January 26th, 2012
02:00 PM ET
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Politics? Schmolitics. We're in it for the regional foods of the great US of A. We've talked loose meat in Iowa, gorton in New Hampshire, and she-crab soup in South Carolina. Our colleague CNN video journalist Alexandra Willingham is based in Atlanta, but Key West, Florida, has been her lifelong destination of choice.

She's had a lot of practice chowing down while living it up on the island, and says "Forget what you learned from Jimmy Buffett - Key West eats go far beyond cheeseburgers and margaritas. Here are some of the best foods to try while visiting in paradise."

Here are five don't-miss dishes from the southernmost city.


1. Conch Fritters
This little mollusk, known for its glossy pink shell, is actually a type of snail. One of the tastiest ways to eat this island escargot is in a fritter: chunks of chewy meat held together by a batter mixed with peppers or spices.

Some of the best are found north of Key West, at Alabama Jack’s in Key Largo. These golden cakes combine the pefect amount of conch with a lightly sweet corn batter. If you’re not a fan of fried foods, try your conch in a hearty red chowder.

2. Key Lime Pie
The crown jewel of the keys is this petite citrus fruit. Key limes are smaller than typical limes and have a thinner, yellower skin. Their tart flavor makes them an excellent inspiration for Key West’s most popular dessert.

There are a million different opinions on what makes a great slice, but purists usually abide by a few rules: it can’t be too tart or too sweet, the crust needs to be graham cracker, and whipped cream should be kept to a minimum. Try a few to find your favorite, but be sure to sample the offerings at the Half Shell Raw bar and the Blonde Giraffe. If you’re not worried about being traditional, try a piece of pie on a stick. It’s a super-sweet version smothered in chocolate.

3. Cuban Food
Key West is closer to Havana than it is to Miami, so finding good Cuban food is a cinch. Pick up a Cuban mix - a popular sandwich made with ham, pork and cheese on Cuban bread - or tuck into big, meaty classics like ropa vieja - a beef stew - served alongside fried plantains and yellow rice. If you’re tired of key lime pie, search out homemade pastries studded with tropical fruits like mango or guava, or go for the flan - a traditional Hispanic egg custard.

4. Fresh Seafood
Key West is only about 4 miles long, so no matter where you are, freshly-caught seafood is never far away. In fact, the area used to be very active in the turtle canning industry until green turtles became endangered in the 1970s. You can still munch dockside on freshly shucked oysters and clams in the heart of the island’s fishing activity. Typical catches include lobster, grouper, and of course, Key West pink shrimp, known as “pink gold.”

5. Novelty Sweets
If Key Lime pie on a stick didn’t quench your craving for the indulgent, wander through the Port of Key West among towering cruise ships for huge, gooey gourmet cookies, sweets of all sorts, and absolutely anything you can think of involving limes. From lime cookies, lime salsa, barbecue sauce, to pure key lime juice, you’ll be stocked with enough souvenirs to keep the Keys in your kitchen until your next vacation.



soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. Conchscooter

    Nothing local in these suggestions. It's not easy to separate local's hang outs from visitors' because of the size of the place. When people ask me on my blog where local's eat I say Miami Subs and Outback. It's a matter of price, and life isn't cheap in Key West. El Mocho and Sandy's qualify. Good luck finding El Mocho on any list. And Sandy's isn't the best sandwich shop but it is open 24 hours. Mr Z's comes close but it's too real to fit on a list of tourist traps like Turtle Kraal, Schooner Wharf and Sloppy Joes. Indian snacks at the Pegasus terrace bar are pretty good on a warm evening.

    January 5, 2013 at 9:05 am | Reply
  2. Ann

    My favorite place in Key West is Turtle Kraal's – right on the marina! Fantastic oysters!

    January 30, 2012 at 10:05 am | Reply
  3. Tanya

    Key West is one of those places that is in my top 10 vacation locales. Tanya Glascoe

    January 30, 2012 at 9:21 am | Reply
  4. KEY WEST DREAM

    love key west every thing even the change lang peop food cloth are the real authentic attractions was there when i was 16 & 20 was a really nice era at the time people were not mad like they are now they were very laid back

    January 28, 2012 at 9:10 am | Reply
  5. tffl

    Never spent that much time in Key West – usually got no further than Islamorada (to go diving or fishing out of Bud and Mary's, then dinner at the Coral Grill, or (maybe) drinks at the Tiki Bar at Holiday Isle (yes, rumrunners)). But what is in Key West is also there further up the keys (and in Miami, for that matter). Also, rarely if ever bought key lime pie – we made our own (from limes from the bush in back) which was as good or better than store bought. The best conch (fritters, chowder, or salad) I've had in recent years has been at Dirty Ernie's in Fort Lauderdale – certainly as good as anything I've ever had in the keys.

