Three Great Dining Spots In the Upper Keys, From Burgers to Tacos to Hogfish

No one has ever accused the Upper Keys of being a hotbed of fine dining. Lukewarm-bed, maybe. Cold-bed, even.

But over the past couple of years the local dining scene has started heating up, giving diners who just can't choke down the thought of one more plate of fried shrimp with a side order of Margaritaville a few more palatable options. Here are three good ones.

See also: Key West: Where to Score the Best Hogfish, Doughnuts, and Shrimp

Category 3 Bar & Grill

When Bill Burkhardt and his mom, Lorraine Boyd, opened this funky but spotless upscale burger joint two-and-a-half years ago, what they knew about the restaurant business wouldn't have filled a bun. Today it's a hugely popular local's hang whose word of mouth has spread far beyond Key Largo, attracting visitors who otherwise might stop only for gas and bathroom breaks on their way to Key West.

Burkhardt, a carpenter by trade, gutted the space and rebuilt virtually every inch of it himself, all while teaching himself how to cook and run a restaurant like a pro. "I learned by watching Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Restaurant Impossible," he says.

It's not exactly culinary school, but it works, especially when you wrap your jaws around one of his half-pound Certified Angus Beef burgers that come stuffed with everything from pulled pork (Cat II) to sauteed shrimp with a side of garlicky scampi sauce (Surf & Turf) to bourbon-infused bacon topped with mozzarella and bourbon-pineapple sauce (The Bogey). Every Wednesday and Saturday, Burkhardt slow-smokes a mean brisket (and ribs, pork shoulder and chicken), which in typical Keys fashion, are available until there ain't no mo'.

Category 3 Bar & Grill, 99246 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 305-923-9426.

Tasters Taco Emporium

The Keys may be the Southernmost chain of islands in the United States, but good--or even edible--South of the Border cuisine is about as common here as fast-moving traffic on the 18-Mile Stretch. So don't miss this flyspeck eatery in Tavernier's lone shopping mall because owners Tom Smith and George Patti have created a cheery little spot that puts a whimsical, creative spin on the humble taco.

It doesn't pretend to be authentically Mexican, so you can unbunch your panties right now, but it does encase some pretty intriguing ingredients in a corn tortilla, as well as offering a roster of house-made sangrias, craft beers and affordable wines. I'm particularly partial to the Cordero, tender lamb with pickled red onion, black olives, feta and rosemary aioli, the Camarone, with shrimp, pico de gallo, pineapple kimchi and queso fresco, and the Pollo, mojo-marinated chicken with radishes, mango and cheddar.

Oh, and here's a tip: If the weather's nice, check in at the bar and then walk past the restaurant and around the corner, where an expansive outdoor deck offers million-dollar water views. All for the price of a couple of tacos.

Tasters Taco Emporium, 91252 Overseas Hwy., Tavernier; 305-853-1177.

Chef Michael's

If you're in the Keys and find yourself in the mood to dress up for dinner--which here basically means putting on a clean t-shirt and a new pair of flips--Michael Ledwith's handsome little Islamorada restaurant is all the excuse you'll need.

Ledwith honed his kitchen skills in New York City and islands throughout the Bahamas before landing in Islamorada and a stint at nearby Kaiyo. Two years ago he opened Chef Michael's, bringing a touch of casual, low-key sophistication to the so-laid-back-they're-horizontal world of Keys dining.

Some of Kaiyo's Asian-fusion influence is felt on Michael's menu, but what it's really about is fresh catch from local waters, prepared and sauced in a half-dozen inventive ways. Along with the ubiquitous yellowtail, grouper and mahi you'll likely find swordfish, tripletail, wahoo and hogfish. Any of those served Ponchartrain style--blackened and topped with shrimp and crawfish in a zippy Creole cream sauce--will get your good times rolling, as will crispy-skinned duck with a mango, mandarin orange and cashew sauce or addictive conch-rock shrimp fritters.

Really, what else would you expect from a restaurant whose motto is "Peace, Love and Hogfish"?

Chef Michael's, 81671 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada; 305-664-0640.

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Bill Citara