Southernmost City Beautiful
Are there any two cities more different than Key West and Coral Gables? The self-described "City Beautiful" is as anal-retentive as a bucketful of Imodium AD. There are regulations that tell you what color you can paint your house, what animals you can keep as pets. You have to get a permit to paint your front door. Park a pickup truck in your driveway overnight and the city will send someone around in the morning to rap your knuckles with a yardstick.
Key West, on the other hand, is the "City Whatever." The only regulations anyone pays attention to are those requiring every tourist to get stinking drunk at Sloppy Joe's and every serenading musician to play at least one annoying Jimmy Buffett tune. For all anyone in the Conch Republic cares, you can park a pickup truck on your roof.
Trying to put these two cities together is like arranging the marriage of Marilyn Manson and Laura Bush. But drive down Red Road almost to Coral Way and there it is: Key West by the Gables. Marilyn, meet your lawfully wedded ... First Lady.
Key West by the Gables comes by its pedigree honestly, though. It is, after all, cheek-to-cheek with oh-so-tony Coral Gables, and owners Mario Palazon and Lina Barroso hail from a family of Key West restaurateurs. Plus the place has old-fashioned Keys charm up the wazoo. The colorful, nouveau fish shack dining room is complete with a bicycle hanging from the ceiling, assorted Fantasy Fest trinkets, and a mural of Ernest Hemingway painted on a back wall. There's also a small bar, a retail fish counter where you can purchase seafood to go or have it prepared on the premises, and a tiny stage for live music.
As with most Keys restaurants, service is both neighborly and clueless. Unlike most of them, KWBTG boasts a smart roster of interesting and reasonably priced wines. Even better and more unusual, the food doesn't suck. Actually it's pretty good, even if it is served on plastic plates and eaten with plastic utensils. Cheap, too, and plenty of it.
Consider some of the only conch fritters on either side of Ocean Reef that are truly worth eating. Six golf ball-size fritters were subtly flavored with scallions and red pepper, fried crisp on the outside and tender and surprisingly light inside. Tostones Hemingway were rather more exotic. The thick mashed plantain pancakes were topped with "blue crab enchilado," the o at the end indicating a sort of rustic crab stew that was a little spicy, a little savory, and loaded with crab.
Of course any Keys eatery worthy of its sunsets must have a fried shrimp basket, so naturally KWBTG does too. Like the fritters, these crustaceans put most of their island counterparts to shame. But the generous portion of fresh-tasting Key West pinks, fried crisp and virtually grease-free, crowned a tangle of distressingly limp and soggy fries that was an insult to the union of potatoes and hot oil.
Luckily the kitchen here does more than just fry. A hefty grouper steak was as carefully grilled as that of any hoity South Beach seafood palace, doused with tangy lemon butter sauce, and laid atop gently wilted spinach with a side of paprika-dusted mashed potatoes. Those munchies never had a chance.
Key lime pie, perhaps the islands' chief contribution to things culinary, was appropriately tart, rich, and creamy, and would have been demolished down to the last crumb if its crust hadn't been burned blacker than the inside of a bong. Still, for a taste of the City Whatever without the buttheaded retentiveness of the City Beautiful, you won't do better than Key West by the Gables.
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