Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Voy a Key West

Cuban Americano and Chicken Empanada at Pasion del Cielo.

Last year, when I last flew American Airlines to Managua for the Nicaraguan Barista Championship, I also stopped in Miami and had an overnight stay on the return. Problem was that my return flight to Baltimore was scheduled for 1pm and even with the first class ticket I had on that trip, they wanted to charge me a considerable sum to change to later flight.

This time, I decided that I would forgo the 24 window for a stopover and press the return to the 9:25pm flight to Baltimore, leaving me with more than 24 hours to visit Miami and make the trek to Key West.

Key West. I've heard so much about how great it is. I just didn't realize how far away it is. Three and a half hours from Miami. It's about the same from my house to Manhattan or my house to Ocean City, Maryland. Not really a big deal but one that would prove to be a bit brutal in the hot weather and the immediate return to make the nights' flight.

After a decent nights' sleep and a quick stop at Pasion del Cielo coffee shop in Coral Gables, I was on my way. The drive itself isn't that bad but the worst part is the speed. Just like islanders, everyone wants to drive the posted speed limit of 45mph. Can we please go a little faster? Maybe push the envelope to 55mph?

Storm Clouds calling my number.

About halfway there, dark clouds started looming on the horizon and I started to wonder: Does the Gulf of Mexico hate me? The last time the Gulf and I came into contact last July, I nearly lost our glorious battle in the pursuit of bay scallops. As the winds kicked up and the rain started to pour on the roadway in the middle of the Gulf, I wondered if the Gulf might win this time,

As we approached Key West, a loud screeching sound filled my ears and I began to worry that the car was blowing up. Looking up I spotted a Tigershark fighter making a hard bank at high speed being pursued by an F/A-18. With only 90 miles between us, could this be Fidel's defiant gesture towards the American Imperialists led by Barack Obama? Should I worry about being hit by a missile - civilian losses being a necessary concession to the repelling of Americans from Cuba's shores?

With only the roadway to protect me, I figured that I would just accept the fate and let Him decide what's best: up or down. The Gulf would be jealous.

Touristy cheese on Key West's Duval Street.

As the fighters broke left and descended hard, I noticed the signs for the Key West Naval Station. Hmm, smaller, more nimble fighter being pursued by big fighter? Must be Viper and Maverick.

Friends encouraged me to enjoy a sunset rum at a bar on Duval Street. Since I didn't have the time to revel in the sunet, I settled for driving down Duval Street.

To be honest, I'm glad I didn't stop. Aside from the Cuba! Cuba! store, I was pretty repulsed by Duval Street. It's about as compelling as Waikiki Beach, Picadilly Circus, Rue de Rivoli or Front Street Lahaina. Tourist Cheese. I counted at least two Crazy Shirt shops, a renamed Cheeseburger in Paradise, Starbucks, Banana Republic and numerous bars playing acoustic music and lots of tourists doing very touristy things.

Not that any of this is necessarily bad. If you like this kind of tourist cheese then Duval Street is the place for you. It's just not the scene I get into anymore - though the idea of drunken women on holiday looking to work out their frustrations in the form of vacation seems like a good thing to me...

The beach at Fort Zachary Taylor.

I had journeyed to the southernmost point in the continental United States (I had been to the southermost point in the USA - Ka Lae, Hawaii, many times) and I was determined to get in the water. A friendly police officer pointed me to the beach at Fort. You have to pay to get in but it's probably the best beach in Key West.

Wading in from the crushed coral beach, the water is warm. Bodily warm. It's weird and a bit unnerving. It's like bath water and very unlike the cool water you're used to at most beaches around the world. It's also salty. Very, very salty. Strange, but interesting. To my left are a group of four Italians chatting loudly and taking pictures of themselves on an American beach. Spanish speaking visitors from other parts of the world sun themselves and some play in the water.

Lining the beach are palm trees and picnic tables inviting all to shade themselves and cook their meal on the grill. If I had more time and some friends that exactly what I would do, but it's almost 2 o'clock and I have to hit the road by 3pm in order to make it back to Miami on time. I stand neck deep in the water allowing the soothing nature of the salt water to fill every pore in my body.

In Hawaii, the sea water is known to rejuvenate and heal. Got a twisted ankle, soak it in the 'ua from the sea and all will be well. The water feels incredibly relaxing and invigorating. It's healing and I want to linger there all day.

But the clock is ticking and it's time to go. I pull myself from the water and hunt for the object of my trip: B.O.'s Fish Wagon.

Conch-A-Mania at B.O.'s Fish Wagon.

