Today’s Key Largo is fascinating, textured with rich contrasts. It includes upscale new places to stay including Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo, Playa Largo Resort & Spa, and the all-inclusive Bungalows Key Largo scheduled to reopen in December. It’s also a mix of funky attractions, established dive charter operations and affordable-stay options that are longtime comfy favorites.
And savvy “foodies” can’t forget Key Largo’s amazing array of delicious dining spots. Here are a few favorites:
Alabama Jack’s. You know you’ve arrived in the far Upper Florida Keys at Alabama Jack’s, tucked off Card Sound Road. It resembles a big blue fishing shed and you’ll likely find a fleet of Harleys — or on a Sunday afternoon, a twirl of silver-haired seniors attired in boots and swirling skirts, bused in from Homestead for afternoon fun. Dancing, drinking and dining take center stage at this true one-of-a-kind waterfront dive. Order up conch fritters, crab cakes, cold homemade conch salad served with tortilla chips, fresh grouper fingers or smoked fish or spread (FYI, extra jalapenos are 25 cents). 58000 Card Sound Road.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen. “Eat Well, Laugh Often, Live Long” is the motto at the establishment touted as “the longest running restaurant in Key Largo.” It’s so popular that there are two: the “Original” Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen established in 1976 at 99336 Overseas Highway, and the newer Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen II at 99020 Overseas Highway. Locals love the “American seafood” menu and hearty breakfasts (lobster and grits and the “Mac” attack are new; the first glass of breakfast champagne is $2). Also popular: “Konk” chowder with conch in a tomato base, alligator tenders or lobster bites, Caribbean-style crab cakes loaded with real crabmeat and “Fish-On-A-Bun” and “Superfishwich” sandwiches. The original ramshackle spot, built in 1947 as part of an inn, is a treat for road-weary eyes with chock-a-block Keys knickknacks and ceiling-hung license plates. The newer peachy pink-hued venue has a huge circular cocktail bar. Tangy take-away Key lime pies impress family and friends.
The Fish House Restaurant & Seafood Market. This iconic roadside classic gets all its seafood — more than 3,000 pounds of fresh fish weekly — from local commercial fishermen. It fillets all fish and smokes some of it on premise. Off-the-boat grouper or yellowtail is prepared Matecumbe-style (topped with fresh tomatoes, shallots, fresh basil, capers, olive oil and lemon juice, then baked), signature style (sherry-spiked and pan sautéed) or baked and stuffed with blue crab meat. Visitors are welcomed like family. Co-owners Doug Prew and C.J. Berwick are friendly divorced partners who oversee a team of longtime loyal staffers. Take-home Key lime pies, topped with toasted meringue, are a home-run hit. Mile marker 102.4.
Sal’s Ballyhoo’s. Love all-you-can-ever-eat-in-a-single-sitting snow crab, steamed and served with drawn butter? Jumbo peel-and-eat Key West pinks with Cajun spices and heavy cream? Southern-style Ballyhoo’s satisfies, featuring dishes including yummy conch meuniere that’s lightly breaded and sauced with garlic butter, Key lime and Worcestershire. Fried pink tomatoes are topped with goat cheese, balsamic reduction and fresh basil ribbons. There’s even a shrimp and oyster po’boy served on a Cuban roll, and burgers are a half-pound of grilled fresh chuck (ground daily). All-you-can-eat snow crab is priced from $55. Mile marker 97.8.
Snook’s Bayside. Showcased on Miami chef-host Michelle Bernstein’s public television program “Check, Please!,” Snook’s is nestled on Florida Bay and known for its romantic dockside ambiance. Lobster and shrimp cakes are stuffed with seafood and drizzled with Thai sauce. Other drool-worthy fare includes mahi-mahi meuniere, pistachio-encrusted yellowtail, hazelnut chicken and two ultimate insiders’ dishes: Snooks Indecision, a 6-ounce lobster tail, shrimp, scallops and mahi-mahi broiled to perfection; and Snooks Ultimate Indecision: two 6-ounce lobster tails, three fresh jumbo scallops, three jumbo shrimp, a hogfish snapper fillet and a third-pound of colossal crab — perfect for two. The eatery’s Key lime pie has a tinge of coconut with “granola’d” crust. Mile marker 99.9 in Sunset Cove just south of Tarpon Basin.