Viva la Cuban!

This morning we ventured over to Sandy’s Cafe in Little Havana, a few streets over from Duval. Open 24 hours with an all day menu, and I have a hankering for a Cuban Sandwich. Sandy’s does not disappoint.

IMG_3058 (8 of 8)Sandy’s features outside only seating. We find a pleasant spot against the building under an awning where we can watch the world go by under an already scorching sun.

IMG_3443 (4 of 8)Orders are placed at the counter. I’m trying a cafe con leche for the first time, a shot of buchi (expresso) with cream and sugar. A bit too sweet for me. I should have asked for less sugar, but nevertheless cafe con leche makes a fine wake me up drink.

IMG_3442 (5 of 8)Sandwiches arrive wrapped in paper inside take-out containers and accompanied by a very small serving of passable shoestring fries.  The second you unwrap your sammy, you know… A feast for the eyes and the palate. A soft bun, loaded with roast pork crisped up and caramelized on the flat top, ham, fresh tomatoes and shredded lettuce, topped with thin cucumber pickle and pressed lightly. $7.99.

IMG_3449 (1 of 8)While eating, sitting up against the building with a window open to the small kitchen, you are surrounded by the mouth watering smell of pork roasting and frying on the griddle. The cook adds spice to the mix and it is positively intoxicating. Everyone should start their day this way.

IMG_3439 (6 of 8)Off to explore Higgs Beach and the Key West Garden Club at the West Martello Fort Tower. Already too hot to wander and take pics like I like to. I’ll save that for an early morning before we leave.

IMG_3468 (3 of 3)IMG_3478 (2 of 3)After a long day in the hot sun relaxing and swimming at the Inn, we are up for some more Cuban food, something that really does not exist in Ottawa.

El Siboney, tucked away in a residential part of Old Key West, celebrates its Cuban indigenous roots. The homey restaurant and warm decor features renderings and sculpture of this native population, the way other restaurants here are cluttered with cats and roosters. The Siboney are depicted much like American Indians were in the 1800’s. This population mixed with the Spanish as they arrived in the America’s much like Mexico’s indigenous peoples.

This neighbourhood joint, relatively free of tourists, had a fairly extensive menu in both English and Spanish. We are quickly seated and brought a basket of warm Cuban bread — white, toasty and buttered.

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I order a “Cuban Style” Hatuey beer, made in the USA. It is thin and bitter, not my preference but drinkable.

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We have limited experience with Cuban fare and want to try a few things. Rob orders the BBQ chicken with plantanos maduros (fried ripe plantains), rice and black beans, which are separate sides not mixed. The rice, coloured a deep yellow with annatto seed, a common spice in Mexican cuisine, provides a nice foil for the sweet, juicy chicken. The plantains are fried to a deep caramel, chewy and perfect. I decide on the roast pork, cassava and tamale. We choose a side of croquetta just to try.

Food comes out quickly and looks amazing. Rob’s chicken is a large half, generously sauced with a sweet BBQ sauce. He applies some of the house-made hot sauce and sings its praises.

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My heaping serving of moist, flavourful pork, comes with cassava, a starchy, bland, gluey, root vegetable, a staple in a good part of the world, which may substitute for a potato but has way less flavour. Both the pork and the cassava are covered in under-fried (in a good way) garlicky onions that provide a nice texture and mild bite. Cassava serves to fill hungry bellies and I don’t really care for it so it gets left. The tamale, made with fine masa flour, has great corn taste and the lightly sweet, cumin scented tomato sauce coating makes for a delicious accompaniment to the roast pork.IMG_3064 (3 of 5)

The side of shared croquetta are also well made and tasty. Darkly crisp, just shy of burnt, they are filled with smoky ham and potato.

IMG_3065 (4 of 5)Overall a cheap and very satisfying homemade meal.


Firefly and the Conch Republic Train

Firefly, a small cafe open to the air in the front, immediately comfy in what I will call rooster industrial chic, looks like a perfect spot for breakfast. We find seating with the fresh air to our backs facing the corrugated metal bar, warm and inviting with a wood board backsplash in the colours of the island rooster plumage. Very well done.

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Firefly prides itself on its scratch made menu. I am very tempted by the chicken fried steak. Very hard to come by fresh made not frozen.

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In the end we both opted for the chicken and waffles and asked if we could get a side of sawmill gravy and they were very accommodating. In fact it had never occurred to them and they thought it was a great idea. It was.

Decent coffee and excellent fresh squeezed Florida OJ on ice arrives.  The morning, already becoming hot and humid, requires drinks on ice. I am not complaining just reporting.

The chicken breast, expertly fried and boneless with a perfect crisp, chewy crust, nestled on top of four Belgian style waffle quarters,  drenched in buttery maple syrup, sprinkled with pecans, evokes some very excellent chicken and waffles we have enjoyed in previous southern USA trips.

