In the Florida Keys & Key West, fresh seafood is a must for just about every meal. And with the abundance of fish and seafood in Keys waters, most restaurants along the island chain make it a menu staple.
It’s easy to find just-off-the-boat snapper, grouper and mahi-mahi served grilled, blackened or fried. In addition, some chefs and restaurateurs enjoy showcasing “only in the Keys” dishes, unusual species or outside-the-box preparation techniques.
Lobster, bacon and tomato make for an amazing breakfast “Bennie” at Key West’s Blue Heaven. (Photo courtesy of Blue Heaven)
That’s certainly true at Blue Heaven, located in Key West’s Bahama Village neighborhood at 729 Thomas St. on the site of a boxing ring where Ernest Hemingway once refereed local matches (yes, really!). Today diners enjoy Caribbean and seafood specialties in a lively courtyard or indoors in a funky, colorful historic building.
Breakfast with the roosters (free-range Key West poultry roaming the courtyard) is so popular that waiting lines can stretch off the property and into the street. One of the most requested breakfast dishes is the BLT Benedict, but this is not a traditional BLT featuring bacon, lettuce and tomato.
The “L” in this case stands for lobster — fresh, sweet Florida lobster. The dish is composed of poached eggs, grilled tomato slices, chunks of Florida lobster tail and crisp bacon. These luscious ingredients sit atop a toasted English muffin covered with Blue Heaven’s yummy lime hollandaise sauce.
Just outside Key West, on Stock Island in the Lower Keys, stands a hideaway restaurant called Hogfish Bar & Grill. This proudly ramshackle watering hole — a true locals’ spot that’s also beloved by in-the-know visitors — can be found at 6810 Front St. alongside an authentic “old style” marina. Most diners sit outdoors at weathered picnic tables, overlooking picturesque houseboats and sailboats moored at the adjacent dock.
The restaurant’s signature dish, as its name implies, is hogfish — a primarily diver-caught fish with a light yet unparalleled flavor. A wide variety of other Keys seafood temptations are also served, including a lip-smacking smoked-fish dip that absolutely MUST be tried.
At the renowned Hogfish on Stock Island, the signature dish is … hogfish! Here it’s prepared as a luscious “killer hogfish” sandwich.
However, the undisputed menu star is the sizeable “killer” hogfish sandwich. Enough for two to share, it consists of a generous serving of fresh-caught hogfish topped with melted swiss cheese and sautéed mushrooms and onions — all nestled on a chunk of fresh Cuban bread with a side of crispy fries.
Another unusual fish captured in Keys waters is the highly recognizable Indo-Pacific red lionfish. A voracious invader, non-native lionfish are known for outcompeting native species for food and territory.
Luckily, the lionfish’s light white meat has become a favorite of local restaurateurs and visiting diners — likened to hogfish or snapper in terms of flakiness, color and flavor. While the “lions” have venomous spines, they’re removed before preparation and the fish is completely safe to eat.
Middle Keys restaurateur John Mirabella, an avid diver and spearfisherman, helped pioneer the predator as a food fish. So, naturally, lionfish is one of the menu standouts at his Castaway Waterfront Restaurant and Sushi Bar at 1406 Ocean View Ave. in Marathon. Diners at the popular Castaway often enjoy it as a gorgeous (and unforgettably delicious) sushi specialty dubbed the “King of the Jungle Roll.”
As well as these culinary delights, there are scores of other tasty reasons to head for the Florida Keys. Click here for an overview of mouthwatering spots throughout the island chain — and then make plans for a subtropical vacation to savor Keys flavors.