October 12th, 2010
11:30 AM ET
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Alexandra Willingham is a CNN video journalist. She's based in Atlanta, but Key West has been her lifelong destination of choice. She's had a lot of practice chowing down while living it up on the island.

Forget what you learned from Jimmy Buffett - Key West eats go far beyond cheeseburgers and margaritas. Here are some of the best foods to try while visiting in paradise.

Don't-miss dishes from the southernmost city

1. Conch Fritters
This little mollusk, known for its glossy pink shell, is actually a type of snail. One of the tastiest ways to eat this island escargot is in a fritter: chunks of chewy meat held together by a batter mixed with peppers or spices.

Some of the best are found north of Key West, at Alabama Jack’s in Key Largo. These golden cakes combine the pefect amount of conch with a lightly sweet corn batter. If you’re not a fan of fried foods, try your conch in a hearty red chowder.

2. Key Lime Pie
The crown jewel of the keys is this petite citrus fruit. Key limes are smaller than typical limes and have a thinner, yellower skin. Their tart flavor makes them an excellent inspiration for Key West’s most popular dessert.

There are a million different opinions on what makes a great slice, but purists usually abide by a few rules: it can’t be too tart or too sweet, the crust needs to be graham cracker, and whipped cream should be kept to a minimum. Try a few to find your favorite, but be sure to sample the offerings at the Half Shell Raw bar and the Blonde Giraffe. If you’re not worried about being traditional, try a piece of pie on a stick. It’s a super-sweet version smothered in chocolate.

3. Cuban Food
Key West is closer to Havana than it is to Miami, so finding good Cuban food is a cinch. Pick up a Cuban mix - a popular sandwich made with ham, pork and cheese on Cuban bread - or tuck into big, meaty classics like ropa vieja - a beef stew - served alongside fried plantains and yellow rice. If you’re tired of key lime pie, search out homemade pastries studded with tropical fruits like mango or guava, or go for the flan - a traditional Hispanic egg custard.

4. Fresh Seafood
Key West is only about 4 miles long, so no matter where you are, freshly-caught seafood is never far away. In fact, the area used to be very active in the turtle canning industry until green turtles became endangered in the 1970s. You can still munch dockside on freshly shucked oysters and clams in the heart of the island’s fishing activity. Typical catches include lobster, grouper, and of course, Key West pink shrimp, known as “pink gold.”

5. Novelty Sweets
If Key Lime pie on a stick didn’t quench your craving for the indulgent, wander through the Port of Key West among towering cruise ships for huge, gooey gourmet cookies, sweets of all sorts, and absolutely anything you can think of involving limes. From lime cookies, lime salsa, barbecue sauce, to pure key lime juice, you’ll be stocked with enough souvenirs to keep the Keys in your kitchen until your next vacation.

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Filed under: America • Bite • Cuba • Florida • Key West • Lick the Screen • Travel

soundoff (48 Responses)
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  3. Susan

    So crazy, but years ago, I stayed at a small motel called The Blue Dolphin. There was a drugstore nearby and we actually loved the food in there. Probably isn't there anymore. But we had delicious Cuban bread with our breakfast and a Mix. Other than that, YaY on the conch fritters and key lime pie on a stick, and seafood at the raw bar - clams, shrimp, oysters. The plainer the better. I don't like fancy places for seafood - the seafood usually sucks!

    November 4, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
  4. Metal Railings :

    cruise ships are the best, they have their own live entertainment and some pools on the deck .

    October 31, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
    • justpeachy


      November 19, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  5. Ray

    OMG the Cuban food is really awesome :-)
    It will definitely grow your belly but who cares? That food is really incredible; I think I will move to MIAMI because after I tasted Cuban food, there is no other place I could live.

    October 17, 2010 at 10:45 am |
  6. Dennis

    Best dive bar – Schooner Wharf. I always have such a great time when I go there. The staff is always very friendly. I've lost count on the number of times I've been there but I don't think I've ever eaten there.

    October 14, 2010 at 8:58 am |
  7. Matt

    Best Cuban Food in KW is El Siboney!!!

    October 14, 2010 at 8:57 am |
  8. Kevin

    Breakfast at the "Six Toed Cat" the Lobster Benedict is a must for my morning. And MANGO111 please stay away, as I don't want you to feel horrible.

