Isla Bonita

Two excellent casual Upper Keys eateries help erase the bad memories of their upscale neighbor

The Lorelei Cabana Bar is also the place for sunset seekers to down cold, spiced, peel-'n'-eat shrimp in quick time to the speedily setting rays. And in that Lorelei has some of its competition naturally beaten. But those looking for a truly great meal, cocktail-time or otherwise, would do well to venture into the shabby (but clean) joint called Ziggie's Gumbo and Crab Shack (83000 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305-664-3391). The establishment was raised in the early 20th Century and spent several generations in the same family only to be sold a few years ago and promptly run into the ground. Now a native Conch owns it and for the past five months has been serving what might just be the only authentic Cajun and Creole cuisine -- i.e., deep-fried okra that pops between the teeth with the crunch of pumpkin seeds -- south of Rosey Baby.

Ziggie's does what many Creole restaurants outside N'Awlins do: imports filé for the gumbo and sausage for the jambalaya. As a result, such items are authentic and flavorful, rich from being simmered all day. The sausage is showcased both in the gumbo and on a roll with peppers, onions, and cheese, a mouth-challenging sandwich known as the "Bulldog Bayou." Let's just say that both preparations are best eaten with a fork.

But Ziggie's also represents its hometown and its moniker with superb oyster poorboys featuring shellfish from the local bay, lump crab cakes that fall apart at the tine of a fork, and bowls of savory crab bisque (crab lovers can glean virtually every type of crab from the dinner menu). And it nods to the Keys in general with typically amenable service and a super after-meal drink called, of course, the key lime pie. Forget the real thing. This beverage, made of Captain Morgan's Parrot Bay rum, Licor 43, cream, lime juice, and graham cracker crumbs, is precisely what you can't leave the Keys without trying. Even if, like I did, you came for a different reason entirely, and even if it's not what you deserve.

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