Note: today’s post is a sponsored post with images and text provided by The Florida Keys & Key West. I personally haven’t visited Key West since I was a teenager, but reading this post and seeing these photos totally makes me want to go! Thanks to the Florida Keys + Key West and Honest Cooking for their support of Grits & Chopsticks.
Key West is known for its palm lined streets and fish that is fresh enough to draw any committed culinary traveler. With a distinct mixture of cultures, the island is not only home to a strong seafood scene, but a tantalizing fusion of cuisines. At night, the streets are lit up with vibrant sidewalk cafes that lure in passersby with delicious aromas of the region. Live music and hopping bars are the perfect pairings to watch the sunset into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Florida Keys is home to five districts, each with their own personality and attractions that make visitors feel like they are a world away. The southernmost paradise, Key West, is just miles from Cuba and is home to an enviably temperate climate and a delicious array of fresh seafood set to a beautiful backdrop. Bringing together a multitude of cultures that have made Key West home during its history, Key West’s food scene has delicious flavors, like African and Cuban, that are difficult to find anywhere else in the US.
As a guide to the restaurant and seafood landscape, Paul Menta of Three Hands Fish gave us the lowdown. A professional chef and community advocate, with long locks and a chill attitude that makes him seem more like a pro kite surfer, which he also is, Paul is the perfect person to talk to to find out the secret dining spots of Key West. The Philly native began his culinary career in Spain and France and eventually came to Key West to continue his love for competitive kite surfing. An athlete, distiller, chef, and entrepreneur, Paul has made it his mission to tap into all Key West has to offer.
His most recent venture, Three Hands Fish, is a community-supported fish market in Key West. Its members, chefs and homecooks, have access to the freshest fish, shrimp, stone crabs, and lobster that come in on the docks. As Paul describes it, the first “hand” represents the hand of the fisherman, the second “hand” represents the market, and the third “hand” represents when the fish makes it into the hands of the individual or restaurant. Paul is proud of his market because it brings local, traceable seafood to people with plenty of variety intended to avoid overfishing a specific species.
Paul’s efforts are buoyed by the fact that Key West has seafood unlike anywhere in the world. The crucial ingredient is the water — the Gulf of Mexico mixes with the Atlantic Ocean, making a perfect nursery for a plethora of fish, crab, and lobster. In addition, the fishermen of the region have come together to create a sustainable plan for the future of their industry, naturally controlling overproducing populations that threaten to take over the ecosystem.
“Not only are visitors able to jump on the boat for themselves and go fishing in some of the clearest waters, but they are able to sit back and relax, knowing they can find the same fresh fish in local restaurants,” says Paul.
If you are looking for a taste of the freshest seafood right on the dock, Paul suggests visiting The Stoned Crab restaurant. This restaurant serves up the famed Key West stone crab, but they also do it in a stunning setting with an unbeatable view of the water. Housed in a resort built in 1956, the restaurant keeps alive the tradition of the fishermen bringing their catches straight to their dock, a practice that is no longer happening in other areas. If you are looking for a place to stay, Paul recommends Ibis Bay Resort, which is home to The Stoned Crab and also has a retro feel.
Diehard cooks can hire a private charter to catch the freshest fish for themselves. Paul recommends Lucky Fleet, chartered by Captain Moe, to take you on this adventure and help guide you in hooking the best seasonable seafood. Moe has been fishing the waters around Key West for over 30 years and knows his way around. Whether you are an avid deep sea fisher or this is your first time, Captain Moe will take you on a great adventure, not just a boat ride.
After nabbing your freshest catch, take a class at the Isle Cook, where Paul himself will teach you how to cook local recipes and healthy meals with seafood.
“Being a chef and commercial fisherman I can tell you there is no better teacher of how to use, care for, store, cook and eat a product than a fishermen. They have ideas and techniques that most chefs would die for….but they have to ask…..so we spread the word to them,” says Paul.
When visiting Key West, be sure to try fish you wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Considered local to Key West are the hogfish, mangrove snapper, and lion fish. Paul’s favorite is the hogfish, which is caught by spear fishing. Paul suggests serving the fish whole and affectionately calls it the Key West Turkey, which is stuffed with lobster, onions, and herbs.
Along with the Key West Turkey, one of Paul’s favorite local recipes are grouper fritters. The grouper is mixed with onions carrots and a traditional Key West seafood seasoning by Key West Spice Company made of celery seed, salt, paprika, and red pepper. Paul fries the fish balls until golden and enjoys them inside of a sandwich or as an appetizer by the water.
- 1 pound grouper
- ½ cup onions
- ½ cup carrots
- 1.5 tablespoons Key West seafood seasoning
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons Key lime juice
- ½ cup flour
- Coconut oil, for fryer
- Chop or use a food processor to grind grouper.
- Finely dice the onions, carrots and mix with grouper.
- Add Key West seafood seasoning, egg yolk and the key lime juice. Mix thoroughly.
- Add flour and stir gently until mixture starts to form a batter.
- Use a spoon to make balls.
- Heat coconut oil in a skillet and fry the grouper fritters in batches until browned (or bake in the oven)on sheet tray.