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Disclosure: I was selected as a member of Honest Cooking for this sponsored post on behalf of The Florida Keys. All content and photos have been provided by the sponsor.
Ah, Key West — a favorite destination for Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Buffett, and many more, and anyone looking for a little fun in the sun. Key West is known for its palm-lined streets and fish fresh enough to draw in any foodie such as myself. With a distinct mixture of cultures, the island is not only home to a strong seafood scene, but a tantalizing fusion of cuisines. I visited Key West with my family a couple of years ago and we were invited to an Indian-style dining experience held in the home of a talented chef who opens up his home to locals and visitors, and cooks up an incredible buffet of Indian specialties. It was definitely an interesting and unique way to explore the culinary aspects of Key West.
At night, the street is full of life — sidewalk cafes, live music and a great Jazz scene, and tons of fun bars. Find a spot over in Mallory Square to watch the sun set into the Gulf of Mexico — although I would advise getting there early because it fills up fast!
The Florida Keys is home to five districts, each with their own personality and attractions that make visitors feel like they are a world away. Lucky for us Floridians, these destinations require us to simply get in our cars and hit the open road. Vacationing in our own backyard? Yes, please! The southernmost paradise, Key West, is just miles from Cuba and is home to ideal weather, delicious fresh seafood, and beautiful views. Because of the multitude of cultures that have made Key West home during its history, Key West’s food scene has delicious flavors, like African and Cuban, that are difficult to find anywhere else in the US.
As a guide to the restaurant and seafood landscape, Paul Menta of Three Hands Fish gave us the lowdown. A professional chef and community advocate, with long locks and the chill attitude of a pro kite surfer — which is he — Paul is the perfect person to talk to about the best places to chow down while visiting Key West. He’s a Philly native (awesome!) who began his culinary career in Spain and France, and eventually came to Key West to continue his love for competitive kite surfing. An athlete, distiller, chef, and entrepreneur, Paul has definitely taken advantage of all that Key West has to offer, and thankfully, he’s sharing some of his secrets with us!
His most recent venture, Three Hands Fish is a community-supported fish market in Key West. Its members, chefs and home-cook, all have access to the freshest fish, shrimp, stone crabs, and lobster that come in on the docks. Um, LUCKY! As Paul says: The first hand is the hand of the fisherman, the second the market, and the third is when the fish makes it into the hands of the individual or restaurant. Paul’s is proud of his market as it brings local, traceable seafood to the people, and plenty of variety so there is no overfishing a specific species.
Key West has seafood unlike anywhere in the world. Know why? It’s all thanks to the water. The Gulf of Mexico mixes with the Atlantic ocean to make the perfect nursery for a plethora of fish, crab, and lobster. Not to mention, the fishermen of the region have come together to create a sustainable plan for the future of their industry, naturally controlling overproducing populations that threaten to take over the ecosystem.
“Not only are visitors able to jump on the boat for themselves and go fishing in some of the clearest waters, but they are able to sit back and relax, knowing they can find the same fresh fish in local restaurants,” says Paul.
If you are looking for a taste of the freshest seafood right on the dock, Paul suggests visiting The Stoned Crab restaurant. This restaurant serves up some of the best of what Key West is known for, the stone crab, but they also do it in a 50s-style stunning setting with an unbeatable view of the water. Housed in a resort built in 1956, the restaurant keeps alive the tradition of the fishermen bringing their catches straight to their dock — a rarity in other areas. If you are looking for a place to stay, Paul recommends Ibis Bay Resort, the retro hotel where The Stoned Crab is located. Stop in for fun cocktails and great seafood caught by the restaurant staff themselves. Head here for stone crab, lobster, Key West shrimp, and more local fish. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!
For the die-hard cooks, go for a ride on a private charter to catch the freshest fish for yourself. Paul recommends Lucky Fleet, chartered by Captain Moe, to take you on this adventure and help guide you along the way while you reel in the best seasonal seafood. Moe has been fishing the waters around Key West for over 30 years and knows his way around. Whether you are an avid deep sea fisherman or this is your first time, Captain Moe will take you on a great adventure, not just a boat ride. From sailfish to tuna or grouper, they will lead you to the right spot.
To learn how to prepare the seafood you just caught, take a class at Isle Cook, where Paul himself will teach you how to cook local recipes and healthy meals with seafood.
“Being a chef and commercial fisherman I can tell you there is no better teacher of how to use, care for, store, cook and eat a product than a fisherman. They have ideas and techniques that most chefs would die for….but they have to ask…..so we spread the word to them,” says Paul.
When visiting Key West, be sure to try fish you wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Considered local to Key West are the Hogfish, Mangrove Snapper, and as of late, the Lion Fish. Paul’s favorite? The Hogfish. This fish is caught by spear fishing, which is a fun challenge to try. Speared yourself or not, Paul suggests serving the fish whole and affectionately calls it the Key West Turkey, stuffed with lobster, onions, and herbs. Hello, Key West Thanksgiving!
Most people have tried, or at least heard of, Key West’s conch fritters — fried conch meat native to the Caribbean. But Paul prefers to make grouper fritters. Key West fisherman are able to catch the grouper right off the coast — making this a true local specialty.
Similar to the conch fritter, the grouper is mixed with onions carrots and a traditional Key West seafood seasoning by Key West Spice Company, made of celery seed, salt, paprika, and red pepper. It’s a simple dish, but that’s all you really need for fresh grouper. Once the batter is made, Paul fries the fish balls until golden and enjoys them inside of a sandwich or as an appetizer by the water. Is anyone else already planning their own personal food tour across Key West? I know I am!
Want to make your own Grouper Fritters? Chef Paul shared his recipe with us!
- 1 pound Grouper
- ½ cup Onions
- ½ cup Carrots
- 1½ Tablespoons Key West seafood seasoning
- 1 Egg yolk
- 2 Tablespoons Key lime juice
- ½ cup Flour
- Coconut oil, for frying
- Chop up, or use food processor, grouper.
- Fine dice, onions, carrots and mix with grouper.
- Add key west seafood seasoning, about 1½ tablespoon
- Mix all together with 1 egg yolk and 2 tablespoons of key lime juice.
- Add ½ cup of flour until mixture starts to form a batter.
- Use a spoon to make balls, fry in coconut oil till brown or bake in the oven on sheet tray.
- As a sandwich filling instead of an appetizer, make the rounds larger.