To everything there is a season.
A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
There is also a time to eat.
Let's face it, I love to eat. Especially on vacation. When I am on vacation, I eat like a bear that has just come out of hibernation. A bear with a sweet tooth. And who may be a wino.
When we found ourselves in Key West for a long weekend in January, it seemed like the perfect time to do just that. Temps were balmy, in the mid 70s. Warm enough for shorts, but not warm enough for the beach. So, unless we wanted to spend 3 days looking at Hemingway's 6 toed cats, we had a lot of time to fill.
I had planned the trip to coincide with the annual Key West Food and Wine Festival, but after realizing our travel companions don't really like wine, I decided to forgo most of the Festival events and create my OWN Food and Wine Festival.
It was to be 3 days of strategic eating. I had an EATING ITINERARY, people. The food fest was about to be ON.
There is nothing better than an eating vacation.
Let the eating begin!
"Pace yourselves, " I cautioned. "You don't want to eat too much at any one place."
We were behind schedule.
We had arrived in Key West on time....landing just before noon on a clear, breezy Wednesday.
The trouble came in when Key West Hideaways couldn't seem to send the shuttle picking us up to the right place. Key West Hideaways had convinced us to let them arrange for our bicycle rentals, telling us they would send a free shuttle from the bike place to pick us up from the airport. As soon as I heard the words "free shuttle," I was convinced.
They sent the shuttle to the commercial airport, although we had told them we would be at the general aviation FBO. After several confused phone calls between me and the shuttle driver, he finally found us.
However, the real confusion came in when he turned out to be from the wrong bicycle company. He dropped us off at the bike office and left. Unfortunately, no one at the bike company had any idea who we were. There was no record of our reservation. I had paid a deposit, so simply changing rental companies wasn't an option. Six very unproductive phone calls back and forth with an extremely rude and unhelpful young lady at Key West Hideaways who kept insisting "that is the only bicycle company we do business with so you must be mistaken about your deposit," and we were unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk with our luggage like hobos.
With no ride.
As luck would have it, I got a call from the ACTUAL bike company that Key West Hideaways had booked us with asking what time we wanted the bikes delivered. And it WAS NOT the one the young lady kept insisting "is the only bicycle company we do business with." I asked him if he could pick us up. He said he would be there in 5 minutes.
Fifteen minutes later, we were still on the sidewalk with our luggage like hobos.
I called him back.
He said Key West Hideaways had called him and told him not to come pick us up. They were sending someone.
Son of a B*%$#.
Two more phone calls to Key West Hideaways, and a rangy late model mercedes with a "For Sale" sign tacked in each window pulled up.
Thankfully, it was not the young woman I had spoken to, because there would have likely been bloodshed, right there on South Street in front of all the nice people who were sipping their Cuban coffees at the cafe next door.
He was polite and apologetic and made several lame excuses about the confusion. And about the fact that we had to cram our bodies in on top of our luggage in the tiny back seat. Steve's leg was at an unnatural angle that I was pretty sure was going to cut off the circulation to his foot. I hoped the ride was short so that amputation of a limb wouldn't be necessary.
As we rode through the streets of Key West, someone from the bicycle company called me again.
"I'm over here at 828 Olivia to deliver the bikes, but no one is here," he said.
"That's because Key West Hideaways gave you the wrong address. We are at 1019 Varela," I sighed.
We were finally dropped off at the correct house and got our bikes at the correct address, no thanks to Key West Hideaways. But we had lost an hour.
Our eating schedule was now behind.
Oh, the horror.
"Where are we going?" Matt said as we walked down White Street, "I'm seriously hungry." In anticipation of the impending calorie-fest none of us had eaten breakfast and it was going on 2:00.
"Not far," I responded. "See? Right there." I pointed to the Chevron Station.
"What? Where? I only see a gas station," Matt said. He was getting grouchy, like a hungry toddler that missed out on the graham crackers during story hour.
"Yeah. The Chevron Station," I said.
"We're not eating at the gas station," Matt replied.
"Oh yes we are."
At the corner of White and Truman, right next to the bathrooms in the Chevron parking lot, we found White Street Station, a colorful food truck surrounded by tropical plants and brightly colored drums in the parking lot of the Chevron Station. We put our things on a yellow wooden bench next to a red ironing board that served as a table and walked up to the window to order.
