Somewhere between Key Largo and Mallory Square, between Lake Surprise and Lignum Vitae Channel on that endless stretch of Route 1 below Mile Marker 111 in the Florida Keys, there may be a piece of something that precisely fits the hole in your heart.
Maybe you'll fall for the gigantic billboard of a naked mermaid. Or the sight of a record-breaking sailfish laid out on a dock. What makes you finally understand you never want to go home again could turn out to be a rescued Hawksbill sea turtle named "Randy Rudy" over at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Or it could be something simpler: a hexagonal yellow sign that reads "Crocodile Crossing." That piece of heart you've been missing might be shaped like the face of a beautiful woman sitting in the shade on No Name Key. It might even taste like a shot of Barbancourt first thing in the morning at a lowbrow place off Duval Street.
The bars are open for business in the Florida Keys by 7 a.m., and they're not short on customers: People fall into a sea- and sky-colored abyss here and never crawl out. You do your best work in the Keys or you do nothing at all. Tennessee Williams wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in a room he called "The Mad House" in his Key West conch shack. That play's most famous lines -- "What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?... Just stayin' on it, I guess. As long as she can" -- could apply to half the people who've landed here and hung on.
Dining in the Keys
Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls in his house on Whitehead Street. And Zane Grey, the pulp adventure writer who in his day far outsold both Hemingway and Williams, set a world's record fishing off Long Key practically every time he cast his line.
These days, the streets of Key West are full of hippie kids, aimless and homeless after losing another kind of Phish, who put together their meals begging for doggy bags from the tourists ambling out of A&B Lobster House. When they're hungry, they're as aggressive as stray curs.
Flush or broke, South Floridian or Bostonian, you come here to eat and drink under the trees and under the stars. Chef Norman Van Aken took his first cooking job in Key West at Louie's Backyard. Along with his buddies Douglas Rodriguez, Allen Susser, and Mark Militello -- the Mango Gang -- Van Aken coined the culinary term fusion and spawned a school of little minnows who swam back to the Keys, grew into big fish, and made it the southernmost outpost of New World cuisine. You can spin New World ingredients -- the mangos and poblanos, the passion fruit and the spiny lobster tails, the sweet potatoes and the plantains -- through 365 sunsets and never repeat yourself.
Chefs who are doing it in the Keys, like Alice Weingarten over at Alice's or Paul Orchard at Mangoes or Brian Kay at Hot Tin Roof, tack through key-lime-colored seas without ever stealing the wind from one another's sails.
So last week, my first mate and I packed up the rattling, coughing Mercedes without much of a plan. We were heading south, looking for reasons to get lost.
Reason to Get Lost Number 1: From the Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon, the horizon looks twice as far away as it does anywhere else. No matter how many times you cross that bridge, when you hit this miracle of engineering, this shining, tensile, silver carpet rolled out to the Lower Keys, you can't start across without thinking how a good summer hurricane could wipe out your only access to civilization. And you can't come to the end of the Seven Mile without wondering how the hell you're going to get from there to No Name Pub. The No Name's motto is "A nice place... if you can find it." It's somewhere on No Name Key, about a quarter mile past No Name Bridge, off Big Pine Key, down a series of swooping roads. You'll drive right by it at least twice before you see the sign that says "You found it!"
Some local might take pity and point you in the right direction, or you might drive in endless circles. But eventually, you'll walk into that mote-speckled half-light and blink half-a-dozen times before you start to believe what you're seeing. Stapled to every square inch of this decrepit little watering hole, peeling off in sheets like ancient wall paper, are thousands of dollar bills. Just about every customer who's visited the place since it was built in 1936 has put his signature, or a heart with her date's initials, on a piece of paper money and tacked it up -- weaving a carpet so green and thick, so beyond all reckoning, that it qualifies as one of the Seven Unnatural Wonders of the Keys. The No Name's Royal Pizza ($17.95) might just be the Eighth Wonder. That pizza must weigh 15 pounds, yet the crust is still crispy. The basket of spicy silver-dollar potato fries ($2.50) is better than buried treasure. If you can step down from the Paul Bunyan-sized bar stools without falling on your face after a meal here, consider yourself inducted. But there is no reason I can think of to step down any time soon.
Reason to Get Lost Number 2: My friend Cara was once a razor-sharp 28-year-old prosecutor in New Jersey. Then she went to Key West for a week's vacation. At the end of the week, she called her boss and said, "I'm not coming back."
There were two things that kept her from packing up her suntan lotion -- a handsome dude named Mike and a restaurant called Hot Tin Roof (Zero Duval St. at the Ocean Key Resort, 305-296-7701). Cara and Mike wanted to relive the magic, so we all went over and settled in at a table on the balcony overlooking Sunset Key, just far enough above the party animals packed on the docks below. We could hear our old friend Raven Cooper -- a blues singer from Arkansas who's another fatality of Lower Keys paralysis -- below us too, belting out versions of "Stormy Weather" and "Wild Women Don't Get the Blues" in her impossibly sweet and sexy twang.
