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Trip Report Recent Florida food experiences: Key West, Miami/Miami Beach, St. Augustine

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Some reports on Florida food experiences.

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Key West

-Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe: Chowhounders say this shop is the best place to get key lime pie locally, and I can't say I'm disagreeing. There are two shops, one on Duval Street, the other just north of Mallory Square on Elizabeth Street. If you want to buy anything with key limes added to it (salsa, bbq sauce, jelly, juices and limeade, spices, rubs, cookies, chutneys, candy), you'll find it here. The pie is sold by the pie or slice. Had a slice here and it was delicious -- tart but not acidic, with a solid but not heavy crust, and the correct color filling (yellow, not green).

-Cuban Coffee Queen: this is a small coffee stand sans seating just north of Mallory Square that offers coffee of varying kinds as well as smoothies, fruit drinks, breakfast items, sandwiches (including cubanos), and a few other items. A Cuban cafe con leche (Cuban espresso with steamed milk) was wonderful, smooth but sturdy, coffee taste balanced nicely with the milk and not overly sweet.

-BO's Fish Wagon: just across the parking lot from Cuban Coffee Queen, this is a ramshackle rough-wood open-air dive. The specialty here is the fried grouper sandwich, a yummy piece of fried fish on a bun with lettuce, mayo, and onion. The batter is surprisingly light for this type of dish -- very nicely done.

-El Siboney: a Cuban restaurant located a few blocks east from the tourist strip, a little south of the cemetery. An inexpensive, homey place. Got ropa vieja, a dish of shredded beef that when arranged on the plate looks kind of like boiled rope, thus the name. But this is no hemp-flavored monstrosity -- it's tender and subtly spiced shredded meat, accompanied by sides of black beans, yellow rice, and cooked ripe plantains. A cup of conch chowder to start was a dark colored and peppery delight not all that similar to any soup I've had before. Excellent, and the price can't be beat.

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Miami (all on South Beach unless noted otherwise)

-Joe's Stone Crab: it has been around forever, and there's a good reason for that -- the food is flat-out wonderful, the best I had all trip. It's an upscale spot with tuxedo-clad staff, and starched linens on the table, but people eat there dressed casually all the time, from what I saw. This place normally does food a la carte, with sides that are enough to feed three as in fancy steak houses. But the waiter happily pointed me to "Joe's Special," which perfectly collects up their greatest hits for one diner for $40.00. Began with "world famous" cole slaw, and believe it or not, they're right to claim so -- the slaw is tartly assertive and vinegary, neatly leavened by dollops of mayonnaise and dill pickle relish on top, a combination that was outstanding. The main course consisted of four stone crab claws, accompanied by drawn butter and their house made mustard sauce, the latter of which is a surprisingly good match for the luscious lobster-like taste of the crab. Sides of creamed spinach and hash browns (the latter more like fried mashed potatoes) for one were worthy examples of their type -- the spinach featuring a lightly sweet-spiced tang and less heavy a mouth feel than most examples of this often cloying dish. Dessert was included, a staggeringly delicious piece of key lime pie that rivaled Kermit's, featuring a similarly tart and rich filling and buttery graham cracker type crust. And the overflowing bread basket was among the best I've encountered anywhere. Amazing dining experience -- a must.

-Versailles: went here with my school friend who had a car, not sure how easy it would be to get here without one, as it's well west of downtown Miami. It's arguably the most famous Cuban restaurant in the city, and as far as I'm concerned, it deserves the accolades. A Cuban coffee was espresso style and heavily sweetened, very good. Lentil soup with sausage was solid and earthy peasant food, tasty stuff. The main course was fine as well, tender and toothsome Cuban style roast pork accompanied by sweet plantains and a rice with beans concoction similar to Bahamian pigeon peas with rice. Excellent food, well worth seeking out.

-Tap Tap: this is a Haitian place, a cuisine I've not tried before. Was not very taken with the appetizer, fried malanga fritters -- malanga is a tropical starchy food a little like taro. Problem here is that this has an odd acrid undertone that tastes a bit like munching on old sweat socks. Better was grilled conch, chewy but pleasant tasting with solid beans-and-rice and rather stiff fried green plantains sides. A mixed experience for me, but I may also not quite "get" this cuisine, either.

