The Florida Keys are not very well known for their food. But I believe food is a great way to get to know the atmosphere and culture of a new place.
So this post will introduce you to Southern Florida by way of everything that went into my stomach (and more!).
Things from the Swamp
The similarities I found on this trip between New Orleans and Florida should have been less surprising to me. Alas, the Everglades in Florida meant swamp-related items on the menu just as there were in New Orleans.
A very common food around Southern Florida and the Keys is alligator. Their presence on the menu is no surprise considering 1.25 million American alligators reside in the state of Florida.
The less common crocodile (at 1500 statewide) is not an edible option.
You will usually see it listed as "gator" in the form of fried tenders or bites. But you'll also be able to find gator ribs, gator burger patties, gator sausage, and gator omlettes if you're looking for it.
I tried some of Jono's gator bites when we stopped by Mrs. Mac's Kitchen for lunch one afternoon. It still tastes like chicken to me! I had tried alligator once before at a Mardi Gras themed restaurant. Alligator also something you'll find on menus in New Orleans, but, somehow, Florida is the more notable place for it. So chow down!
Okay, it's not exactly from the swamp, but the name prompted the title! The sabel palmetto is the state tree of Florida and it's also edible. The indigenous populations in the area used to live on it long before the arrival of Europeans.
Although I did not see it on the menu at all during my time in the Keys, you'll definitely want to try it if you spot it. The heart of the sabel palmetto is used in the recipe to make swamp cabbage and it supposedly tastes like the heart of an artichoke—one of my favorite green foods! Vegetarians may want to opt out of this one, as it's often sautéed with bacon!
Key Lime Pie
Like Nawlins for its beignets and New York for its cheesecake, the Florida Keys are known for its key lime pie. You may have seen "Key Lime Pie" on the menu anywhere else in the world. Guess what? The restaurant is probably not actually serving you pie made with key limes because key limes come from the Florida keys!
What's the difference between key limes and regular limes? Key limes are more tart and have a more pleasant and distinct aroma in contrast to the typical Persian lime.
So, while in the Florida Keys, be sure to get some real key lime pie. You can try it in its many different forms. Here are the kinds I tried and where I tried them:
Fresh from Fish Tales Market & Eatery
Their no frills homemade slice of key lime pie was the perfect balance of tart and sweet. I loved it and so did Jono.
One thing I would like you to note about this slice and all the rest is how NOT GREEN it is. There's nothing artificial about key lime pie in the Keys.
Meringue from Marker 88
Their house made key lime pie was a gourmet experience with its perfect, wispy, crunchy meringue and strawberry and mint leaf garnish. It was light and fresh and delicious. I had absolutely no complaints.
Frozen from the Key Lime Tree
The very first key lime pie slice I tried was not made on location but frozen and served melting in the Florida heat.
And it was amazingly refreshing—like key lime ice cream in a crust. Call me crazy, but this one was my favorite version out of the three I tried!
I had to include Floribbean cuisine because I absolutely love word blends like this! Plus, it describes the diverse cultures of Florida so well.
Floribbean cuisine refers to food in Florida that combines flavors and cooking styles from the Caribbean islands such as Cuba, Barbados, Haiti, Trinidad, Tobago, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. Many immigrants from these islands settled in Southern Florida and the Keys. These foods are sometimes made distinct from Latin flavors (Latin-Floribbean) that get blended in as well as African (Afro-Floribbean) or Indian (Indo-Floribbean) flavors.
The diverse immigrants to Florida is the reason for all this word and food blending! Over 40% of Caribbean immigrants in the USA are concentrated in Florida. Also, Florida's foreign-born black population is second largest in the USA (under New York) at 17% of its population. Facts!
Florida is a Apennines and the Keys are an archipelago, so you can expect that this place is seafood-centric!
Conch, a gastropod mollusk with a pretty shell, is almost as synonymous with the Florida Keys as key limes. Sadly, they have been over-fished to the point of extinction in Florida's waters. Thus, conch eaten in Florida is likely sourced from the Bahamas and possibly illegally due to dwindling populations there, too.
I only found this out after my first and only consumption of conch at Mrs. Mac's Kitchen. I had their "award-winning konk" chowder. It tasted a lot like clams.
Key West is all about the pink shrimp for its sweet flavor and you'll also find rock shrimp on some menus.
Eat all of the fresh fish you can while in the Florida Keys. Commercial fishing is the second largest industry in the Keys. So the fish you eat there is almost always freshly caught the same day. Local favorites are snapper (yellowtail, hog, or mutton), grouper, or dolphin ("mahi mahi"—not the mammal).
They serve it fried, broiled, blackened, in a sandwich, or Floribbean-style on a plate with black beans and rice.
Don't forget to try stone crab. For the ethical eaters out there, stone crab are considered a renewable food source since their claws regenerate after 2 years.
Stone crab claws are harvested and then the crab is returned to the ocean, resulting in enough stone crab meat to feed the entire state of Florida!
Like any region closer to the equator, Florida is abundant in tropical fruit. Take advantage here and om-nom-nom your fair share—I sure did! Particularly these kinds:
Florida Red Mango
Florida mangos are some of the fattest, juiciest, sweetest mangos I have ever eaten. Jono and I picked this biggies up at Robert Is Here, a magnificent fruit stand of all fruit stands on the way out to the Everglades in Southern Florida. But you can find them all over.
Guanábana is the Spanish name for the fruit also known as soursop. I first discovered soursop in smoothie form while in Singapore. I fell in love with this sweet fruit as a drink but it's also amazing in solid form.
It's also purportedly used as an alternative cancer treatment!
Don't forget to try them in juice, smoothie, or shake form. Orange juice is obviously the Florida staple, but you'll find fruit juices in liquid form at fruit stands and other off-road shops across the Keys.
Robert Is Here had a long line for their milkshakes which blended in the best and most unusual types of fruit.
Coconut (not fruit)
Okay, not technically a fruit, but I am a firm believer that everyone should eat coconut everything all the time (unless, of course, you're allergic). I really do love coconut, though, and you'll find tons of it in various snack forms at souvenir shops and local grocery stores in Southern Florida.
I am convinced that no coconut will be as fresh as the coconut I tried right off the trees in Niue. However, fruit stands will usually have them coconut in Southern Florida. Or maybe you'll find one floating in the water at the beach like I did!
There's more to come, including diving adventures, beach time, and failed attempts to see alligators in the Everglades. Stay tuned!