Anchoring the southernmost tip of the continental United States, the Florida Keys are the perfect tropical escape for the traveler looking to experience a true slice of paradise. A 112-mile archipelago of coral and sand islands connected to the Florida mainland by 42 bridges, this destination is home to stunning sunsets, beautiful beaches, and an outlook on life that can best be understood through the mantra, “No shoes, no shirt, no problem.”
Yet while this locale is known for its beauty and personality, the region’s Caribbean influences have birthed a unique culinary scene which often goes overlooked. Key lime pie may be a staple of the Keys, but this destination is home to many dishes beyond the famous dessert, including a large variety of locally-sourced seafood that will impress any locavore.
If you’re kicking back on the beach this summer and ready to explore the local cuisine, here’s where to start — and where to go.
Primarily found along the Gulf of Mexico, stone crab ranks among the Florida Keys’ most popular delicacies — in fact, 40 percent of Florida’s stone crab harvest takes place in the Keys. Florida stone crab is particularly known for having a flaky, sweet meat and is traditionally chilled before eaten. Because stone crabs have the ability to regenerate their claws, it's also a particularly sustainable meal choice. Grab a bib, order a bucket and get cracking at Key Largo Fisheries, Chef Michael's, The Stoned Crab, or Hogfish Bar & Grill.
Florida is home to a large Cuban population, so it’s no surprise that Cuban food is plentiful throughout the state, and particularly in the Keys. Puerco asado (oven-roasted pork) is one of the most traditional Cuban dishes you can order. After being slow roasted, this juicy meat dish is marinated in garlic, onion, sour orange, and herbs. Find the best versions of this dish at El Siboney, El Meson de Pepe, or Denny's Latin Cafe.
Conch, a large sea snail found in Caribbean waters, hold legendary status in the Florida Keys, so much so that natives of Key West are playfully referred to as “conchs,” and the Keys themselves are nicknamed the “Conch Republic.” Conch meat is generally tough and is served marinated or tenderized, with a sweeter taste similar to a clam. They are most popularly eaten fried, either in a salad, as an appetizer, or with a plate of rice and beans. The juiciest conch fritters can be found at The Fish House, The Conch Shack, Key Largo Conch House, or Key West Conch Fritter, a tiny shack in Key West that only serves the eponymous dish.
Red grouper is the most common species of grouper fish in the United States, most abundantly found along Florida’s east and west coasts. Like a cross between bass and halibut, this fish is flaky and firm, with a mild taste. You can find this fish on the menu at Morada Bay Beach Café, Lazy Days in Islamorada, and both the Islamorada and Key West locations of Bad Boy Burrito, which serve it fresh on tacos.
Similar to grouper, snapper is plentiful along Florida’s Gulf Coast, and yellowtail snapper in particular is local to the Florida Keys. This light and flaky fish has a slightly pink color and is best eaten grilled. Find the tastiest versions of this dish at Snappers in Key Largo, Sunset Grille & Raw Bar, The Fish House, Mrs. Mac's Kitchen, and Robbie's of Islamorada.
These quirky-looking fish get their name because their large snouts quite literally make them look like sea pigs. Found in the Atlantic and Gulf waters surrounding the Keys, hogfish flesh is juicy, tender, and will literally melt in your mouth. You can order excellent hogfish dishes at Cafe Sole and Hogfish Bar & Grill on Stock Island.
Fan of Maine lobster? The lobster you’ll find on a menu in Maine is vastly different from the lobster you can find in Florida. Florida lobster is a lot less sweet and a bit tougher that its Maine counterpart, with more of a crab-like consistency. Also unlike Maine lobsters, lobsters found in Florida waters do not have claws, making them the ideal choice for lobster tails. The most popular places to eat them in the Keys are Key Largo Fisheries, Lazy Lobster, The Stoned Crab, A&B Lobster House, and Angler & Ale at Hawks Cay.
Florida’s east coast is populated with forests of tropical mangrove trees, which root themselves directly over the water and stabilize the coastline. Harvested from bees who live in these forests, mangrove honey has become increasingly popular among South Floridians in recent years. Because mangrove trees absorb nutrients from the sea, which are then passed into the nectar through the bees feeding on it, this honey is said to have loads of nutritional value. Head to the Keez Beez apiary in Marathon to take a tour of a sustainable farm where mangrove honey is made daily.
Part of the scorpion fish family, this invasive species preys on over 70 species of native fish in the Keys and also competes with them for food. But don’t be scared: This fish’s poisonous spine, which is always removed before cooking, leaves behind meat that is perfectly safe to eat. Diners can make a positive environmental impact by ordering the fish as a cook-your-catch item or off the menu, helping to decrease lionfish populations. It can be served broiled, baked, or fried, and is also delicious prepared as ceviche or sushi. Head to Lazy Days Restaurant or Chef Michael’s to try the sauteed versions, or Castaway Waterfront Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Marathon to order it sashimi-style.
Key West Pink Shrimp
Named for the color of their shell, pink shrimp are plentiful in Florida — nearly 85 percent of all pink shrimp in the United States are sourced from fisheries around Dry Tortugas National Park. Key West pink shrimp, nicknamed “pink gold,” are particularly popular due to their sweet taste, and are served in every style imaginable, including baked, marinated, fried, and grilled. Grab a plate and get to peeling at Keys Fisheries, Fancis Seafood, or Eaton Street Seafood.
Key Lime Pie
Comprised of key lime juice (from Florida’s native key limes), egg yolks, sugar, butter, and a graham cracker crust, key lime pie is beloved not only in Florida, but across the United States. First created in the 1800s, recipes for the original Key lime pie did not require refrigeration or baking: the acid in the Key lime juice set off a chemical reaction with the other ingredients — a process called souring — and “cooked” the pie. Today’s pies, however, are all baked into their crusts. Whether you prefer your key lime pie topped with whipped cream or meringue (a heated debate if brought up in front of any Keys native), a few spots that shouldn’t be missed on any pie tour of the Keys are Blue Heaven, Sundowners, Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Pie Shoppe, and Old Town Bakery.