"All of our fish is fresh, just caught," he said, "The fish tacos are excellent. I also recommend the Orzo as a side today. It's really good."
Matt couldn't resist the fish tacos. The fish was insanely fresh and was prepared Caribbean style, topped with mango and black beans.
Fish Tacos almost sounded healthy to me, so I opted for the daily special: the Grilled Mac.......two giant crusty slices of Texas toast layered with American cheese and wrapped around a creamy slab of macaroni and cheese atop a pile of tender, braised short rib.
Oh my yumminess.
Matt stopped complaining about the Chevron Station when he realized he could run inside for a beer.
With the hunger monster quieted for a few hours, we took the time to head back to Mango Cottage and settle in. Despite being less than pleased with the rental company so far, we did love the cottage. It was squeaky clean, newly renovated, and cute, cute, cute.
Until we lifted the cover on the hot tub. It was filled with funky green water.
Have you ever heard the story about the farmer and the mule?
A farmer had a really stubborn mule. He was out trying to plow the fields one day and the mule wouldn't budge. He looked at the mule and said, "That's one." After the plowing for a while, the mule stubbed up again, refusing to move. "That's two," the farmer said. As the day grew long and the mule grew tired, he bucked up on the farmer again. This time the farmer didn't say anything, but pulled out his shotgun and shot the mule dead. As the farmer came into the farmhouse that night, tired and dirty, he looked at his wife and asked for dinner. "It's not ready," she said flippantly. The farmer looked at his wife. "That's one," he said.
Key West Hideaways? That's two.
The one absolute when we are on Key West is Matt's daily visit to some place for oyster happy hour. It's as certain as death and taxes.
So we found ourselves at the White Tarpon late in the afternoon. The oysters are no longer 50 cents all day, but $1 an oyster still wasn't too bad, especially considering how large and fresh the oysters were. Matt was definitely in his happy place.
A key lime martini quickly put me in my happy place as well. Although, my happy place is pretty easy. It pretty much includes any place with cupcakes, cocktails, pork rinds, or half price shoes.
We had early dinner reservations at Hot Tin Roof, hoping to eat dinner to a beautiful sunset.
The meal started off with delightful cocktails: a Hemingway daiquiri and the best caipirinha I have had outside of Brazil.
As we perused the menu, the sun began to sink its way toward the sea. Seated on the outdoor porch, we watched it go down in a blazing ball of orange.
Then the food orgy began:
We started with creamy melted manchego cheese topped with spicy chorizo and pico de gallo served with warm tortillas and a steamy bowl of mussels.
As the sky turned from fiery orange to cool shades of blue, we discovered that our menus were illuminated. After a couple of cocktails, a lighted menu is fabulous entertainment.
Next up was the lobster cocktail with roasted corn guacamole, cumin crema, and yukon chips; caramelized grouper with chorizo, corn, carrots, red pepper, poblano, and coconut; and a pan of lobster mac and cheese with creamy manchego cheese.
After dinner, we headed to The Porch for cocktails. Even though it was located right off crazy Duval Street, it seemed a quiet oasis far from the throngs of people with their big gulp frozen daiquiris and Sloppy Joes t-shirts. As we entered the front door of the old house, a bar to the left was serving up craft beer and a bar to the right was dreaming up creative craft cocktails. This made everyone happy.
This bar was different from the "Duval Crawl" bars of Key West. It was cozy and cool, quiet, and the cocktails were a knockout. My banana bread bourbon old fashioned was crafted slowly, with care, and was absolutely fantastic.
Did a man in a sparkly tutu walk into The Porch while we were enjoying our cocktails? Maybe he did, but we were still in Key West, after all.
We decided to make one final stop before heading home, and the Green Parrot it was. I needed popcorn, bad lighting, a hint of danger, and an atmosphere that promised at least the chance of a bar fight to make my evening complete. The Green Parrot is the perfect dive bar. It's a dive, without being too, well, divey. It's just gritty enough to be interesting, but still more charming than squalid.
In hindsight, we probably should have skipped that final stop. I think that "one last drink" was how I ended up with a gorgeous headache the next morning and a tote bag filled with popcorn.
