I didn’t grow up with parents who taught me how use chopsticks to eat sushi before the age of five. In fact, as German immigrants, our meals were of the meat-and-potato kind like classic schnitzel with dumplings, bratwurst with potato salad and carbs buried in goulash. Okay, so we ate mostly meat, but dinner for us was more of a tradition than a learning experience and even to this day both of my sisters still refuse to touch anything that once swam in the ocean — even if it’s been cooked.
Then one day in college, as things have the tendency to do when you start discovering the meaning of culture that comes with age, everything changed. A slightly less sheltered friend introduced me to sushi for the first time, and I was not only saddened that I had never had something so wonderful before, but I wondered what other amazing food was out there that I had never tried. Thus, my culinary journey began. I started scouring Chinatowns for the best noodles and spending entire rent checks on 10-course meals that, if it weren’t for the wine pairing, I would still be hungry after. I started to see eating not as a means of survival, but as a blessing, maybe a little bit of an obsession, and more than anything a very simple way of attaining genuine fleeting moments of happiness. To me there is nothing better than an intoxicating bite in a beautiful place surrounded by people I love.
As a food writer and a bartender I get asked all the time what the one restaurant is that should not be missed, but the truth is there isn’t just one place. We may not be a New York City, but for our size of land we have a competitive abundance of good food. Our island is full of mom-and-pops, or more likely two good friends who have worked the industry long enough to save and start a successful business. These restaurants are their home and what they know, and what they are serving is only a creation of what they know how to do best.
Some dishes are better than others, but if you can find the time and the appetite, these are ones on my list that are not to be missed:
• The scallop piccata at Hot Tin Roof. The pappardelle pasta is soft and silky with just a touch of a white wine lemon sauce. • The collard greens at The Conch Shop. There’s a reason Anthony Bourdain stopped by when he was in town and I don’t think it was all about the conch. • The bacon wrapped dates at Santiago Bodega’s. Wrapped in bacon, and stuffed with goat cheese they are a divine overindulgence. • The tomato brie soup at Old Town Bakery. • The royal reds at the Conch Farm. These deep water shrimp are the size of small prawns and taste more like sweet lobster. • There’s the kogi dog at Garbo’s Grill with kimchi, napa cabbage, scallions, daikon, carrot, sesame mayo, cheese, citrus soy and a generous squirt of sriracha. • The coconut curry mussels at 2 Cents. • The playmate roll at Ambrosia. • The pasta carbonara at Azur. • The turkey pastrami at Goldman’s. • The Cuban at Sandy’s or 5 Brothers, or whichever you prefer. Or try them both and then decide. • I can’t go to Camille’s without ordering the crab cake benedict. I’ve tried to do the French toast and the corn beef hash, but everything else disappoints compared to the amazing hollandaise soaked sandwich. • The same goes for the Mexican galette at Le Creperie. • And the veggie burger at The Cafe. I could eat them every day for seven days straight and always enjoy them like it was the first.
I guess what I wanted to say when I started writing about my bland childhood, is that we have a lot to be grateful for in Key West. Through all of my searching, some of the best meals I have had have been here. From the people in the kitchen to the plate that comes out of it, we may not be a New York City, but we sure have all the ingredients necessary to serve a little bit of happiness. Great food, amazing people, an undeniably stunning location — that, to me, is the perfect dish.