-Puerto Sagua: a Cuban diner-like spot, this one on South Beach. Had a cup of Cuban espresso (a smooth and solid eye-opener) and a Cuban sandwich. The latter was ideal, just pork, ham, cheese, pickle, and mustard in perfect quantities on a long roll. No fancy additives or upgrades like one finds sometimes, just an uncluttered delight perfect in its simplicity.

-Jerry's Deli: it's not quite as good as those in New York, but it's well worth patronizing. Got a half pastrami (very good, a little like a juicier version of that at 2nd Avenue Deli in NYC) sandwich, with excellent potato salad and cole slaw sides (both very creamy and rich in mouth feel). Topped off with a Dr. Brown's, it's good stuff.

-La Sandwicherie: this is an ultra-casual counter style sandwich place, and the counter is located outside, along the edge of the building with an awning cover. Got a croque monsieur sandwich (essentially a fancy name for ham and cheese on toast) and a salad. The sandwich was good, but the salad (which sports a dressing they make in-house) was terrific. The place was dishing up a lot of what looked like really good French baguette style subs, and if I come here again, that's likely what I'll get. Oh, and a salad, too.

-11th Street Diner: just what it looks like, though the food is likely more than the usual in quality (there's a prominent picture from the "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" show signed by the host on the wall). Decided to try their chili, which was a sturdy meat and bean concoction topped with melted cheese and chopped raw onion. Really good, and makes me wonder if their other food items are at this level (would bet they are).

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St. Augustine

-O'Steens: located just across the Bridge of Lions from the historic area. This epitomizes the unpretentious, informal neighborhood style place, and it was crammed with locals eating in and getting take-away. The food is seafood and Southern regional, and their specialty is fried shrimp. These are huge, breaded American style without being leaden, accompanied with what the waitress called "pink sauce" (mayo based). There's also a bottle on each table of an unusual sweet and spicy sauce that makes a nice dipping alternative for the shrimp. Sides of okra with tomatoes, fried yellow squash rounds, and hush puppies were stellar examples of Southern style add-ons. A real find.

-Conch House: it's on the water, with tiki huts, tiki torches, and tiki totems, so it's got to be bad, right? Actually, no. Tried a conch chowder here that was like a spicy version of Manhattan clam chowder -- very tasty. Their conch fritters were laced with mollusk strips held together by a surprisingly tasty batter. They also offer nice sourdough style rolls. No idea if their main courses are as good, but I liked what I had a lot. It's a little further along from O'Steens and down a side street.

-A1A Alehouse: most places that specialize in home microbrewed beer have food that only tastes good after you've tossed back a few. Not here, though. Had mango-glazed skewered shrimp accompanied by a grits cake, onion rings, and sauteed veggies. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, and the glaze was just sweet enough and not too heavily applied. All sides were excellently done. Worth seeking out, and right in the historic area.

-Collage: this is an upscale spot in the historic district that is supposed to be excellent. My wish here was to try one of the most unusual desserts I've ever seen described. It's called the bougainvillea, consisting of strawberries sauteed in butter and black pepper, added into a vanilla cabernet sauce, poured over homemade vanilla ice cream in a light puff pastry. It sounds so wrong, but it's so right. The flavors meld strikingly, becoming sweet but not overpoweringly so, and thoroughly unique. One of the most remarkable and striking desserts I can remember having.

-Columbia: this excellent Cuban standby has branches in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota. This one is located in the heart of the tourist district, and was crowded at lunchtime. Have had their black bean soup and "1905" salad, which are splendid. This time, tried their cubano with a cup of their bean soup (not the black bean). The sandwich was hearty, with all the right ingredients, and an especially sturdy roll to hold it. The soup had ham, sausage, and chick peas galore, quite tasty in its subtle way. Always a pleasure to eat at one of these outposts.

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