The menu at Hot Tin Roof has been rewritten more often than the third act of a Tennessee Williams drama -- these days, Executive Chef Brian Kay specializes in over-the-top presentation. Lobster and roasted corn quesadillas ($12) come furled up like ice cream cones and secured in a rack; a "Southernmost Bento" ($25) hangs tiny bowls of ceviche at different levels from a wrought-iron bar. A spiny lobster bisque ($12), swirled with crème fraiche and finished with a single big chunk of lobster, looks and tastes like a Florida sunset in a bowl.
That lineup of apps should have constituted dinner, but we'd worked up an appetite kayaking out to Picnic Island -- a tiny dot on the horizon -- to go snorkeling. So we just sort of melted into our seats and looked on dazedly as a waiter kept putting plates down in front of us: a Gulf Coast shrimp Creole ($25), a Caribbean bouillabaisse ($34), a Roquefort-crusted filet mignon ($42), and a special lobster tail filled with crab meat ($45). The stuff on our table amounted to roughly 100 times more seafood than we'd seen while snorkeling. We ate some fat shrimp with a glistening risotto, heavy and rich and smoky. And we dug big spoonfuls of minced crab out of a lobster shell and sort of mushed it up with squares of lobster meat and crunchy-tender wild rice. We cut into a velveteen beef fillet, smeared it with a little Roquefort, and dragged it through delicious, buttery squiggles of red wine reduction. We ate through layers of shellfish until we found the substratum of mashed potatoes under our bouillabaisse, and we mopped that up with heart-shaped pieces of grilled bread.
It seemed like a long time until we finally scooped the last berry from our mixed berry cobbler ($7). We could still hear Raven on the docks; she was singing La Vie en Rose. We hauled ourselves up and drifted downstairs in a rose-colored haze. And the singer took one look at us and kissed us all over our faces.
Reason to Get Lost Number 3: My paramour had a hole in her heart that was shaped like a grouper sandwich the next day, so we made for the Square Grouper on Cudjoe Key (Mile Marker 22.5, 305-745-8880) because the owners, Lynn and Doug Bell, were just about to close the place for a six-week vacation.
I'll fight anybody who says there's a better grouper sandwich in the Keys than the one at Square Grouper. Elizabeth Bishop was probably thinking of a Florida grouper when she wrote her famous poem The Fish from her Key West cottage. "He was speckled with barnacles," she wrote, "fine rosettes of lime,/and infested/with tiny white sea lice...") In their natural setting, groupers are ugly suckers, and any cook will tell you they're full of worms, but there's hardly anything as pretty as a snow-white, sautéed fillet between two slices of focaccia. And if you throw a bunch of crispy homemade shoestring onions on top, as Lynn does, and then slather it with a homemade key lime tartar sauce, you can pretty much believe that your only regret, if you keeled over dead at that exact moment, would be how you missed taking one last bite.
There aren't many places like the Keys, where entire staffs of small restaurants -- hostesses, cooks, and waitrons -- take six-week vacations. Lynn and Doug named the place after the big bales of dope, wrapped in burlap, that used to swim in local waters when smugglers dumped them to avoid the Coast Guard. She came down to the Keys with her parents as a teenager, and she never could quite cut herself free of the line that kept reeling her back. "Remember the '70s, all the fishermen in the Keys had Rolexes?" she jokes. The back of the menu describes the square grouper as greenish brown and weighing 50 pounds, known by the Latin names Weedus, Potus, and Ganjus. The square grouper "is not very wary and [is] often caught by hand and just hauled into the boat."
This place is an unapologetic ichthyoarchy. You will eat fried oysters, bittersweet and juicy, dunked in key lime sauce, and bowls of conch chowder full of thick tomato and potato chunks. The marinated olive kebab -- "jumbo queen olives stuffed with pimento, garlic, and jalapeño in a vodka marinade"-- is a barely legal way to have your sauce and eat it too.
We sat, lone customers in an empty restaurant, drawing unsympathetic portraits of each other with crayons on the butcher-paper-covered tables, in that lazy late-afternoon lull when the waitresses chalk elaborate specials on the blackboard and sing along to Fiona Apple tunes. Their distant voices were comforting in the way that distant voices sometimes are. Then, on the stroke of 5 p.m., as if a bell had gone off at a racetrack, every seat in the house was suddenly full of people awaiting dinner. So we shook ourselves loose and drove down the highway.