    One thing they left out was stone crabs – though I guess I don't associate that with Key West but with Alabama Jack's. Never ate them at Jack's, but used to pick them up from the boats that docked there – they would boil the claws up in 55 gallon drums right on the dock, so they were as fresh as you could get.

    January 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  6. KeyWester

    One correction: a conch is NOT a "little" mollusk. It's a pretty big one. I was born in Key West and lived there in the 50s & 60s. MIss they way it was then, not the way it is now. My Dad was the movie projectionist at the Strand Theater on Duval. Now the theater building is a Walgreens. But hey I guess that's better than another T-shirt shop.

    January 27, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  7. JAke

    I grew up there but moved away when I was 18. I miss the food so much. The author has it exactly right. Foods and restaurants I would add: fried grouper sandwich (the best one was BO's fishwagon; best cuban mix (believe it or not) a sandwich shop at laundry mat on White street (called Ana's, maybe, can't remember) or BB's restaurant (if it's still there); El Siboney for cuban food; Rust Anchor (on Stock Island) for sea food; the little stand out front of the KW acquarium has great conch fritters; the fudge lady (if she's still alive) she used to say silly rhymes and say "here coooommmes the fudge!"

    January 27, 2012 at 9:52 am | Reply
    • stillhere

      The laundrymat restaurant is Sandy's, and it is still here and still the best place for a cuban mix.

      January 27, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  8. CN Red

    Gawd dayum! Those photos are the best!

    January 27, 2012 at 7:14 am | Reply
    • chefdugan

      Alabama Jack's – now that brings back memories. Key West is a jewell and I wish I could get back their for just one weekend. But it's so far away!

      January 27, 2012 at 9:02 am | Reply
  9. miscreantsall

    Good stuff, brings back memories.

    I just wish they still spoke ENGLISH down there.

    :-(

    January 27, 2012 at 6:14 am | Reply
    • Elly

      Plenty of people stil speak English. And the diversity just makes it more interesting.

      January 27, 2012 at 10:01 am | Reply
    • KeyWester

      Hey they can speak any language they want and they were there first. Expand your view a little. I don't know when you were in the Keys, but there has always been a Cuban population there. Not to mention Bahamian. Most of the Cubans had relatives in Cuba and before Castro they would travel the 90 miles back and forth to visit. A lot of the old families also have relatives in Tampa because that's where the cigar factories moved when they left Key West. When I was a kid living on Stock Island in the late 50s, there was a car ferry that went back and forth from Key West to Havana for people who wanted to gamble. Just like the boats going to Nassau now.

      January 27, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  10. CHOCLATE PARADISE

    SURPRISE I HAVE CHOCKLATE

    January 27, 2012 at 1:34 am | Reply
  11. Susan

    I love conch...I've had the fritters but also had it pounded and sauteed, and also, made with a warm, savory custard. Key Lime Pie is so good. But those pieces of frozen Key Lime Pie, covered in chocolate, on a stick - hahaha. those are insane! More than guaranteed to satisfy your sweet tooth. Yes, Key West is awesome. Beautiful water, great seafood and you can ride a bike anywhere!

    January 26, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Reply
  12. lizzie Bluebird

    Keno's sandals and the Catman on the pier at sunset. The cookie lady on her bicycle... So beautiful before it went all Gap and Margaritaville

    January 26, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  13. Springermom1

    http://springercrazymommy.blogspot.com/

    Check out my personal battle with Cheetos and Pop Tarts!

    January 26, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  14. PGR

    How about some receipes?

    January 26, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
    • KWDragon

      If you buy a bottle of Nellie & Joe's Key Lime juice, there is an excellent Key Lime Pie recipe on the back. Remember folks, good advice from this local who had to move away, NEVER eat green key lime pie! Yellow only, and go light on the meringue or whipped cream. A truly sublime experience (pun fully intended).