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The side of homemade pepper gravy is THE BEST EVER. Beats out our gold standard for chicken and waffles that is Roscoe’s in LA. This gravy could be eaten with a spoon like soup …chunky with sausage, creamy with a little pepper heat. Now dip a piece of crunchy, moist, tender, maple syrup drenched fried chicken in it and go “ahhhhhh”. Life is good.

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This being our third time in Key West we decided it was time to get acquainted with the island’s history, so we booked a tour on the Conch Train. The tour lasted a little over an hour and was interesting but hot. Time for a cold beverage and a swim.

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Day 3 in Key West

Another day in Paradise. Up at leisure and off to breakfast. Rob has chosen Blue Heaven from a number of top recommendations. Breakfast joints in the Key seem to serve up the classics with each place adding its own quirky touch.

IMG_3413 (3 of 4)Blue Heaven combines funk and kitsch to the max. Almost to the point of a red flag.  Rooster, cat and every piece of crap in between graces the property. Our wait is to be 30 minutes at 10 am. I walk around the large outdoor patio area and grow alarmed by the fountains, and cutesy signage and rusted out antiques. And then the second red flag: gift shop. Does not bode well for the food.

I return to a group of mismatched veranda chairs where Rob waits and a kitty snoozes on a pile of newspapers. We are called shortly (total wait 15 minutes) to an indoor table. The restaurant proper is less adorned than the patio and features barn wood walls, cement floors and painted post and beam construction. Cheery with friendly staff.

I order shrimp and grits… ’cause we in the South and ’cause they are tasty gulf shrimp. The dish comes with several plump shrimp in a white wine sauce over nicely seasoned, buttery grits and some fresh green onion for a little bite.  My plate was accented with fruit which I normally despise for it’s unripeness but at Blue Heaven it was nicely ripe and appreciated. Breakfast with the roosters at Blue Heaven comes with a choice of excellent warm, homemade banana bread or toast. What kind of choice is that? Who chooses toast? I wanna know!

IMG_3412 (2 of 4)Rob’s Rooster Special  featured excellent potatoes, a homemade sausage patty that had a surprising zing to it and egg scramble.

IMG_3411 (1 of 4)Back out into the tropical sunshine for a stroll and then back to the pool to chill with a cocktail. Life is good.

Hot and humid weather sees us sitting around the pool with Shocktops and cocktails. Another day chilling in paradise. I feel like a steak and seafood place for dinner and a little research brings us to a place around the corner from our inn, on Duval, The Blackfin. Reviews and the menu look promising.

We walk over for an early res. The Blackfin is small and neat and has a patio courtyard where we elect to be seated. Our waiter, originally from the Champagne region in France is charming. Decent baguette and butter arrives as our bottle of delicious, crisp Tavel rose is poured. Apps are ordered.

IMG_3046 (1 of 7)My app of sautéed calamari, was chosen for its garlic, parsley sauce and walnuts. My curiosity was piqued by the nuts. Unusual. Rob chose the conch cakes.

The calamari was …well boring. The walnuts which are an unusual twist added nothing to the mix. This dish would be better served if the calamari was grilled. A little char would have made the difference.

IMG_3257 (3 of 7)Rob’s conch cakes with remouladè  were well fried, not greasy and full of conch. Excellent. Both apps were too large however and would have been best shared.

IMG_3047 (2 of 7)We both ordered fish for mains. Rob had sautèed grouper with lime avocado tartar sauce accompanied by  island couscous. The couscous was a revelation. Bright and lightly sweet. His fish was expertly fried.

IMG_3049 (6 of 7)My snapper was perfectly pan fried and luscious with a coconut rum sauce accompanied by light, fluffy rice.

IMG_3258 (5 of 7)We shared a delicious piece of carrot cake drizzled with caramel with well made cappuccinos. A pretty spectacular meal all in all.

IMG_3262 (7 of 7)The night is young and we decide to head across the street to Martin’s to see if we can get a real daiquiri. You would think in the land of Hemingway this would not be hard, but we are on Duval street where cocktail culture has not yet arrived and getting as drunk as you can for as cheap as you can is the mission of the masses. We sit at the bar and Rob schools the bartender on a real daiquiri. He makes us a pretty decent one. We settle in for the evening here and meet some fun Americans…two republican ladies with whom we have some interesting political conversation and a guy from Chicago who wants to talk hockey and I eagerly oblige. A great Hawks fan who convinces me to cheer for the Cubs if I’m looking for a baseball team to cheer for.

Back to the inn after a great night of seafood and interesting conversion. And a newly minted Cubs fan is born.

Papa, Six-toed kitties & Bulgogi

Close to heaven here. Okay, in comparison to the -20 my Ottawa friends reported this morning. We woke at leisure…no puppy breath or tongue down the throat. No kitty wailing at the horror of not being fed at 5 am.

