Spanish Gardens Offers Fresh Organic Dining Style

Jose Palomino’s kitchen does not have a deep fryer.

Nearly a dozen cast iron skillets, carefully seasoned from years of use, hang to the right of his industrial six-eyed stove in his open-air kitchen.

Handfuls of fresh sea scallops and delicate filets of fish are within arm’s reach of his prep table, which is stocked with only fresh, organic produce that he meticulously plates for each of his made-to-order dishes.

His dinner menu even offers a cautionary note: Not all dishes will arrive at the same time, as preparation times vary for each one.
A meal at Spanish Gardens Café in Islamorada is not simply about satiating an appetite; it’s about experiencing an authentic European dining style while sampling artistic creations that nourish your soul.

A guest of this week’s Island Eats team is a long time fan, and after introducing me to one her favorite cafes, Jose and his partner, Oscar Valenzuela, have successfully added another diner to their already extremely loyal devotees.

“My first rule is: Don’t buy anything from Sysco,” Jose quickly affirmed.

Nearly two decades ago, Jose and his wife owned and operated a restaurant that served similar dishes and even offered organic produce for sale in Marathon. Unfortunately, the concept didn’t take hold as they’d hoped, so he set his sights on establishing a clientele in Islamorada. For years, he prepared simple salads, sandwiches and coffees at artists’ haven, The Rain Barrel.

Three years ago, he sought Oscar to partner on a new venture and opened Spanish Gardens Café, Market and Gallery in the Galleria Plaza at Mile Marker 80.9 in Islamorada. The pair have melded Jose’s Spanish culinary experience cooking with his family in Spain and Oscar’s Guatemalan heritage into their fresh, authentic cuisine and atmosphere.

Artist John David Hawver has filled the warm orange walls with his dramatic yet inviting paintings of waterscapes, enormous skies, leggy mangroves, lazy rivers and vistas. This backdrop adds to the feast for all the senses as you experience tapas-style dining.

I knew I was in the right place when my oversized glass of beautiful sangria arrived filled with fresh strawberries, grapes and slices of orange and lime.

Initially second-guessing a recommendation to try the Goat Cheese and Giant White Bean Salad, a quick survey of the lunch crowd – all seven of us in the quaint dining room – revealed everyone had ordered the exact same dish! The freshest goat cheese I’ve ever tasted was sprinkled delicately atop a bed of fresh baby greens with huge, creamy white beans decorated by four crostinies topped with a sun-dried tomato and Kalamata olive tapenade.

On my second trip to Spanish Gardens this week, I dared to order something different (even though I did order a Goat Cheese and White Bean Salad to go!), opting to sample the Prosciutto and Manchego Cheese Salad. Sliced so thin it was almost transparent, the Prosciutto was placed delicately atop a bed of greens with four healthy slices of Manchego placed to the side. Fresh and roasted yellow and red peppers, crostinies and cornichons artfully decorated my plate, too.

The Spanish Chorizo sandwich paired with a fresh green salad dressed in vinaigrette also comes highly recommended from several regulars. In fact, most that I spoke to boasted there was simply nothing they wouldn’t recommend on the menu. One diner commented one of her favorite meals with her husband is a Chorizo & Cabrales Bleu Cheese appetizer paired with a quality Spanish wine from the market at Spanish Gardens.

In only regret this prize on the Florida Keys restaurant circuit is not closer. I can’t wait to go back for dinner to try the tapas of Florida Wild Shrimp with Garlic Sauce, Pulpo Gallego (Octupus prepared the Galician way and enjoyed for generations!) and Manila Clams Las Pocholas (Hemingway’s favorite tapas bar in Pamplona) … the list goes on and on.

One of the shining stars on Spanish Gardens’ menu is the renowned Seafood Paella. Gather your friends, and give him a day’s advanced notice that you’re coming. This beloved dish begins with a stock Jose makes from scratch and builds in anticipation of your arrival.

For a beautiful and authentic Spanish tapas experience, visit Spanish Gardens Café, Market and Gallery at the Galleria Plaza, Mile Marker 80.9 in Islamorada.


Goat Cheese and Giant White Bean Salad




Prosciutto and Manchego Cheese Salad



Jose Palomino prepares his Spanish works of art from scratch, refusing at all cost to purchase bulk quantities of food from major chain suppliers. “Our food is fresh, only the best!”



Oscar Valenzuela gladly offers advice on choosing just the right wine and ordering the perfect dish to suit your palette.



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