The fact that my bathing suit bottoms were still attached to my body was reason enough for celebration, since for the last two hours I’d been white-knuckling it from the back of Bubba’s jet ski as he channeled some type of Merman(iac)/Hell’s Angel hybrid, leaving my nerves a bit frayed.
El Meson de Pepe (Mallory Square)
I needed a strong drink to coddle my still quivering sea-legs, so when we sidled up to an outside bar on the edge of Mallory Square, I was ready for a little peace and quiet...instead I got a little piece of Cuba. Mojitos were flowing with enough rum for a barrel of yo-ho-ho’s and provided exactly the herb-y elixir I needed to get my head back to sea level. But all that holding on for dear life had made me hungry too – time to eat.
Mollete a la Pancho: Cuban bread stuffed with picadillo
This was like a messy mix between a calzone and taco, but besides being stuffed with the picadillo, a blend of spiced, ground beef, olives and peas, it was breaded and fried – fork and knife required. But the plantain chips scattered as a garnish were the real attraction. I could have eaten a bowl, or hell, a whole bag…I’ll give you the new Lay’s potato chip flavor – plantain chips. And these really were like a thin potato chip - crispy, delicate and light - unlike the thick, tostone version that's more often the norm.
Frituras de Cobo: cornmeal fritters with cracked conch
Talk about some phenomenal fritters! Hands-down, these won the conch-quest contest that we’d been conducting throughout the Keys. Crispy, browned and hot, the doughy center remained fluffy like a beignet while the conch brought just enough salt and texture to take home the gold.
Sunset Pier: Ocean Key Resort (Duval St)
Led like the children in The Pied Piper, we followed wavering notes of music clipped by the wind and carried along the water’s edge until we reached Sunset Pier, whose long boards provided the optimal, ocean overhang, dotted with wooden picnic tables painted in varying, vibrant shades.
A small, canopied stage housed the music which led us here, a young teenage group with two sisters, around 13 and 15, belting out classics, as a couple of boys provided the melody with guitar, keyboard and drums. Their set list of older selections like Frank Sinatra was sung with a soft innocence that made the “Summer Wind” all the sweeter when it came blowing in.
A special on mojitos made with Ciroc vodka ($2 extra) meant we received a chip for a pork plate = sliced, whole roasted pig, rice and plantain chips. I had my eye on Porky since I saw him at the entrance and knew I would somehow partake in his piggy goodness, I just didn’t know it’d be as easy as giving $2 to support P. Diddy’s vodka.
The meat was sliced to order, topped with a drizzle of mojo sauce for a bright, citrus finish that heightened the pig's natural sweetness before the salty punch and crunch of pigskin cracklings assaulted the palate, but in the very best way. Every time we ordered another drink, we got another “pork-er chip”...like Diddy always said, "Mo’ pours, Mo’ pork!"