I woke up early the next morning. It was before sunrise so I decided to grab some Cuban toast and cafe con leche at Sandy's on the corner and pedal my way down to White Pier, just a few blocks from the house.
I would love to show you some glorious photos of that sunrise, but, while I managed to lug my 7 lb. camera all the way down there, I forgot the battery.
I blame it on the Green Parrot.
All I have is this crappy iPhone photo:
Before long it was time for second breakfast, or was it pre-lunch? Whatever it was, we were going to do it up proper at Blue Heaven. I never tire of the colorful courtyard atmosphere and lively bar. On this particular morning, they had live Reggae and for a moment, I felt like I was in the breezy Caribbean.
While we waited for our table, I wandered upstairs, simply curious what was up there. It turned out to be the overflow seating area. Colorful tables, eclectic decor, and this super cute little private room:
We were seated in the courtyard with chickens running nervously around our feet, cats lazily sunning themselves on the metal roofs, and the sounds of the Reggae band drifting over on air that smelled like pancakes and home fries.
Matt had the BLT Benedict. Not to be confused with the traditional meaning of BLT, at Blue Heaven, BLT means "Bacon, Lobster, and Tomato."
Because I felt like I had already eaten breakfast, with the thick slices of buttery Cuban toast I scarfed down on the pier, I opted for lunch. The Caribbean plate came with tender lobster cooked in wine, butter, and spices and served with Blue Heaven's key lime hollandaise sauce; savory black beans; rice; asparagus; tangy cole slaw; and a slab of moist cornbread.
Of course we couldn't leave without a couple of slices of their mile high key lime pie.
We then took Steve and Alison on a bicycle tour of Key West.
We ended up at the Martello Tower where we took a quick tour of the Key West Garden Club's beautiful oceanfront garden.
All that pedaling made us hungry. It was oyster o'clock, so we headed back to the White Tarpon. This time, I got my own platter of ice cold oysters and washed them down with a hard cider.
Matt is going to be sorry he encouraged me to eat oysters. If I really get hooked on them, he's either going to get to eat 1/2 as many or pay twice as much.
Truth is, I didn't really even WANT the oysters. I don't LIKE oysters. I was just eating at this point to be eating. A vicious cycle was starting to take hold: get up, eat, ride bikes, eat, walk around and shop, eat, drink cocktails, eat, watch the sunset, eat. Before it was over, I would be eating in my sleep.
That evening, we had tickets to one of the two Food and Wine Festival events I had decided our friends would probably like: Henry Flagler's Welcome Party at Casa Marina.
Okay, who am I kidding? I didn't care if they liked it or not, I just wanted to see the beach at this gorgeous resort. It was not disappointing.
The KWFWF had set up a nice soiree right on the beach at sunset, complete with live band, wine flowing like water, and twinkling lights hanging from the palm trees.
The snacks were pretty good too: a pastry of baked brie with figs, specialty pizzas, cheeses, and a carving station with mountains of fried onions. Yes, there was some meat too, but did you see all those fried onions????? Who can concentrate on meat when there are UNLIMITED FRIED ONIONS?
After a dozen oysters, two slices of pizza, countless glasses of wine, tender beef with a crusty roll, a mountain of fried onions, and enough cheese to constipate a horse, most people would have called that dinner.
But we were on a mission.
So we waddled our gluttonous selves away from Casa Marina with no shame and headed to the Rum Bar to sip their delicious painkillers until we thought we could handle more food.
It wasn't long before we were ready for dinner at Square One, a short walk from the Rum Bar.
Their creative cocktails were a hit. Mine was a Bufala Negra: fresh basil, balsamic vinegar (yes...vinegar!), agave nectar, ginger beer, and bourbon. It was quirky, but delightful.
We then severely overordered. And overate.
There were soft little pretzel bites with savory herb butter.
There were pork potstickers with pineapple hoisin sauce and a massive platter of lobster cobb salad with arugula, fresh tender lobster, crispy pancetta, egg, avocado, roasted corn, manchego cheese, and a togarashi ranch.
There were pulled cuban pork sliders with sweet plantains and red onion marmalade on pretzel buns with crispy fries and a lobster roll with shredded lettuce on a pretzel hogie.
