A Conch Tour of the Florida Keys

I love spending a weekend in the Florida Keys.  It’s a quick drive from South Florida but it feels so much farther away.  As soon as I turn onto the Overseas Highway and can see sparkling blue-green water on both sides, I immediately feel happy and relaxed.

Of course no visit to the Conch Republic is complete without enjoying the fresh seafood — especially conch.  Whether my destination is the Upper, Middle or Lower Keys, I have a favorite restaurant I always visit for conch chowder or conch fritters.

Key Largo: The Fish House

The first time I dined at the Fish House was during a family trip to the Keys in the mid 1990s.  Since moving to South Florida a few years ago, I’ve been able to visit the Keys more frequently and always include a meal at the Fish House.  The seafood here is as fresh as it gets — fisherman deliver whole fish each day to the back door.

Fish HouseMake sure to start with a cup of the Fish House’s conch chowder, my favorite conch chowder in the Keys.  It’s a tomato-based soup with lots of chewy conch.

For the main course I always order blackened mahi-mahi.  The fresh fish and mix of spices is a delicious combination that I can’t get enough of.  It’s a dish I like ordering when I’m near the ocean, so the taste of it always reminds me of being on vacation.

conch chowderService is friendly and fast.  If you come when it’s crowded don’t be concerned about the wait time, it’s usually shorter than what the host tells you.

The Fish House is about an hour and 15 minutes drive from downtown Miami — close enough that you can go there and back in a day, and get a pint of conch chowder to take home.

The Fish House is located at Mile Marker 102.4 on the Ocean side.

Islamorada: Islamorada Fish Company

This restaurant looks like a place that locals might stay away from but don’t let the tourists scare you.  Islamorada Fish Company serves up fresh and tasty seafood.

Islamorada Fish CoLocated on the Gulf side of the Overseas Highway, Islamorada Fish Company is a great place to watch the sunset.  Tables are outdoors and over the water, so you get a great view from every seat.

The conch dish to order here is the conch fritters.  They’re the biggest I’ve seen anywhere in the Keys and some of the tastiest.  The fritters have large pieces of conch and not too much filler.

The raw oysters are also really large and as a bonus, well priced.  A dozen oysters cost around $10, one of the best deals you’ll find in the Keys.

If you’re still hungry, try the grilled grouper Reuben.  A big and juicy piece of grouper is topped with Thousand Island slaw dressing and Swiss cheese and served on grilled rye bread.  In a word: yum!

Islamorada Fish Company is located at Mile Marker 81.5 on the Gulf side.

Sugarloaf Key: Mangrove Mama’s

Blink and you’ll miss Mangrove Mama’s, a tiny restaurant located about a 15 minute drive from Key West.  The ambiance is island eclectic — simple tables, bright colors, unusual artwork, and an outdoor patio shaded by palm trees.

Mangrove Mama'sI go to Mangrove Mama’s for two dishes: the conch fritters and the Key lime pie.  The fritters have a great crunchy outside and a warm chewy inside, with big chunks of conch and a slight spicy kick at the end.

I’ve tried Key lime pies at restaurants all over the Keys and Mangrove Mama’s pie is my favorite.  Theirs has the perfect balance of tart and sweet, with a nice, crumbly graham cracker crust.

Mangrove Mama’s is located at Mile Marker 20 on the Gulf side.

Have your own must-visit restaurant in the Florida Keys?  Feel free to share it in the comments!