Nearly every major city or vacation destination in the United States lays claim to an iconic dish. In Chicago, it's deep-dish pizza. In Philadelphia, it's cheesesteaks. In Texas, it's brisket.
In South Florida, it's key lime pie. Named for the small citrus fruits said to have been introduced in the area in the 1830s by Henry Perrine, a botanist and diplomat who discovered the plant in Mexico, this tart and creamy dessert can be found on almost every menu in the Sunshine State.
One thing that will set a true key lime pie apart from the pretenders is the use of real key lime juice squeezed from fruit harvested from plants now native to parts of the West Indies and Mexico but with origins in Asia. The citrus plant produces a small green fruit that, when ripe, becomes yellow and offers an intense tartness over the green Persian or Tahiti limes often sold in grocery stores.
Today, finding real key limes here in South Florida isn't always easy, because crops have continually struggled to flourish. But most restaurants from Key Largo to Key West use only the real deal in some of the best key lime pies around. Here are the ten best:
1. Old Town Bakery
930 Eaton St., Key West; 305-396-7450; oldtownbakerykeywest.com.
Established in 2010, Old Town Bakery looks like it's been around a lot longer. The aesthetic is thanks to owner Niall Bowen and his wife, Elzbieta Krysztofiak, who've decorated the shop to exude Old Florida charm. Bowen, a longtime pastry chef, creates artisan breads, cakes, pastries, and, yes, homemade key lime pie the old-fashioned way. Located on corner of Eaton and Grinnell Streets, former home of Cole’s Peace Bakery, Old Town Bakery makes key lime pies using fresh-squeezed key lime juice, creating a dense, beautiful yellowish-green custard cradled in a gingersnap crust, a flavor that pairs exceptionally well with the tartness of the limes. Each slice ($3.75) is topped with fresh whipped cream made in-house just before serving.
2. Salute! on the Beach
1000 Atlantic Blvd., Key West; 305-292-1117; saluteonthebeach.com.
Most people know about the key lime pie at this restaurant's sister establishment, Blue Heaven. But Salute! on the Beach is a Key West treasure all its own, with the atmosphere of a beachside café and delicious key lime pies. The main menu offers Caribbean-influenced takes on Italian classics, although you won't find anything Italian about the slice of key lime pie ($9): a creamy pale-yellow key lime custard nestled into a rich graham cracker crust and topped with a massively majestic crown of fluffy meringue.
3. Ma's Fish Camp
105 Palm Ave., Islamorada; 305-517-9611; masfishcamp.com.
Islamorada denizens call this place simply Ma's. And it's just about as comforting as a trip home. The homemade key lime pie ($6) is one locals and visitors have cherished for years, and it's still among the best in these parts. The graham cracker crust has some solid crunch, the filling is tangy, and each slice comes topped with a mountain of golden meringue and whipped cream.
4. Key West Key Lime Pie Company
511 Greene St., Key West; 305-517-6720; keywestkeylimepieco.com.
At the height of season, you might have to stand in line for a slice of key lime pie ($6.50) here, but it's worth the wait. These pies are national-award-winning, made fresh daily using natural ingredients such as real key lime juice and a handmade graham cracker crust. The result: a filling that's light and smooth, with just the right touch of sweetness, and a perfect ratio of creamy filling to crunchy crust.
5. Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe
200 Elizabeth St., Key West; 305-296-0806; keylimeshop.com.
For more than two decades, Kermit's has been serving some of the finest key lime pie, courtesy of Kermit Carpenter. The store, founded by Carpenter, his sister Anita, and her husband, has become a Key West brand and expanded to a second shop, located on iconic Duval Street. Each slice of key lime pie ($4.50) is tart and rich, uses real key limes, and has a graham cracker crust. But don't miss Carpenter's brilliant invention: a frozen slice skewered on a stick and dipped in dark Belgian chocolate ($4.50).
6. Green Turtle Inn
81219 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada; 305-664-2006; greenturtleinn.com.
The Green Turtle Inn has a long history in the Keys (too long to get into here, but the structure dates back to the 1930s). The spot is best known for its Southern-style food and charm, including the restaurant’s signature turtle chowder, a dish the inn has been serving for decades. Of course, you should also try the key lime pie ($8). This one has a special crust made with macadamia nuts and rice to hold the sweet-tart filling.
7. Cafe Sole
1029 Southard St., Key West; 786-472-8249; cafesole.com.
This cozy, romantic spot specializes in a unique fusion of French-Caribbean fare. Go for the signature hog snapper, conch carpaccio, creative vegetarian fare, and some key lime pie. Each slice ($6) comes topped with a fluffy layer of marshmallow meringue and light chantilly cream.
8. Pepe's Café
806 Caroline St., Key West; 305-294-7192; pepescafe.net.
Established in 1909, Pepe's has a sign boasting it's the oldest eating house in Key West, so it only makes sense it also serves some of the best traditional key lime pie around. All of the desserts are still handmade, and the key lime pie is the most notable. Served in a bowl, a zingy filling in a crunchy graham cracker crust is crowned with plenty of whipped cream (and sometimes a lime wedge for garnish). The charm of the place adds the perfect touch of sweetness.
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9. Porky's Bayside
1410 Overseas Hwy., Marathon; 305-289-2065; porkysbaysidebbq.com.
Who said key lime pie has to be traditional? At this Marathon restaurant, originally known as Bill Thompson's Villas & Marina, slices are deep-fried and arrive with a crisp crust and subtly sweet filling drizzled with a raspberry reduction and topped with whipped cream ($4.99).
10. The Fish House
102401 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 305-451-4665; fishhouse.com.
Everyone who's visited the Keys more than a few times develops their own special traditions of where to stop for breakfast, lunch, or a few cold drinks. For many Miamians, that includes a visit to Key Largo's Fish House. This delicious slice of key lime pie ($5.99) boasts a light and tangy filling, but it's the meringue that makes this dessert a winner. Rather than an imposing pile of fluff, a sheet of sweet goodness is whipped into perfect curls and torched to a beautiful caramel brown.