    October 12, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
  9. Frances

    This food looks amazing. I absolutely love key lime pie.

    October 12, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  10. Seaport Scallywag

    Though not as good as their northern cousin but the spiny lobster is not to bad as well, plus they are a blast to harvest when in season!

    October 12, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
  11. tony

    Stone crab claws! (brought in fresh one island to the north). From "Stock Island" The best crab meat in the world. Also a great locals place to eat is 7 fish, by the cemetary in KW, and everyone loves Sloppy Joe's and Hogsbreath.

    October 12, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
    • Waybackconch

      "Stock Island"? Why didn't you parenthesize "Key West"? Or "Your Hometown"? Maybe you can try "New York" on for size.


      November 2, 2010 at 7:51 am |
  12. Conch Republic Lover

    Best place to eat in Key West is the Conch Republic!!! Great appetizers that are unique and really good pina coladas!

    October 12, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • Randy

      Totally agree...love Conch Republic. I've been to Key West probably 15 tmes, always eat at least one meal there. The calalloo (sp?) dip appetizer is terrific. Happy hour is also a lot of fun there, usually some music playing, two for one drinks. Good times. There are many other really great places to eat in KW, as others have mentioned...I've eaten at most of them. But you won't go wrong at Conch Republic.

      October 12, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
  13. Wingi

    You wrote "Cuban Mix!" You wrote "Cuban Mix!" Ever since moving away, all I read is "Cuban Sandwich." You must really know what you're talking about. By the way...The pressed Cuban Mix from Jon's was always the best!

    October 12, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  14. cashman

    buffet is lunch; and i wish lunch could last forever!

    October 12, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
  15. Tino

    Just remember one thing about Key Lime pie... if the pie is green, it is not real key lime pie! This is for people who have not had the real thing and order it in other places outside of Florida.

    October 12, 2010 at 2:02 pm |
  16. Maria

    I thought the best cuban food was in Miami

    October 12, 2010 at 2:00 pm |
    • Yum

      It is! Versailles restaurant on Calle Ocho is the best. I've had Cuban in KW and Miami, and there is no contest. No one who works at Versailles speaks English, but I take that as a good sign.

      October 12, 2010 at 4:11 pm |
  17. Maria

    What about oranges?

    October 12, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
  18. Lauren

    TobyD is correct – most of the key lime pies in Key West come from the Blonde Giraffe/Key Lime Pie Company (or maybe it was Key West Pie co, something like that). Of all the places in Key West that I tried conch fritters, I think that Hog's Breath has the best ones.
    Key West is a must-visit... I love it so much that I'm getting married there in December!

    October 12, 2010 at 1:55 pm |
  19. Rita Juray

    You forgot the Cheesburger in Paradise and a Sloppy Joe at Sloppy Joes's – Hemingways favorite

    October 12, 2010 at 1:55 pm |
    • Dennis

      Margaritaville is a horrible food destination. Quite honestly, McDonald's serves a better cheeseburger than Buffett's place. His is just a tourist trap. Cheeseburger on Duval serves a far better burger and a number of varieties too. However, I will agree with you about Sloppy Joe's. The sloppy joes are phenomenal and the entertainment is great.

      October 14, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  20. green_lava

    If you're going to criticize his food choices, at least spell the man's name right. There are 2 t's in Buffett. One t and you've got buffet; that's lunch.

    October 12, 2010 at 1:53 pm |
  21. CSGG

    Get the conch salad at Alabama Jacks. It beats the pants off of the fritters.

    Try Boondocks for the best seared tuna ever.

    Lots of spots much better than the Conch Republic.

    October 12, 2010 at 1:44 pm |
  22. MANGO111

    Very nice ,exotic place! Nice food! But tooo many gays kiss each other on the street,.this is make you feel horrible

    October 12, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
    • ann

      Hey Mango, I hear your town is nice, too – except for all the homophobics on the streets. They make you feel horrible.

      October 12, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
      • Jim

        Ann -that was awesome....you rock!!!!!!

