Key West Mex Author Frank Imbarlina Opening the Conch Shell Café in Bal Harbour

Chef Frank Imbarlina feels that people should eat for locality and their environment.

“It’s my feeling that when people go to a destination like Key West they are going there for a total experience, which should include the cuisine,” says chef Frank Imbarlina. “When I saw menus that included heavy dishes like braised short ribs in the middle of a Key West summer or more meat and chicken dishes than fish and seafood, all following the Northern or European trends in their preparation I just couldn’t figure it out.”

The chef literally wrote the book on island cuisine. Key West Mex: A Cuisine Inspired by One of the Weirdest & Most Beautiful Places On the Planet ($18, is Imbarlina's self-published ode to the strange flavors of the Southernmost city, focusing on the connections between Florida Keys and Mexican cuisines. “The commonly used Caribbean spices work incredibly well with the commonly used Mexican spices. Also tropical and citrus fruits lend themselves very well to the Mexican flavor profile as do other flavors of the Caribbean’s staple dishes that influence the cuisine of the Keys.”

Now, Imbarlina is sharing his experiences and flavors with Miami. The chef is opening the Conch Shell Café inside the Carlton Terrace at 10245 Collins Ave. in Bal Harbour.  The restaurant will soft open next week, with a May 9 grand opening date. The restaurant will be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, with delivery available through GrubHub. 

According to the chef, the café is "a basic New American café" with a mélange of cuisines: American, Italian, French, Asian, Southern, and South Floridian.

"It seems like a lot, but it’s really a menu of fun, tasty, simple dishes with a focus on artisanal sandwiches, burgers, and salads."

Imbarlina, a well-traveled chef and consultant got his degree at Colorado State University and received his training in kitchens in Colorado, New York City, and Boston. Most recently, the chef shared his time between Pittsburgh and Miami where he helmed the kitchens of the Epicure Palate in the former and the Urbanite Bistro and Batch Gastropub in the latter.
Before opening the Conch Shell Cafe, Imbarlina found himself in Key West, helping out some friends who were opening a restaurant. The experience was the impetus for the chef's book. "That’s more or less how it happened. The owners were total rookies, but their idea of doing authentic Mexican in Key West was sound as all of the Mexican restaurants there, then and now, are very Ameri-Mex. It also gave me the opportunity to live in Key West and get to know the culture and culinary culture too."

For those looking for sultry Key West tales laced through the cookery, they’ll just have to daydream about Tennessee Williams partying it up with Truman Capote or make it down there in October for Fantasy Fest.

"It’s a very small town and I don’t want to incriminate anyone or any establishment with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll-type stories. I do want to say that when I call the Keys weird, it’s an amazing and unique weird; not a bad or creepy weird. Weird plants, weird birds, weird reptiles, weird deer and weird people. Key West itself really is the end of the road, literally and I think that fact draws a certain type of person to it and also cultivates certain personalities too."

Without naming names, Imbarlina is also aghast at how many restaurants in the Conch Republic sell frozen and pre-portioned fish and seafood, including grouper and Mahi from other countries. "Instead of what’s running and being caught in the local waters that day, week, month? To me that is weird."

In addition to opening a Bal Harbour restaurant, Imbarlina is also working on another book, possibly focusing on Miami. "I push myself to constantly evolve. I have a few concepts in my head." For now, Key West Mex is a welcome addition to any South Florida kitchen library.
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Abel Folgar