French and Mexican in The Keys

Before we get into food, the Florida Keys are really cool. 

Getting there from Orlando, the first base of our holiday, boils down to road or air. 

At the time of the trip we had a two-year-old in tow and my wife was carrying our second. Driving was out of the question. 

We took to the air. 

The plane was a third full, and with a max capacity of thirty-something, it goes without saying that it was the smallest, most empty plane I had ever been on. 

My wife hated it. 

I thought I liked it until we hit turbulence; I wasn’t a fan after that. 

My two year took it in his stride. 

One thing that made the flight enjoyable was the view. A propeller plane doesn’t go so high, so we got to see all the islands and the water. The latter was blue, peaceful, and so inviting. Like a starving man seeing a banquet, the whole family was desperate for a swim. 

The landing was smooth enough, and Key West airport took the planes lead; tiny and almost empty. 

Getting our bags and rental car were a breeze. 

I could go on to talk about the beaches; Bahia Honda in the shadow of a large, decaying bridge. Fort Zachary Taylor is very cool and the collective stubbornness of its soldiers interesting. 

But I wanted to talk about food. 

First up: The Greatest Almond Croissant in the World. 

I haven’t tried all of the almond croissants in the world, but I would fight anyone who claimed there was a better one.  

The place is called La Grignote, a French artisan bakery close to the southernmost point of the US. 

Ironically the only reason we went there was because Banana Cafe (La Grignote’s more famous neighbour) was full up. 

I’m so glad fate intervened.

For me, a great croissant pasty has to have snap on the outside but chewy on the inside. Not only did La Grignote’s rendition nail these two, but the almond cream also had a real punch. The consistency meant it all mixed beautifully in your mouth.

That’s the magic; three clearly distinct textures meeting and making a better one. It’s a form of gastronomic performance art. 

Despite only having three days in The Keys, we visited the place twice. I would easily brave another choppy flight for an almond croissant again. 

In a slightly different part of town is a joint called Bad Boy Burrito. 

My knowledge of the place came from another twist of fate. 

The night before we left Orlando I was watching Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which turned out to be a Key West episode! 

Of the few places featured on the show, I had to pick Bad Boy Burrito for two reasons; fish tacos and their homemade pineapple habanero sauce. 

Why those things?

  1. In the UK fish tacos aren’t very common. They are one of my favourite things ever. 
  2. I love spicy things, but I have a condition that means I have to be careful. The sweet element of this sauce said I could get the heat and still tolerate it. 

I was expecting to like the food. It was right up my street. Yet somehow it exceeded my expectations. The fish had a nice bite to it, the tacos had the perfect amount of chew, and the salad topping snapped nicely on my teeth. 

The sauce was the star of the show, though. The pineapple habanero was sweet upfront and tangy spice at the back. But on the recommendation of the waitress, I got one taco with a green sauce. She said it went better with the fish. Perhaps she oversold it versus the pineapple habanero, although it was still damn good. I’d definitely suggest a trio of tacos and at least one fish with the green sauce. 

You should also know; I had to fit this in as a snack because my wife and kid didn’t fancy Mexican food for lunch. 

Don’t blame them. 

We are used to the cold. 

The idea of spicy food in over thirty degree Celsius heat wasn’t floating their boat. 

It was fine. I like snacks. 

A Castle, a Pyramid and a Burger

Imagine you are in Las Vegas for the first time. You land in the evening to find an airport that should be bigger and an immigration line that should be smaller.

You’ve already read advice about a taxi from the airport, making sure they don’t take the more expensive freeway route. You’ve seen the place in pictures. You know the names of the hotels and the concept of The Strip.
Then you see it.

Neon reflecting off glass, lights hanging in shapes you can’t quite make out, The Strip is real. It’s alive and pulsing with cars and people and noise.
The scale is incredible. On paper, the buildings were close neighbours. In real life, each hotel looks like a self-contained town, it’s own territory.

And like a fairytale come to life, your hotel is a castle, with flags and turrets topped by blue or red roofs. From the inside, the childlike wonder is quickly eroded. Smoke plumes left and right, bells from machines punch the air and patrons stagger from one device to the other.

Stand still for too long, and you will be offered the chance to buy a room at the hotel, and you aren’t sure if you want to even spend the night.
It’s not the venues fault. After the initial excitement wears off, it dawns on you that this is Disneyland for adults. Particular kinds of adults who like drinking, smoking, gambling and eating. No description fits the place better.

After dropping your bag in the entirely adequate room, you walk through the hotel and find a walkway to the next. You find yourself inside a pyramid. Only this one has the rear end of the Titanic next to a food court. Why wouldn’t it?

The pace changes once again, taking the short trip to Mandalay Bay, with its shockingly white tiles floor and open walkways.

Out of nowhere, the sports bar is on your right. You nearly passed by. Now you see, hear and smell it; you know you’re in the right place.

Burger Bar.

To a tourist, this looks like America. A generous, polished bar offering beer after beer. Screens on every wall and in each booth showing basketball and football. Waiters and waitresses clad in black buzz from table to table.

Once seated, the menu is a laminated paper equivalent to the bar. So much to choose, so little time. The premise is simple; pick a ready-made burger or get creative and build your own. It has to be the latter.

Start with the meat. The Kobe beef is enticing, but you’re here on business. You can’t expense that. Especially when the ‘back up’ is Certified Angus, cooked medium (which comes out nicely pink in this establishment). Decision made.

Next up is the bun. When did you last get to choose the type of bread for your burger? Have you ever? Pretzel intrigues you but is that crazy? You pick sesame. You’re a traditionalist. At least in the bun department.
Toppings. The combinations are dizzying, like seeing the strip all over again. Only this isn’t amateur night, you consider yourself a pro when it comes to burger.

Pepper jack cheese & peppered bacon. Let’s make it sing. Guac will offer balance and contrasting texture. Then a fried egg. That’s right. A freakin’ fried egg on top.

With a side of sweet potato fries (settle down, we’re all friends here) your order is almost complete. Because you haven’t ordered a drink. You were so busy with your food you neglected the vast array of liquid refreshment.

There is always a way out in these situations.

‘What do you recommend?’ You ask the waiter.

‘I highly recommend the Dogfish Head IPA.’

‘Great, I’ll have that.’ Order complete.

The beer arrives first, served ice cold in a goblet. The first sip kicks you in the mouth, smooth on the tongue at first, but the bite is hard. The next sip is less of a surprise, you get the sweeter notes this time. Somehow the beer is hearty and refreshing at the same time.

The food eventually getS to you, highlights of a recent NFL playoff have kept you company. It’s a strange game, but you could get into it.

The burger is significant, requiring both hands around it. Gripping it gently in place, the first bite pops the egg yolk, and gastronomic chaos ensues. A beautiful mess.

The bun and meat are strong in flavour and density. The toppings play together well, crunchy bacon, lumpy, creamy guacamole and hot moist egg white. The taste of the yolk jumps in and out, combining best with the peppery beats. No two bites are the same, it’s a dynamic workout for your mouth. Adding the egg wasn’t ego, It wasn’t folly, it was divine. Your perfect creation doesn’t last long.

The sweet potato fries are okay. Ranch dressing makes them all taste like slaty garlic mayo anyway.

You’re quickly full up and more than satisfied. Two unknown teams are playing basketball on the TV next to you.

You order another beer. This is adult Disneyland after all…