        October 12, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
    • LEB

      Mango, those of us that are blessed to be able to live in Key West would really like to offer you some other travel destinations so that a homophobe like yourself is not exposed to people sharing affection to one another. I was thinking of that lake on the Texas/Mexico border with the Mexican pirates. Just ride your jet ski to the Mexican side of the lake and we won't have to worry about you any longer. The year is 2010 and these idiots are still living in the dark ages and are scared of gays and lesbians. Please don't reproduce Mango because homosexuality is not a choice and i would hate for you to have to deal with one of your children being gay. Homosexuality is not a choice but homophobia is. Grow up Mango

      October 12, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
    • coconut

      your grammar is make me feel horrible,. tooo

      October 12, 2010 at 6:25 pm |
      • dieseldonx

        Yes, this is also making me feel the horrible. Am the shivver shivver and now I am taking the steam bath.

        What the f@@k were you trying to say???

        October 12, 2010 at 7:05 pm |
    • Waybackconch

      Yea, and too many tourists too.

      I was raised in Key West, my whole family is from Key West. Used to be a nice (quiet) little fishing town. Not any more.... Bummer.

      November 2, 2010 at 7:44 am |
  23. Amy

    Bo's Fish Wagon is a must-visit also. I preferred Kermit's Key West Lime Shoppe pie. The first thing you should do when you arrive is gather all of the travel brochures you can find. They are stock full of dining coupons. We found several for half price appetizers during happy hour. Those were enough to feed us without spending the money on a full meal. Key West pink shrimp is the best I have ever eaten.

    October 12, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
  24. TobyD

    Since you apparently know the difference between KEY limes and regular limes why do you illustrate the picture of Key Lime Pie with a slice of regular lime??? I am of the opinion that most of the key lime pies served in Key West restaurants are made by a single source and distributed daily via truck throughout the keys......Yes, there is wonderful food tohe enjoyed there.

    October 12, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
  25. Barbara

    OK ... Key West is on my bucket list. AFter this, it has moved up to #1!

    October 12, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
  26. JennTheMermaid

    Mattheesson's has the BEST key lime pie on a stick and covered with chocolate! It cannot be eaten without a glass of icy cold milk! Ask for Larry, he's the best Ice Cream Man around town!

    Sunset Pier has a LOBSTER BLT to DIE FOR.

    October 12, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  27. Diane

    The BEST Key Lime Pie is at Blue Heaven Resturant!! The best Conch Fritters is at BO's.

    October 12, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  28. College Guy

    I am the key lime pie MASTA

    October 12, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  29. Lucy

    I visited Key West in June and had an excellent seared fresh tuna salad at Conch Republic. This list will be my wish list for when I visit again.

    October 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
    • Big AL

      We were in Key West the first week of March and had the bacon wrapped stuffed shrimp at Conch Republic. A few nights later we took some friends there, too and it was top shelf for everything we tried. Frozen Key Lime on stick covered wth chocolate is right across the street at Kermit's - MMM. We also liked Louis Backyard, but you need reservations. Blue Heaven was great for Jerk Chicken. El Siboney had the best Cuban food. And Franco's on Davol St for a home made Italian Sausage sandwich - wow! We will be going back there and just loved Casa Marina!

      October 12, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
      • Zora2727

        I worked at Conch Republic for a while when I lived in Key West and everything is great there! Next time you are in town check to see if they have their Ruby Red Peel n Eat shrimp on the specials. It is the most amazing shrimp ever!

        October 12, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
      • Dennis

        Conch Republic is good. I'm glad you had a good experience at Louie's Backyard. You're one of the few though. Very high priced for mediocre food. We'll always try a place twice because everyone has a bad night. Both time at Louie's the staff was rude and condescending and the food was unappealing. Two people, two drinks each, lunch, the bill (with a very small tip) was almost $85. If you're going to be in KW, there are so many other places that will provide a much better dining experience than Louie's.

        October 14, 2010 at 9:04 am |
  30. Dennis

    If you like key limes, try Dennis' Key Lime BBQ Sauce http://www.revafoods.com

    October 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
    • NativeConch58

      while it may be great...it's NOT the authentic, original Key Lime Pie of Key West!! The original recipe calls for the topping to be made of egg whites & sugar – not whipped cream!

      October 12, 2010 at 2:02 pm |
      • WinchLock

        Indeed, it isn't a Key Lime Pie without meringue on top of it.

        October 12, 2010 at 4:25 pm |
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