Located on a corner by Key West's historic marina, B.O.'s is literally a ramshakle trailer with various bits of wood, salvaged signs and remnant anything screwed to it to fashion a sort of covered seating area slash restaurant. Rickety and rustic is the only way to describe it.

If you're the adventurous sort who's not turned off by greasy spoons or perhaps questionable sources while traveling the world, B.O.'s is for you. In fact, I often wonder how typical Americans can say they're scared by the stalls on Bangkok's Sukhumvit Soi 38 or Mexico City's antojitos, yet find nothing odd about places like B.O.'s. Not to say that I find anything worrisome about B.O.'s, but I like and prefer small, kinda questionable places.

Without much knowledge of where to eat in Key West, other than the ubiquitous tourist places, I had turned to the New York Times to find out about B.O.'s, and the ranger at the park also gave it a hearty recommendation, saying he ate there at least once a week.

While the decor is rustic and the food assuredly good, the real gem of B.O.'s is their people. The man and woman who worked the counter were amazingly friendly and very welcoming. Just lots of love pouring from them for what they do, their product and their customers. The food may have been very good but it's the people that made the difference.

Evidently, B.O.'s is known for one thing: the cracked conch sandwich. Thin slices of fresh conch are lightly breaded and deep fried to a golden yellow then layered with lettuce, onion, tomato and onion on a white bread bun. Simple, straightforward and oh so delicious. The conch's tender chewiness balanced with the mayo and lettuce with a light bite from the onion.

Add a little salt, vinegar, lime or whatever and it's nearly perfection. Balance the fattiness with the carbon dioxide and acid from a Coke (or in this case, Pepsi) and it's just beautiful.

My original battle plan was to order the sandwich and fries, then order two separate orders of Conch Fritters - one for the drive back to Miami and the other for the flight to Baltimore. When informed of my plan, the lady at the counter refused my request, stating that the fritters would not last the trip and would be cold and rubbery by the time I ate them and that just wasn't the way she was going to allow her fritters to be served. I can respect that.

So, with a small, six piece order of fritters in hand, and a small fry, I sat down to enjoy my fried goodness. Good thing they offered complimentary refills of soda.

The fritters are made with corn meal, ground conch and some spices and come out piping hot and served with a cocktail like sauce with a wedge of lime. There's also a tartar sauce, but I preferred the cocktail sauce or just the lime and salt. The fries were hand sliced and fried beautifully.

If one can say that there is fried conch perfection somewhere in the world, I'd have to say that it's in Key West - the margaritas be damned.

But it's 2:55pm and I've got to hit the road. It's another three or so hours back to Miami and I need to return the car by seven to avoid extra fees (I'm cheap). On the way down, I spied a sign for Ron Jon Surf Shop. Ron Jon started in New Jersey then moved to Cocoa Beach where it's become arguably the most famous surf shop in the word. I've always wanted to visit and have come close the several times I've visited Florida but never made it. I had been hoping to visit Ron Jon Key West but with time falling through the cracks, it wasn't meant to be. No new board shorts for daddy.

I'm not a big fan of Florida in general. The landscape is flat, it looks mostly like a sprawling suburb and generally doesn't have much character other than the Disney-like facades constructed in all directions. Plus, it's hot and humid and generally nasty - and since my exposure to nice weather on the East Coast is limited, I'm determined to drive with the windows down and the sunroof open, meaning that the drive is increasingly brutal as the thermometer pushes past 35C.

The drive through the Keys is very country. Lots of grasses and lots of shack-like buildings. Everything looks kinda redneck meaning that American Rock is the ideal music of choice while on the road. A little Styx, Lynyrd Skynyrd and more 70s and 80s rock make the drive just a little more fun. Nothing like belting out to Journey at 45mph with the windows down your skin mottled in sweat. I want to rip the sleeves off of my shirt and tie a bandana around my forehead.

Two hours into the drive back and I had been baking in the sun for nearly eight hours and was starting to really feel it. Sleepiness, fatigue, lack of sugar. I started to think that I might crash and figured that's a good sign to take a pit stop rather than push all the way to Miami.

A stop at a local Dairy Queen for a small Snickers Blizzard and a Coke returns sugar to the body, enlivens my senses and we're back on Route 1 rocketing towards Miami at a blistering (for the Keys) speed of 62mph. Even at 62mph, I have to keep a keen lookout for Troopers and the Monroe County Sheriffs who are busy looking to make an example out of law-breaking citizens, such as myself.

Finally, Route 1 gives way to the Florida Turnpike and I can finally settle in at cruise speeds of up to 80mph. It's six o'clock and I've got some extra time before returning the rental car. Maybe it's time to find some cigars or a guayabera...

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