There were shrimp and grits with spicy poblano peppers, manchego cheese, and caramelized corn butter and a pound of drunken mussels cooked in vermouth, fresh herbs, and shallots.
Too full to go to bed, we ended the evening with cocktails at Point5, the upstairs bar at Nine One Five on Duval Street. The breezy front balcony was a perfect place to watch all that was coming and going along Duval.
Eventually our choices narrowed to 1) stomach pump or 2) go to bed, so we called it a night.
We woke up the morning and did a group cheer to get us psyched up for the day's eat fest.
It started at Firefly on Petronia. Their menu promised all manner of fried goodness, and they delivered. We started off with mango mimosas, to wash it all down and then ordered all the fried things we could find on the menu.
Fried okra, deep fried mini corndogs, and deliciously cheesy stuffed peppers.
Then fried chicken and waffles, fried chicken and biscuits, and fried crab beignets on a bun with crazy good garlic fries.
Oh....and then there was that one person who ordered a salad. I think she was starting to feel guilty about what she was doing to her internal organs, but never mind her. We would get her back on the food train before the day was over.
The will is weak.
Especially when tater tots are on the menu.
The guys had decided their new favorite place was the Rum Bar so we headed that way. If I learned one thing on the island of Jost Van Dyke, home of the Soggy Dollar Bar and home of the painkiller, it is that it is never too early for a painkiller.
We spent the day shopping up and down Key West's quaint streets in between snacks. We had decided that the best way to see the sights was on the way to and from our eating opportunities. If we followed the food, we'd naturally see the sights along the way. We wanted to see Hemingway's House. Did we pay admission and take a tour? Of course not. We snapped a selfie by the gate on the way to Firefly for a mango mimosa and a plate of fried okra. Just like we grabbed a walking photo of the harbor and the boats as we made our way to Half Shell for a pound of beer steamed shrimp and grabbed a glimpse of the Southernmost Point as we made a quick detour on our way to the Rum Bar for painkillers.
It had been almost 3 hours since we'd had anything to eat and it was making me nervous. Certain that my stomach would shrink, we needed food and we needed it fast. As luck would have it, it was oyster happy hour.
We decided to try Pepe's for oysters just for a change of scenery, if nothing else.
I liked Pepe's oysters best. They were served with lime instead of lemon and their house made cocktail sauce was so thick and chunky it was more like salsa. Paired with one of Pepe's hand squeezed margaritas, it was afternoon perfection.
Since it was their first visit to Key West, we wanted Steve and Alison to enjoy a proper Key West sunset. That meant NOT at the sunset celebration where they could only catch a brief glimpse of it obstructed by 27 boats as they peered around the back of a guy with a combover and a Patriots jersey who was busy watching a guy juggle fire. Don't get me wrong, I love the festiveness of the sunset celebration, but it's not ideal if you actually want to SEE THE SUNSET.
We had done the Commotion on the Ocean sunset cruise on our first trip to Key West and, despite the total cheese factor of it, I loved it. It was not a classy affair, but I knew that. Bad wine and cheap beer were served in plastic glasses, cheap deli trays from the local supermarket lined the counter promising "free eats" as the smell of old grease filled the air. I was pretty sure I could smell cheap meatballs and frozen chicken wings cooking somewhere. The boat was also crammed with bodies. Bodies everywhere and all of them clutching a plastic solo cup of boxed wine.
I still loved it.
The band was good, the sunset was amazing, and the atmosphere was the kind of cheap fun you can only have at a frat party or, if you are over 22, on a cheesy party boat. I can't explain it. I loved it the same way I love the $1.09 bean burrito at Taco Bell or the way I love watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians when no one is looking.
As we boarded the boat, I promised myself I would enjoy the band and the sunset but I would not drink the bad drinks on the boat.
Three glasses of boxed wine in a solo cup later I found myself enthusiastically accepting a crappy margarita like it was heaven's nectar handed to me from an angel. It was even worse than the boxed wine. I drank it anyway.
We watched the sun as it made its way toward the horizon.
Before I knew it, I was drinking cheap champagne out of a plastic cup.
What is it they say? Wine before liquor? Never been sicker? Or is that beer? Did it matter? I was pretty sure I was going to be sorry I drank from the "Cup of Gallo" no matter what order I did it in.