      January 27, 2012 at 9:46 am | Reply
  15. Conch at heart

    I spent almost every winter of my childhood on Big Pine Key and went to college in Miami. Best memories as a kid: fishing for grouper with my dad, conch fritters, Flipper's Sea School, key lime pie, riding my bike out to No Name Key, days on the beach at Bahia Honda. Best memories as an adult: driving from Miami to Key West with the top down, conch fritters, key lime pie, rum runners, New Years Eve at Duval and Greene, sunsets at Mallory.

    And conch a "little mollusk"?? We use to find them as big as footballs!

    January 26, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
    • Gezellig

      Do you remember Monte's on Sunshine Key? What I wouldn't give for his batter recipe and a plate of his seafood sampler.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Reply
  16. conchRider

    Schnooer Wharf and Cap't Tony's, need I say more!!!!!

    January 26, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  17. joe

    All I know is when your in the Key's on vacation everything is better. The pie,rum,women,ah yes just everything. Cut,pour,or your place or mine me another!!!

    January 26, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Reply
  18. grumpygus

    Dear author,
    Honolulu is further south than Key West. And Guam, Palmyra Atoll and Samoa further south still. There is more to the US than just the continent (da mainland, as they say).

    January 26, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Reply
    • Jason

      Your name says it all. You must have WAY too much time on your hands and you really should get a life.

      January 27, 2012 at 9:05 am | Reply
    • CN Red

      It's all relative, dude.

      January 27, 2012 at 9:41 am | Reply
    • No Relative of Gus

      - Rose Atoll, American Samoa (14°34′11″S 168°9′10″W) — southernmost point in all U.S. controlled territory
      – Palmyra Atoll – southernmost point in all US incorporated territory
      – Ka Lae, Hawaii (18°54′39″N 155°40′52″W) — southernmost point in the 50 states
      – Nā'ālehu, Hawaii (19°3′57″N 155°35′15″W) — southernmost town in the 50 states
      – Honolulu, Hawaii — southernmost incorporated place in the 50 states (Hawaii's only incorporated place)
      – Western Dry Rocks, Florida (24°26.8′N 81°55.6′W) — In the Florida Keys – southernmost point in the 48 contiguous states occasionally above water at low tide
      – Ballast Key, Florida (24°31′15″N 81°57′49″W) — southernmost point in the 48 contiguous states continuously above water
      – Key West, Florida (24.544701°N 81.810333°W) — southernmost incorporated place in the contiguous 48 states
      – Cape Sable, Florida (25°7′6″N 81°5′11″W) — southernmost point on the U.S. mainland
      – Miami, Florida — the southernmost major metropolitan city in the 48 contiguous states
      – Hawaii has the southernmost geographic center of all the states. Florida has the southernmost geographic center of the 48 contiguous states.

      *Note that maps of the 48 states that are displayed in an equal-area projection can give the impression that the state of Texas extends farther south than it actually does. The southernmost point in Texas (just southeast of Brownsville) is at approximately 25.84 degrees North latitude. This line of lat!tude passes through Hialeah, Florida, which is slightly north of Miami.

      January 27, 2012 at 10:05 am | Reply
    • Not Gus' Relative

      Concurring with CN Red, it is all in how you look at it:
      – Rose Atoll, American Samoa (14°34′11″S 168°9′10″W) — southernmost point in all U.S. controlled territory
      – Palmyra Atoll – southernmost point in all US incorporated territory
      – Ka Lae, Hawaii (18°54′39″N 155°40′52″W) — southernmost point in the 50 states
      – Nā'ālehu, Hawaii (19°3′57″N 155°35′15″W) — southernmost town in the 50 states
      – Honolulu, Hawaii — southernmost incorporated place in the 50 states (Hawaii's only incorporated place)
      – Western Dry Rocks, Florida (24°26.8′N 81°55.6′W) — In the Florida Keys – southernmost point in the 48 contiguous states occasionally above water at low tide
      – Ballast Key, Florida (24°31′15″N 81°57′49″W) — southernmost point in the 48 contiguous states continuously above water
      – Key West, Florida (24.544701°N 81.810333°W) — southernmost incorporated place in the contiguous 48 states
      – Cape Sable, Florida (25°7′6″N 81°5′11″W) — southernmost point on the U.S. mainland
      – Miami, Florida — the southernmost major metropolitan city in the 48 contiguous states
      – Hawaii has the southernmost geographic center of all the states. Florida has the southernmost geographic center of the 48 contiguous states.

