a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato on a plate

Darren Pais is a well-known name around the Keys. Many know him as the current principal of Key Largo School. I may have met him as my elementary school teacher in fifth grade, but I know him nowadays as a great friend to Mark and I — and more importantly a fellow foodie. 

Darren and his wife, Myndie, single-handedly guided us via text throughout New England with some of the best food and beer recommendations, and every one was a 10-out-of-10. What I didn’t know is that Darren could also cook.

In 2023, I was just minding my own business walking around the annual Upper Keys Irish Festival at the Caribbean Club. I was enjoying my usual Joey Bag O’ Donuts, drinking a green beer and wondering what the effects of this much green dye would have on me, when suddenly multiple people began running up to me, “Florida Keys Eats,” eagerly wondering if I tried the burger. Five minutes later another person says, “Have you tried the burger?” Two minutes later, another  “Oh my gosh the cheeseburger!” The burger, the burger, the burger. I thought, “Okay, everyone, calm down. It’s just a burger at a festival. I’m sure you’re just extra hungry because it’s 95 degrees outside and you skipped breakfast. Fine. I’ll go try the burger”

I waited in line and was tempted by their Irish offerings like corned beef and hash but remained focused. After I was handed this much talked about cheeseburger, I was impressed by a few things off the bat. It had soft, doughy bread, fully melted cheese and all the fresh toppings like lettuce, tomato and onion. The one thing that caught my eye is the meat had a gleam but it wasn’t grease, it was literally a juicy burger. 

Key Largo Principal Darren Pais cooks burgers during the annual Upper Keys Irish Festival. CONTRIBUTED

I took a bite and lord was the hype real. Now let me just mention this, the Upper Keys Irish fest along with any other festival, to me, is about fun and community. They have amazing volunteers, entertainment, cocktails and just a good time. I do not go to these events looking to scrutinize the food or judge it in the least. I’m grateful for the event as a whole. To get a plate of food and a beer for a reasonable price on a sunny day is not something I’ll ever complain about. But this burger, this burger was lost. The burger didn’t belong at a festival, it belonged on a pedestal somewhere. It tasted like nostalgia, no frills, no truffle this or that. It reminded me of childhood and having your mom call you out of the pool for lunch. You wrap yourself in a towel, sit on a beach chair and your mom hands you a glorious burger. The perfect summer day. It was so good. I have never had such a moist and flavorful cheeseburger in my life. 

It was quite literally the quintessential cheeseburger, it is exactly what your mind conjures up when you crave one. I just couldn’t believe how amazing it was and I went to do some digging. I walked up to the booth and said, “Um, excuse me, who is making the burgers?” Lo and behold who turns around other than Darren Pais himself. I felt almost mad at him, I’ve known him over 20 something years and this whole time you had this burger up your sleeve. I pried for more information so I could replicate this at home but he was tight lipped. All he would share is they are 1/3 pound burgers and once they’re hot off the grill he lets them rest in a proprietary au jus recipe he makes from scratch. 

Darren’s burgers were the talk of the festival and I’ve been drooling and dreaming about that burger for a year now. You will most definitely catch me at the 24th annual Upper Keys Irish Fest on Saturday, March 16 at the Caribbean Club. I would also like to add that the green dye had nothing but the good effects of beer so drink up all the green, luck-of-the-Irish beer from Islamorada Brewery & Distillery.

Eat, drink and be lucky, sláinte!

Samantha Dellilo
Samantha Dellilo has been in the Keys since she was 1 day old, so definitely consider her a Conch. Holding a passion for food since she can remember, while most kids were watching Barney, she was watching Emeril. "Being half Cuban and half Italian, food in those cultures is considered a love language. It's a total experience whether eating out or cooking." She's been with her other half, Marky, going on 17 years. The two met when they were 9 years old at Key Largo School. Samantha owns Florida Keys Eats, which is a blog of "must eat, must see, and must dos" from Key Largo to Key West.