It promises to be 27 degrees in Key West today and at 10 am it looks promising.  We decide to walk over to the Hemingway Home around the corner to explore a bit. The grounds are small, the house while not overly large lends itself to the traditional Key West architecture, shuttered, hurricane-chic style of most places in the Key. Stately palms wave gracefully in the breeze and moisture permeates every nook and cranny of the estate.

IMG_3360 (1 of 3)The house itself disappoints. It has not preserved the essence of Hemingway. It seems a bunch of crazy cat ladies have  redecorated. I’m 100% sure Ernest did not hang lace cafe curtains in his kitchen that are adorned with cats. The conspicuous computer in the kitchen being a total “zipper in the monkey suit”.

What does make the estate special are the cats. Many descendants, from the original six-toed cat Hemingway received from a ship’s captain,  roam the property. They are part of the landscape.

IMG_3376 (2 of 3)50 cats currently reside there. Some are altered and a few are allowed to breed to continue the colony. According to Wikipedia, half the cats are polydactly but all carry the gene. The property hosts a cat cemetery. Hemingway named the cats after famous people and the tradition continues.

Lots going on in those paws...Since we rose late, we opted only for lunch today. Another triple D joint, Garbo’s Grill. Garbo’s, basically a food truck parked on Caroline Street,  backs on to another property which hosts a bar, shady seating and restrooms. Tacos are ordered and will take 15 minutes. Drinks are on ice in the cooler. Wanna beer? Head into the bar.

IMG_3401 (4 of 5)The bulgogi tacos are absolutely excellent, spicy with sriracha, juicy and over full. Purple cabbage adds a nice crunch.

IMG_3403 (3 of 5)We also got an order of shrimp and fish tacos which was overkill. We did not realize these were 6 inch tacos, not 3 inch. The shrimp tacos were fine, but I find that deep fried shrimp are better suited to this treatment.

IMG_3407 (1 of 5)The fish tacos had very generous portions of excellent, meaty fish, cabbage and thin slices of ripe mango, topped with a creamy dressing.

IMG_3405 (2 of 5)Time to walk back to the inn, order a classic marg and chill by the pool on this gorgeous day.

Key West!

Left Ottawa before sun up. -18 in mid-March. Brutal. Said goodbye to some very suspicious furbabies and we are off for a nice sunny respite after a whirlwind week of buying a house, selling a house and all that entails. Clear skies mean flights are on time. Too on time. We get into Charlotte, NC a half hour early, adding to our long layover, but not enough time though to find decent grub. We choose the airport burger joint from a myriad of bad fast food options figuring it is our best bet. Not so it turns out. Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar uses salt like it is a cure for cancer and anything else that might ail you. I don’t like to drink too many fluids before getting on an aircraft as to avoid needing to squeeze into the closet sized restroom but a Bad Daddy’s  meal necessitated a giant sized Diet Coke.  My tongue is still burning and probably swollen from the salt.

Arrived in Key West on schedule. 26 degrees, humid, sunny. Love.  Key West airport being the perfect airport, has no jet ways. You disembark and enter The Conch Rebublic Terminal. Fancy shmancy word for room. No visible security, a small luggage carrousel to the right and left of the door, First Call Bar serving up frosty cocktails while you wait, with car rental steps away. We had our car keys before our luggage, ten minutes.

We are staying at the Orchid Key Inn on Duval. This may turn out to be a mistake as we didn’t factor in American March Break, but being a tad pricey it seems to have scared the young’uns away leaving the pool to old farts like us. So far so good. The Inn, quaint in a mid 20th century way,  has all suites on ground level clustered around a courtyard pool. The layout and vibe remind me very much of the San Jose in Austin, Texas. Rooms are elegantly appointed and have everything the road techie needs. The Orchid Key bar, pool side, mixes up it’s own specialty cocktails and we think we will start there after a long day getting here. Gin and Juice to start off our vaycay! It’s the Inn’s signature cocktail — Cucumber-infused Hendrick’s gin, fresh grapefruit juice and cucumber slices.

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After cocktails we head out to snap some pics and wander Duval street in search of grub. Roosters crow at us and local colour pops. Tourists and students tour the street and shops. We spy DJ’s Clam Shack, recently featured on Food Network’s “triple D”.  An early dinner allows us to get street side seating where we can nosh and people watch.

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Orders come up fast. Icy cold Landsharks to start followed by a very excellent and classic New England, over-stuffed lobster roll — sweet meat, lightly dressed in a perfect toasty, buttery roll.

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Next up, little neck clams in garlic and jalapeno broth with garlic toasts, — sweet, garlicky clams with a nice background heat coming off the peppers.

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And finally an order of very tasty, perfectly fried conch fritters, sweet, doughy, loaded with conch and served with a mild sweet mustard sauce. The fritters came with well-made but superfluous shoestring fries.

Blog Key West 009Back to the Inn for an early night. This day began at 4:30 am.

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