There was no way Bubba and I were turning down a week in the Keys with Keri and Chris. We’d already followed them to Spain a few years before, so as soon as Bubba’s sis and her hubby dangled the carrot of their rental on Big Pine Key in front of us, we were in.
A forty-five minute drive from Key West brought us to a house that looked like a carnival attraction – the tall man – up on stilts to avoid flooding since the house sat directly on a canal leading to the ocean, which meant sea kayaking in the morning...
...and back in time to feed the wild deer dominating this Key by lunch. But Keri and Chris were also busy dominating the area, scouting out several weather(off the)beaten(path) dives and hitting high notes in every Key.
The Wharf (Summerland Key)
This place looked like it’d been hit by a hurricane – probably because it had, probably many. Weather-filled fists constantly beat the hell out of structures down here and The Wharf looked like a fort thrown together by a band of drunken monkeys. That’s why reading a Key’s book by its cover was a dangerous business because any shit shack could be a potential love shack.
Love shack, baby: Lapping water clomped against worn, wooden boards, paving the way to picnic tables, inches from the canal where mangrove trees dangled overhead from the opposite shore. The interior separated itself with a pristine air, cooled into a refrigerated haven where locals ringed around the bar and fresh fish shined like jewels beneath an iced, glass case.
Drinks, me thinks
Margaritaville: Dear Mr. Buffet, I finally understand your alcohol-soaked serenade…these margaritas were clearly deserving of their own zip code. No pre-bottled sour mix here, only nature’s version = fresh lime juice. Face-puckeringly tart and the best in my mouth’s history, they upped the ante with choices of mango, pineapple, pomegranate, strawberry, coconut, etc. All were built off the lime based original, but instead of some syrupy sweet canned nectar, it was all fresh fruit puree = healthy margaritas! The fact they were served in pint glasses didn't hurt either.
Prince Edward Island Malpeque oysters: This is the one time where we didn't go with local seafood, but these rare specimens needed to be taken advantage of – petite; buttery; rich - even Keri, a non-oyster lover, fell hard and fast.
White clam chowder : Chowder is always a gamble, even when there’s fresh seafood involved. It’s all about consistency - both definitions:
1) Uniformity: Diced veg precisely matching the clam size.
2) Viscosity: enough to coat the spoon, but not enough for the spoon to stand.
The Wharf provided #1, #2 and most importantly #3, tender dime-sized clams that were worthy of a 10.
Red conch chowder: My past, grit-filled memories deterred me, but being that we were in the Conch Republic, I had to take a slurp from Bubba’s cup. There was no sand to be found, but instead a subtle taste of the sea that had me converted to conch and a beach broth believer.
Rough(age) housing: Usually I wouldn’t even mention a house salad and this time I didn’t even order one (asked for Caesar), but their quality of vegetables (all organic) was like a garden's tasting menu of what produce was actually supposed to taste like - lettuce crunched with a hydrated crispness that played off the peppery, purple cabbage and finished with feta’s creamy tang. The homemade roasted tomato vinaigrette made me want to order a shot as a sidecar to my margarita.
Blackened shrimp salad: Having the same lush ingredients of the house salad as the base to this entree was a great start, along with exquisite local shrimp, but there was way too much shake, shake, shake of overwhelming, blackening spices that tasted like the generic, canned mix from the grocery store.
Blackened grouper : It was even sadder to see the grouper desecrated by this heavy-handed spice blend. Besides grieving the lost meal, I grieved the loss of this gorgeous piece of grouper so unnecessarily covered up. You may need lipstick for a pig, but this fish was a fresh-faced beauty that could have pulled it off with nothing but a pair of lemon wedges.
Grilled Snapper: The day's catch was black snapper, so I had it grilled with garlic/cilantro butter. **cue carnival barker voice* -"We have a winner!!" Forkfuls of flaky meat fluffed on my tines and I believe there was a little food envy going on at the table when others saw my plate - my side of mashed potatoes only intensified those feelings. But the best part about traveling with family is that you can share, so I handed over my plate before tipping my hat.