The bright yellow sign invites motorists to pull off U.S. 1 for some food and refreshment on their way up and down the Keys. JEN ALEXANDER/Keys Weekly

For those seeking an authentic Florida Keys restaurant, Mangrove Mama’s is the ideal destination. This renowned eatery embodies the laid-back, historical ambiance of the Keys, and now offers a new and improved dining experience with its outside tiki bar, pontoon boat stage and revamped menu. Having experience in the restaurant industry, new owners Jeff Gagnon, Annie van Aller and Beth Connor are well versed in running a successful establishment.

“The road now has a refreshing slice of paradise at mile marker 20 between the ditch and the swamp,” said Gagnon. “Locals needed a place they could come a couple times a week that was not as expensive as the other surrounding restaurants. We knew it was a solid investment as all the locals have special memories of this place. When we first talked about opening it we thought about changing the name, but there are just too many reasons for us to have kept the name Mangrove Mama’s; it’s such a landmark.”

Once a railway outpost, constructed in 1909 along Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway, the sunny roadside oasis boasts a rich history. Though the original Dade County pine walls remain impenetrable, if they could speak, they would narrate a rugged and harsh past that predates the popularity of sautéed shrimp and sunset-colored cocktails. 

Following the destruction of the railroad by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the train depot became a gas station/grocery store to accommodate drivers using the new highway. The property was run for years by a retired Navy veteran, “Capt. Eddie,” who turned it into a bar/restaurant known as Eddie’s Fish Basket. The establishment primarily catered to sailors and locals. After Eddie’s death, the facility fell into disrepair until 1979, when Gary and Nancy Bell bought it. Their boat, Mangrove Mama, was always docked in front of the property and had become a well-known landmark in the area. Consequently, the locals began referring to the entire operation as Mangrove Mama’s.

“Unfortunately, locals haven’t been coming here and we want to change that,” Gagnon said. “We know there are some signature dishes the locals want and we are going to work on that. We’re not going to throw everything on the fire at once; that’s just crash and burn. In our 40 years of restaurant experience, we have learned from our previous mistakes and we will grow the restaurant at our pace. It’s the Florida Keys. Nothing happens quickly. To find the right people who will work with us and click with us is extremely difficult. So it’s going to take time.”

Homemade meatloaf, half-roasted chicken and country-fried pork chops top the list of Mother’s homemade favorites. These dishes come with mashed potatoes and vegetables. Other specialties include the lobster fra Diavolo and penne misto to which chicken or shrimp can be added. The local catch as well as cracked conch round out the main courses. Appetizer highlights include the mussels marinara, Mama Mia! jumbo meatballs and veggie spring rolls. There are four salads, six sandwich options and a choice of chicken, pork or mahi tacos. A full bar both inside and outside at the newly converted tiki bar offers beer, wine and cocktails galore. 

“The menu is a representation of the three of us, our friends and Sugarloaf community,” Gagnon said. “We are all from different states, so we’re trying to bring those flavors here and constantly rotate. We’ll have a basic menu, but with specials, too. So we’re taking it one step at a time. And we’re gonna do it right. Come in and check us out.”

Jen Alexander is a teacher and volleyball coach at Sugarloaf School. She is a lover of travel, adventure, action, home improvement and family. A self-proclaimed "master of none," she is a doer of all and partaker of anything fun and exciting.