As the boat made its way back toward the harbor, the band cranked out oldies. Everyone was smiling and drinking champagne, snapping selfies in front of the fiery sky, laughing, having a good time. It was lovely.
And then they played Rocky Top.
My friends, you always know who the hillbillies in the group are when the band starts to play Rocky Top.
If you are from East Tennessee, and you hear Rocky Top, it doesn't matter where you are or what you are doing. You can be in church, at a funeral, or walking through the mall and you are instantly and inexplicably compelled to start singing at the top of your lungs and throwing in a lot of "Yee Haws" for good measure.
Or maybe it was just the boxed wine singing.
There was only one thing that could follow Rocky Top: tequila shots.
I mean, what better to do after drinking cheap wine, cheaper champagne and a margarita made with bottom shelf liquor?
We got off the boat and found Agave 308. The decor was creepy and dark, but in a fun way. I liked it.
With absolutely no plans for dinner, we wandered in search of Garbo's. Or was it Grunt's? Garbo's at Grunt's? We weren't sure. I just knew they were supposed to have great tacos. We found what we thought was Grunt's and wandered around looking for something that appeared to be serving tacos. I did see what appeared to be a stand of some sort in the back, but there was nothing making it obvious that you could get food there. I also saw a sign shouting "Tennessee Steve's BBQ" with an arrow that confusingly terminated in a chain link fence.
Unfortunately, the Grunt's / Garbo's set up seemed designed for those in the know and was simply confusing as hell for a group of people who had consumed entirely too much boxed wine and cheap tequila, so we made our exit, and headed straight for the predictable safety of Amigo's.
Not only did they have tacos, they had tater tots.
And fire roasted corn.
And GOOD margaritas.
Because we NEEDED another drink.
The following morning, we all made it a point to get up in time for the sunrise. This is not hard to do when you fall asleep at 10:30 pm. It is hard to do if that early sleep was induced by a tater tot and tequila coma.
We grabbed hot coffee at Sandy's and rode our bikes to the pier to watch the sunrise.
It was spectacular.
A sunrise that spectacular called for a hearty breakfast, so we headed to Camille's at the recommendation of our surly waiter at Pepe's the night before.
We hopped on the bikes and headed that way.
Camille's was kitschy cool. With orange sherbet walls, vintage movie posters, and a smattering of quirky nicknacks, Camille's was one part crazy old Aunt Hilda's house, one part 1950's Hollywood diner, and one part Old Florida Retirement Community Party Room. Camille's had also stolen my 1984 high school mix tape collection.
We ordered mimosas and bacon bloody marys, diving into the menu with gusto.
Matt had the carb cake benedict. No, that's not a typo. Sure, there were some crab cakes in there somewhere, but it was really a carb cake. Especially with that pile of cheesy delicious grits.
I went for the omelet special which was loaded with sun dried tomatoes, bacon, asparagus, and lobster. It came with a side of perfectly toasted, buttered Cuban bread and crispy home fries.
Then we all went home and took a nap.
I wish I was joking, but I'm not. It was only 10:00 a.m. and we needed a nap. This eating quest was wearing us out.
It was when I woke up from my late morning nap at Mango Cottage that Key West Hideaways got their final strike. We ran out of toilet paper.
Now....I am not one of these "high maintenance" rental people that has unrealistic expectations of a vacation rental. But when I pay $2471 to spend 3 days in a 765 square foot house.....I should not have to go buy my own toilet paper.
We were up and at 'em in time to ride our bikes to catch the 11:45 a.m. shuttle to the second KWFWF event I had purchased tickets to: The Hogfish Grill Shrimp Boil on Stock Island.
I loved almost everything about the Shrimp Boil.
I loved the table of endless wine.
I loved the appetizers of ceviche and coconut shrimp.
I loved the giant bowl filled with amazing shrimp, lobster, sausage, corn, and potatoes topped with the most delightful cornbread square I have ever had the pleasure of eating. The food was FANTASTIC.
I didn't like being seated at cheap, crappy tables with no shade in the broiling sun in the freaking parking lot. It was almost as "unclassy" as the Commotion on the Ocean. At least the boat had a band.
