It won’t take foodies long to fall in love with Key West with its multi-cultural blend of vibrant flavors from Cuba, the Bahamas and other far-flung locales. Award-winning chef Norman Van Aken credits his years of living and working in Key West as the foundation for developing his revolutionary New World Cuisine. Recently he and his son Justin wrote My Key West Kitchen, a cookbook that features recipes inspired by some of their favorite people and eateries on the island. Follow this itinerary to discover some of the dishes that inspired this notable chef.
Get your day started at Sandy’s Café, a small Cuban restaurant at the end of the M& M Laundry building on White Street. Yes, you read right. It’s at a laundromat. Let this be your introduction to the funky synergy of Key West. Step up to the window and order a colada, an espresso-style brew to share, or a café con leche, a Latin latte with steamed milk. Try any of their breakfast sandwiches on fresh pressed Cuban bread. Don’t miss the pastelitos, a delicious pastry similar to an American turnover but in fun Caribbean flavors like guava.
Half Shell Raw Bar — Photo courtesy of Half Shell Raw BarFor lunch, go old-school at either Half Shell Raw Bar or Hogfish Bar and Grill. They both serve up the freshest fish with no frills just like the classic joints of Key West past. At the Half Shell, nosh on the Shrimp Po’ Boy sandwich or the conch ceviche, while looking out over the Historic Seaport at the Bight. Hogfish Grill is located in the Safe Harbor Marina on Stock Island, a five minute drive from Key West. Try anything that’s made with their namesake specialty. The “Killer” Hogfish Sandwich and Hogfish Fingers are a good start or dig into a plate of “Peel ‘n’ Eat” Key West pink shrimp. Both restaurants call for an ice cold beer.
Cuban fare at El Siboney — Photo courtesy of Elizabeth NicodemusDinner offers two distinct choices--the low-key Cuban restaurant, El Siboney, or the upscale Caribbean-American spot, Louie’s Backyard. El Siboney is located in an unassuming brick building hidden off Catherine Street. Here you can have generous portions of authentic Cuban fare at reasonable prices. Try the white bean soup, tender roast pork and the sweet plantains. Indulge in the rich creamy flan for dessert. At Louie’s Backyard you’ll find breathtaking views of the Atlantic and island specialties like conch fritters spiced up with a hot pepper jelly or a unique version of shrimp and grits made with Key West pinks, mushrooms and bacon. Finish with a slice of refreshing Key lime pie with a twist--a gingersnap crust.
Root Beer Barrel Shot at Green Parrot — Photo courtesy of Felipe CorreaAfter you polish off that last bit of dessert, mosey on over to Van Aken’s favorite bar for a nightcap (or three) at the Green Parrot Bar. This funky dive is known for its “no sniveling" motto, rocking live music and characters galore. Order up one of their long-time specials–a Root Beer Barrel Shot. This tasty combo of root beer schnapps and light beer will quickly have you ordering another round.