We came, we saw, we ate. We can attest to Best Key Lime Pie, Best Conch Fritters, Best Fish, Best Breakfast. Best in these cases is from among the restaurants we sampled.
The Best Key Lime Pie (as in since my grandmother passed away) was to be had at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen — the small one on the north side of US 1 heading west in Key Largo. The welcome was vocal, as in every staff member in sight, and real. We decided to make our late lunch an early dinner, and Janet had fish and shrimp done fish and chips style with excellent sweet potato fries (just the right ratio of soft and crunchy.) My fish was smothered in relleno sauce and graced with just enough cheese — not swimming in it. The black beans and rice were tasty. We both had mahi/dolphin/dorado, and for me it was a bit over-cooked, but then I am super-picky about fish. The food police have pretty much driven restaurant cooks to ruin it, and when I ask for it something less that DONE, I expect government types and lawyers to descend (ala Alton Brown’s dilemma).
And then came the PIE. Light yellow, check. Custard base, check, Dense and smooth, check, Perfectly sour-sweet, check. No whip cream, OK I had to ask for that part. Otherwise a perfect piece of KLP! All comments about fish cookery aside, we would consider Mrs. Mac’s a must return.
The Best Conch Fritters were at Lazy Days in Islamorada. Before we reached Lazy Days on day two, we had gotten them that were too browned, conch too tough, diced pickles in the fritter batter*, almost no conch, and raw in the middle. At Lazy Days they were golden, soft, fully cooked with tender conch and just the right bite of spice. Lazy Days also provided us with excellent fish that was closer to properly cooked. My grouper came with a bit of bacon and cheddar on top as a sandwich. I don’t care for grilled fish sandwiches. The bread soaks away the juices. Janets’ mahi/dolphin/dorado was very lightly tempura-ed and gently fried. In both cases, our sweet potato and regular fries were deemed worth saving for breakfast hash. The SPF were particularly good.
The award for Best Fish in an entree role goes to Fish Tales in Marathon. This is a fish market with tables. My blackened grouper was beautifully seasoned and over-cooked — not just by my standards, but I’m sure the food police would be handing out an “A.” My black beans and rice were tasty but came out as the last glob from the pot — probably because we ate late. Janet’s fried grouper was what snagged the best award. It was melt in your mouth moist and obviously fresh.. Not only that she liked the slaw, ordered it double and had some of mine. The award for best performance of fish in a spread also goes to Fish Tales. Made of salmon mahi/dolphin/dorado, mackerel, and (I forget) and seasoned with a variation on the blackening spice and with only enough binder to bind, this stuff was GRRReaaaat (I miss Thurl Ravenscroft).
We like diners, especially those in touch with what diners used to be, pre-franchising. Harriette’s is one of those. The menu was comprehensive. Pretty much everything is cooked to order. The ingredients are obviously fresh. The service is honest, helpful and friendly. The place is tiny and often has lines at the door. My spicy beef omelet was not spicy by my terms, but I am sure others would have found it so, but it was hot, fresh and delicious and served with a quarter-acre biscuit.and local honey. Janet’s fry up was an old standby for diners and executed perfectly. With beverages, our Best Breakfast (we ate at noon) was under $20 for two.
And then, drum roll, there were Harriette’s Key Lime Muffins, 5+ inches in diameter, with a bank of confectioner’s sugar drifted across the top, they are delicate and limey until one reaches the core which is almost a key lime curd. We don’t believe we have ever had a dessert muffin quite this good ever before. We split one while there and brought one home for breakfast the next day. We are thinking of suggesting a monthly subscription service.
There are plenty of places to eat in the Keys, they run from shacks to jackets required. Neither aspect will tell you much about the food. but this is where the Internet shines if you can spot the trolls and sock-puppets among the reviewers — too good or too bad is usually a tip-off. Lots of vehicles parked out front, in back and barely off the road isn’t much of a tip-off. DUI may be illegal, but restaurants without bars, or at least plenty of beer, pretty much don’t exist. If you see a lot of vehicles, check an online rating service — is it the food. or is it the happy hour?
* A UN Violation.