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 cheesesteak. 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 sets 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 tastiest key lime pies around. Here are the ten best:
Baker's Cay Resort97000 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo
This new resort in Key Largo offers a fancy version of the classic pie. Helmed by executive chef Andy Papson, the resort's dessert chefs start with a pecan and white chocolate crust that balances the zesty lime flavor. The pie is finished with a sweet guava glaze and accompanied by a toasted coconut meringue cookie ($9).
Beach Cafe at Morada Bay81600 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada
The only thing better than a slice of sweet/tart key lime pie is enjoying it right on the water. The cafe is an homage to surfer culture with surfboards, longboards, and original '60s surf posters throughout, but if the weather is good, take your pie outside and enjoy it with your toes in the sand. This classic key lime pie features a graham cracker crust and mango and raspberry coulis swirls. The pie is topped with fresh berries and whipped cream ($8).
The Fish House102401 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo
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.
Green Turtle Inn81219 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada
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.
Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe200 Elizabeth St., Key West
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). Kermit's delivers a fresh key lime pie ($38.95) to your door overnight and offers a gluten-free version ($48.95).
Key West Key Lime Pie Company511 Greene St., Key West
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 are national-award-winning pies, 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. If you're hankering for a pie, but can't drive down to Key West, you can order a pie online for $24.99. A gluten-free version costs $26.99.
Old Town Bakery930 Eaton St., Key West
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 the 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.
Pepe's Café806 Caroline St., Key West
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.
Porky's Bayside1410 Overseas Hwy., Marathon
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 ($5.95).
Salute! on the Beach1000 Atlantic Blvd., Key West
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 pie. The main menu offers Caribbean-influenced takes on Italian classics, although you won't find anything Italian about the slice of key lime pie ($9.50): a creamy pale-yellow key lime custard nestled into a rich graham cracker crust and topped with a massively majestic crown of fluffy meringue.
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