BEST OF UPPER KEYS BRINGS A BURGER BUZZ

Locals have nominated three establishments to win the Best of Upper Keys’ Best Burger crown — an “elevated comfort food” eatery, a sports bar and a seafood restaurant. The best burger title is up for grabs on Nov. 5. 

M.E.A.T. Eatery and Taproom, Islamorada

M.E.A.T.’s Inside-Out Juicy Lucy burger, stuffed with bacon and pimento cheese, is served with homemade mango chipotle ketchup and beer and caraway seed mustard. CHARLOTTE TWINE/Keys Weekly
Longtime M.E.A.T. manager Victor Escobar holds the restaurant’s most popular burger, the Inside-Out Juicy Lucy.

Since its inception in 2012, M.E.A.T. has made regular appearances on “Best of” lists due to its burgers, including TripAdvisor’s “No. 1 Burger Restaurant in Florida” in 2015, Chowhound’s “The Best Burger in Your State” for Florida in 2016-17 and Thrillist’s “Top 50 States/Top 50 Burgers” for Florida in 2015. M.E.A.T. also appeared on Food Network’s show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in 2016.

But racking up the kudos would mean nothing if customers weren’t happy with the burgers, which they are – at least, the customers Keys Weekly saw while visiting the Islamorada restaurant this past Saturday. A couple walked up to co-owner Tom Smith and raved about their meal. “The burger was so good when we ate here on the way down to Key West, we wanted to stop by on the way back,” the man said.

“The Inside-Out Juicy Lucy burger, stuffed with bacon and pimento cheese, is hands-down our most popular burger. It’s our bread and butter. The numbers don’t lie,” said long-time manager Victor Escobar.

“We wanted to create elevated comfort food,” said Smith about his partnership with chef and co-owner George Patti. Discerning diners may want to ask when they see a sign by the register that reads “The Doctor Is In.” This means the “secret menu item” is available: a one-third-pound burger layered with pepper jack cheese, bacon, crispy onion, two slices of banana and blueberry chipotle jam. Staff only serves the burger when the bananas are ripened just-so and the specially made jam is on hand.

Hog Heaven Sports Bar & Grill, Islamorada

The Hog Burger has a 10-ounce patty and comes with specially shaped steak fries that “hold the heat,” said front of house manager Jarrod Baker.
Hog Heaven staffer V Torres serves up the 10-ounce Hog Burger, topped with cheddar, pepper jack, bacon, lettuce, tomato and onion.

Last Saturday, Islamorada institution Hog Heaven had family vibes, with children hanging out with their parents while football played on the screens. Locals know they can hit up the hangout on the weekends to party like it’s 1999, but many simply want to stop by and enjoy a menu item that could also be considered (locally) iconic: The Hog Burger.

Front of house manager Jarrod Baker lobbied owners Howard and Janeth Brodie to put the Hog Burger back on the menu a couple years back. Baker remembered seeing it on the menu when he would come to vacation in the area as a child, but it was taken off the menu over time.

“A premade burger just bites different,” said Baker about patties that the restaurant had been serving.

The Hog Burger’s 10-ounce patty, made from certified Angus beef, is seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic and cooked without patting it down, so the burger is tall and plump when it hits the bun. 

Diners can ask for any toppings they desire, “anything on the menu,” said general manager Bob Morgantini.

“I can’t even eat a whole Hog Burger,” he said about the generous size. “I have to split it.”

And now that the burger is a hit with customers, staff will not drop it off the menu again any time soon.

“We don’t touch the burger,” Morgantini said. “It’s a staple, a part of the brick and mortar.”

Hobo’s Café, Key Largo

The Sloppy Hobo Burger is stacked with onion loaf, potato sticks, homemade coleslaw, provolone cheese, sauteed mushrooms and homemade barbecue sauce — not to mention a half-pound patty of fresh ground beef.
Hobo’s staff member Miriam Sandoval balances the towering Sloppy Hobo Burger on her serving tray.

Hobo’s Café has been “offering fresh Florida Keys seafood since 1991,” says its website. However, the restaurant has also become known for serving a burger so legendarily large that if a customer finishes it, they get a bumper sticker: “Get Sloppy at Hobo’s.”

The Sloppy Hobo Burger is even a cause for entertainment within the dining room. One server told Keys Weekly, “We make it a thing. We cheer the kids on and give them a sticker when they finish it.”

Manager Vanessa Leffler said, “One lady – she had to have been 100 pounds – used to come in once a week to have a Sloppy Hobo Burger. It was her one vice, she said. She would stand up at her table and push the burger all the way down, then eat it with a knife and fork. It’s a challenge to eat.”

The skyscraper-like burger is packed with a half-pound patty of fresh ground beef, onion loaf, potato sticks, homemade coleslaw, provolone cheese and sauteed mushrooms, and served with homemade barbecue sauce on the side.

Leffler said owner Ron Skrumbellos has not changed the menu since 2015 – for good reason. “The kitchen is amazing, and the food is consistent and fresh. And we stand out for our service. We have our lunchtime locals and our weekend warriors.”

A diner just may have to be a warrior to finish the Sloppy Hobo Burger.

Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines; Elle.com; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.