad with Coconut Milk Dressing
Since it is strawberry season in Florida now, I decided to make a Key West inspired strawberry salad to add to this post. I think the recipe I created is a great example of the type of local flavors, ingredients and good eating that you will find in Key West. This salad is also a great accompaniment to some wonderful grilled Key West Pink Shrimp.
- One head Butter or Bibb Lettuce
- 1 pint of fresh strawberries
- 1 ripe avocado
- Half of a large or one small cucumber, unpeeled
- Lime juice
- 3/4 cup regular coconut milk
- 3 tablespoons coconut flavored Greek yogurt
- 3 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
To make the dressing:
Combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and whisk until thoroughly combined. Chill in the refrigerator while you make the salad.
For the salad:
Wash and dry the lettuce. Place the lettuce cups on a serving plate. Leave space on the serving plate for a small bowl that can hold the dressing.
Remove the strawberry leaves, wash the strawberries and place them on paper towels to dry.
Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and cut each half into one inch pieces.
Cut the peeled avocado into one inch chunks and squeeze lime juice over them to prevent browning while you make the salad.
Arrange the strawberries, cucumber pieces and avocado attractively in the lettuce cups. Pour the Coconut dressing into the bowl on the serving plate.
Guests can help themselves to a lettuce cup and drizzle some of the dressing over the salad.