Reason to Get Lost Number 4: My former fast-lane friend Cara works for an attorney named David Horan these days. Horan's one of the guys who buzzed a U.S. Border Patrol blockade in Florida City with a biplane and started the conch rebellion of 1982. It was after that fly-by that Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow announced the Keys would secede from the United States and rename itself the Conch Republic. (Within days, the secessionists surrendered and demanded $1 billion in foreign aid.) Horan and Cara spend their time sorting through the legal implications of treasure hunting and the rights of owners of polydactyl cats -- cats with extra toes are a Key West genetic specialty. "Up north, opposing lawyers eat each other alive," Cara told me. "In the Keys, it's like, 'Can we just resolve this? I want to go fishing tomorrow. '"
One of Cara's clients is a woman who traipses around in a big red wig with green and blue feathers stuck in it. She calls herself Madame LeFeye, and from her I learned that there is more than one way to get "pickled in Paradise." Madame LeFeye produces jars of the best sweet-dill Cajun-style pickles you've ever eaten. The pickles are fat and crunchy, sour and sweet, hot and cool, and they hit your taste buds as if they'd been timed to go off in sequence. You will find new uses for pickles. You'll want to put up your feet, crack open a jar of those Extra Spicy Chipotles, and write a song full of melancholy and longing about the mysteries of the briny cuke.
Madame LeFeye's real name is Orva Gaille Clubb (you can see why she needed a colorful pseudonym). She and her husband came to the Keys on a cruise for their 25th anniversary. Guess what happened? They never left.
Clubb learned to make pickles from her grandmother. They brined bread-and-butter pickles, dills, and gherkins in pots and left them for the summer under the front porch. "One summer, it got way too hot," she told me, "and we made a great big old batch of dill pickles, but they got ruined. They were really limp, but they tasted good, so I tried to stiffen them up by adding sugar to turn them into sweet gherkins. We just kept working at it, layering in more and more different spices -- I won't tell you which ones; that's a secret -- and the result was delicious. It just so happens I lucked out."
Madame LeFeye says that while she's making pickles in her kitchen, steaming the jars, pasting on the labels, and packing them into boxes, she often loses track of time and goes into a reverie. "The whole family loves pickles," she says, "even my two grandbabies -- I call them 'picklettes. '" About a dozen stores in the Keys carry Madame LeFeye's pickles -- like Albertson's and Worldwide Sportsman. You can also order them by the half case ($25) or the full case ($45) at www.madamelefeye.com.
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Reason to Get Lost Number 5: Imagine you are following that very tall, very ample woman wearing the leopard-print chef's pants, a string of pearls, and a pair of cat's-eye glasses. There's something about the way she looks that reminds you of the way passion fruit tastes -- sun warm and sweet. And when she turns into the door at 1114 Duval St. and disappears like Alice down the rabbit hole, you follow her through the door into Alice's Key West (305-292-5733).
The furthest Alice Weingarten has moved since she came to Key West as a fresh-faced Culinary Institute of America graduate for a three-month internship is across the street and back again. Alice is by all accounts the Goddess of Fusion Confusion. She adds vanilla flavoring to savory dishes, infuses sushi rice with coconut, and tosses mango and goat cheese salad in a passion-fruit vinaigrette.
Alice makes up recipes like Asian spiced wild boar baby back ribs, jumbo stuffed and baked artichokes, and Cuban-style mojo marinated ostrich. You can have any of these if you stop by for dinner. Or like us, you can go specifically for the brunch-time mimosas ($6.50). Alice's highly drinkable potion of champagne, orange liqueur, and a dash of orange juice is the best breakfast drink you will find in Key West, home of the crack-of-dawn cocktail. A plate of soft-shell crab Benedict with key lime Hollandaise sauce is $17.95, and a Key West-style Philly steak sandwich is $11.50. After three or four mimosas and a veggie omelet with sun-dried tomatoes ($12.95), you might think you don't need to get into the whole question of what, exactly, a dish of "tropical fruit shortcake with passion fruit Chantilly cream" ($8) will do for you. But you are wrong. You need to stay a while and examine that question.
Reason to Get Lost Number 6: Because there's no good way to get home. There are a million ways to disappear in the Florida Keys but only one way back: up U.S. 1, bumper to bumper at 30 miles an hour. But don't ever say I didn't give you an out. At the Zane Grey Long Key Lounge (Mile Marker 81.5, Islamorada, 305-664-4244), there's a humidor with a good cigar waiting for you, a highball at a table overlooking another sunset, and live music courtesy of Delta boogie bluesman Lonnie Shields. And there's the ghost of the old scribbler Grey, whose every character was a wanderer. Here was a man who understood the value of doing nothing special. "If I fished only to capture fish," he said, "my fishing trips would have ended long ago."