It had all the atmosphere of a potluck in the church fellowship hall or dinner at a table set up outside of Lowe's selling girl scout cookies.
We left on the first trolley.
We wasted the afternoon sipping painkillers at the Rum Bar and eating shrimp and oysters at Half Shell.
Now that they had seen a proper sunset, we wanted Steve and Alison to experience the Mallory Square Sunset Celebration. We headed that way just as the sun was making its way toward the horizon. It was the usual assortment of fortune tellers, fire eaters, magicians, and pigs in top hats. There were popcorn carts, mojito carts, and guys whacking into green coconuts so passers by could grab a straw and sip them as they watched a guy on a unicycle juggle swords.
We hadn't made any plans for our final dinner. I like to leave the last night open so that we can see what catches our eye during the trip. What caught our eye was the promise of "all you can eat crab legs" at Camille's that morning.
We should have felt ashamed. We had been eating about 8,000 calories a day. The last thing we needed was "all you can eat" anything unless it was Lipitor or a colonic.
That didn't stop us. We dove in with enthusiasm, like we had not already eaten 3 times that day. The crab legs were large, perfectly prepared, and Camille's was generous. Of course we all had to get at least two orders lest we violate the secret code of "all you can eatness" which says you must get at least 2 plates of whatever it is or be forced to spend the rest of your existence as a chump who didn't get her money's worth.
We decided to go out in a blaze of glory. It was time for dessert.
We stopped at Better Than Sex Desserts on our way home.
Walking inside was like entering a whore house, but one that traded chocolate instead of sex. It was dark and sexy. You could catch glimpses of the red walls from the dim lighting cast by the ornate chandeliers.
From our illuminated iPad menu, we chose our desserts. For Matt, that was their signature dessert, the "Better Than Sex," which looked like a deep, dark chocolate bread pudding. I ordered the "Jungle Fever." It was described as, "Smooth. Soft. Supple. A warm airy chocolate cake full of body that’s oozing a subtle chocolate pudding underneath. Rubbing up against cool white vanilla bean balls." And vanilla bean balls they were.....
They also served wine in glasses rimmed with dark chocolate. The chocolate was soft and melty, but didn't slide down the glass. As Matt sipped, I figured out why it was so dark in here. When he looked up, he had a line of melted chocolate across his forehead from the glass. If they didn't dim the lights, no one would leave this place feeling sexy. Instead, they would look like a 4 year old that got into the Halloween candy without permission.
It was uniquely indulgent and delicious. I was a fan.
Who am I kidding? I am a fan of sugar. Period. It could be a cheap, stale donut on a paper plate in the Kroger parking lot and I'm going to like it.
But throw in some red walls and velvet curtains and you make my day.
I woke up the next morning knowing it was time to pack up and head home. It had been a ridiculously indulgent few days.
I decided to take a total body inventory to assess the damage.
My mouth felt dry, like I had spent the past 10 hours snacking on cotton balls. Woman can not live on wine alone, I supposed.
The back of my throat was a little sore. I attributed that to belting out Rocky Top loud enough for folks in Michigan to hear.
My chest felt normal, but that was only because the fat had not yet had a chance to harden and make it's way into the lining of my arteries. It just needed a little more time.
My stomach was physically protruding over the elastic band of my PJs. I could poke it. It felt soft. Much like I imagine the Pillsbury doughboy would feel if you could poke him for real.
My butt cheeks were sore. No doubt because my butt was at least two sizes bigger than it was when we arrived, which made my bicycle seat increasingly uncomfortable as the trip wore on.
I was very sleepy from going to bed at midnight and getting up at 6:00 a.m. every day to see the sunrise.
And, inexplicably, I was hungry.
I'm back home now and I am paying the price of gluttony.
I'm not as young as I used to be. My 44 year old metabolism can't quite keep up with a 9,000 calorie a day diet. The only cure for the food vacation hangover is, of course, lots of deprivation and raw vegetables.
I’ll keep telling myself that the miles and miles we walked and biked more than made up for our obscene caloric intake, but really, deep inside, past the thick layers of adipose tissue, I know better.
Was it worth it? Was 3 days of gluttony worth this horrible kale and spinach juice that is serving as my lunch today?
Yeah. It was.