Now that Easter is over and the snowbirds are returning to Capistrano (well, actually, back north to previously frozen tundra), it’s time for us locals to think about taking our own mini-vacation. Specifically, a trip to the Keys.
Though for years the Keys, with the exception of Key West, have been your basic culinary moonscape, the dining scene is slowly starting to get better. Especially in the Upper Keys, where there are several newish restaurants, with several others opened in the last few weeks. Here are some of my favorites.
Category Three Bar & Grill (99246 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo, 305/923-9426). It’s all about the burger at this very Keys-y (but spotless) dive, which in a little over two years has become a favorite of hungry locals. Burgers are half-pound monsters, stuffed with everything from pulled pork and bourbon-infused bacon to blue cheese and jalapenos, and topped with everything from onion rings and sauteed mushrooms to salsa and, of course, more bacon. There are ribs and wings and sammies too, but it’s worth a visit just to hang out with the engaging owner, Bill Burkhardt, and enjoy his restaurant’s welcoming, laid-back ambiance.
Chef Michael’s (81671 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305/664-0640). If you’re in the mood for dress-up fare without dressing up, then Michael Ledwith’s classy little Islamorada eatery is the place. You’d expect a restaurant whose motto is “Peace, love and hogfish” to have a way with fresh local seafood, and you’d be right. Choose your fish and have it prepared in a variety of ways, like New Orleans-style Ponchartrain (blackened and topped with shrimp and crawfish in mildly spicy Creole sauce) or the simpler Adriatic (grilled and drizzled with olive oil and fresh herbs). Carnivores should check out the crispy roasted duck with mango-cashew sauce.
Island Grill @ the Mandalay (80 E. 2nd St., Key Largo, 305/852-0595). The folks behind Island Grill in Islamorada have taken over another ramshackle waterfront restaurant, this one a sprawling, semi-open spot with panoramic views of Rock Harbor. All the Islamorada Island’s signature dishes have made the move north, like the killer sushi-grade ahi tuna “nachos” and appetite-busting shrimp ‘n’ grits (with big chunks of andouille sausage). Check ‘em out on Saturday nights, when my good friend (and stellar jazz guitarist) John McKinna plays everything from Antonio Carlos Jobim to T-Bone Walker (but never Jimmy Buffet!).
Ma’s Fish Camp (105 Palm Ave., Islamorada, 305/517-9611). This modest, uber-casual, down-home fish shack does all the usual Keys culinary suspects just a bit better than most of its competitors, serving them up with a side helping of easygoing friendliness that’s one of the Keys’ biggest attributes. The menu doesn’t offer any surprises, but standbys like fried shrimp, mahi Reuben and tacos, smoked fish dip and Key lime pie are all well worth ordering. Pay attention to the wine list, which though small, has a surprisingly number of excellent boutique selections.
M.E.A.T. Eatery & Tap Room (88005 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305/852-3833).Man doesn’t live by seafood alone, even in the Keys, so unrepentant carnivores and anyone hungry for a break from piscine delicacies should head for this tiny, meat-centric restaurant in a nondescript strip mall. Despite its small size and nothing-much location, owners Tom Smith and George Patti are serious about their food (and beer), making their own sausages, pickles and ice creams, smoking their own pork and bacon, and offering a fine selection of artisan suds. Get your taste buds ready, because M.E.A.T. is coming to Boca later this year.
Check back for future posts in our dining blog about good places to dine in the Middle Keys and some of the hot new restaurants that have opened in Key West (and you’ll be surprised at one eatery’s local connection).