      * Note that maps of the 48 states that are displayed in an equal-area projection can give the impression that the state of Texas extends farther south than it actually does. The southernmost point in Texas (just southeast of Brownsville) is at approximately 25.84 degrees North lat!tude. This line of lat!tude passes through Hialeah, Florida, which is slightly north of Miami.

      January 27, 2012 at 10:25 am | Reply
      • tffl

        The simplest view is that Key West is the southernmost point in the US that you can drive to from the "mainland" (48 states).

        January 27, 2012 at 10:40 am | Reply
    • Conch

      It is now, but for decades Key West was the Southernmost point and Southernmost city. The locals aren't going to drop the name and tear down the "southernmost point" monument just b/c we later acquired new states and territories.

      January 28, 2012 at 10:07 am | Reply
  19. Chris

    "This little mollusk"? Depends on what you consider little!

    January 26, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Reply
  20. Lisa, A Fresh Water Conch (Fresh Water Conchs are folks who lived in Key West for more than 7 years)

    The Blonde Giraffe is no longer located in Key West. http://www.blondgiraffe.com/locations
    Meringue is the traditional Conch topping for Key Lime pie – not whipped cream. The recipe was based on what was availabe on our little Island at the time. Fresh milk/cream was not readily available. Condensed milk, eggs and key lime juice is used in the filling.
    I would also add dolphin fish and yellow tail snapper as delicious, local catch. Also hog fish and, when in season, mutton snapper.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  21. PM IN TENN

    BOY I MISS FLORIDA

    January 26, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Reply
  22. Jamie

    As far as I know, the Blond Giraffe went out of business in November 2010. The alternative is Kermit's Key Lime Pie Shoppe and I think they are better anyway!

    January 26, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  23. Heaven on Earth

    I can't talk about Key West without talking about Rumrunners. The best are found in Cayo Hueso (it's original name). Conch's (native Key Westers) use real fruit juices and 3 of the smoothest rums to make this Conch-coction. Heaven in a very tall glass. Always frozen, never on the rox. And for an extra kick, ask for a 151 floater. If they actually float it on top of your drink, finish up that one and move on to the next hole-in-the-wall. True conchs pour the 151 right down the straw. Bliss.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  24. Poppy Lee

    Stone Crab claws. Ooooo. Only from October 15 to May 15, though.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  25. Multi-Tasking @ Work

    just take me away to Key West again...damn, should of bought that House-Boat

    January 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Reply
  26. Dale

    I like Key lime pie with boiled water and refried beans.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  27. Zab

    Have you tasted the key lime pie at the Rod and Reel on Anna-Maria Island? The best in Florida!!!!

    January 26, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  28. NoTags

    Lived in the Keys for 29 years. Lol, never really cared for the key lime pie although I had a key lime tree right in my yard. I am going right now and finish off some conch fritters left over from last night. BTW, conch in the Keys and all through the Bahamas and South Atlantic islands is pronounced as konk.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
    • flaborngirl

      Thank YOU for adding the last sentence! And, I've had Key Lime Pie all over the Southern US, and FLA (lol) and LOVE it, but my favorite place is The Conch House (coincidence) in St. Augustine. It's yellow (as real Key Lime Pie is) and cut in big squares and DELICIOUS!

      January 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  29. Med Student

    The key lime pie alone made it worth visiting key west. In the words of Dale Cooper – This must be where pies go when they die

    January 26, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  30. James

    The only problem is the picture displays a Persian lime and not a Key lime. Key limes are yellow.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
    • J

      Yellow when ripe

      January 26, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
    • sbp

      Another giveaway is the size of the slice. Key lime would be smaller.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
    • lseejax

      Sorry, James, but real key limes as grown on bushy type small, short trees in Key West, really are a dark GREEN and smaller than Persian limes and most lemons, depending on the weather during their growth period. Lemons are yellow.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Reply
      • Daisy

        Key limes are yellow when ripe.

        January 26, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Reply
      • james

        I happen to have a home in KW with a couple of Key lime trees and they are most definitely yellow, at least for the last 21 years.

        January 26, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Reply
      • stillhere

        I live in KW and have key lime trees, they are the size of regular citrus trees. Like other citrus, the fruit is green when immature, and when ripe a pale yellow. Don't buy green key limes, they won't be as juicy and less flavor. The slice in the picture does not appear to be a key lime.

        January 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  31. kana

    mmmm pie <3

    January 26, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  32. Sarah in TN

    I don't care anything about the conch, but gimmee the key lime. Gimmee, gimmee!

    January 26, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Reply

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