As I mentioned, one of the top priorities of the trip to Keys — perhaps the top priority for the kids! — was to eat good food along the way. We started right off the bat, stopping at a family favorite, Mancino’s Pizza and Grinders in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, part of a smallish Midwestern chain of pizza and sandwich shops that was a go-to for Jodi and me during our Michigan years. I don’t recall ever eating the pizza; the grinders are second-to-none: stacks of deli meat, cheese, and veggies on toasted, homemade Italian bread that is nothing particularly unusual and yet is unique to Mancino’s somehow. I get the Italian, without fail, and am never disappointed.
Breakfasts, with just three exceptions, were complimentary hotel affairs, and as long as there’s a waffle maker and coffee, how can you complain? Most of our lunches were from the cooler: ham and cheese wraps, hard-boiled eggs, fruit and nuts, granola bars, and Emma’s chocolate-chip cookies.
That leaves three exceptional breakfasts, dinners, and desserts. I’ll try to cover them in the order they happened, which requires me to retrace the road trip.
After Mancino’s on Sunday, we continued down the freeway toward Rockford, Illinois, where we battled a blinding rainstorm before stopping. Biscuits and gravy at the hotel, then headed south. Road lunch. Near as we can recall, we ate dinner on the road that night, too, trying to get as far along as we could to make the Keys in time to set up camp before sunset on Tuesday.
Tuesday morning, we hit Waffle House in Valdosta, Georgia — a ubiquitous chain of restaurants in the South, with some freeway exits boasting a franchise on each side of the road! It struck me as equal parts Denny’s, roadside drive-in diner, and small-town Southern cafe. The signature waffles look like Eggos, but taste like heaven (Rose and Trev added chocolate chips to theirs); the orange juice was cold and sweet; the coffee, strong and black; the bacon crisp; the eggs cooked perfectly.
“What’s not to like?” a friend asked. “A typical WH meal covers the main food groups: fat and salt.”
She forgot sugar. It was delicious!
Our goal being Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge in time for set-up and supper, we pressed on with another road lunch. We arrived at Big Pine, checked in, set up camp, and on the manager’s recommendation, sought out a relatively new restaurant called Bucktooth Rooster, which had, among other things, the coolest ceiling fans I’d ever seen: regular electric fans on motorized, rotating arms.
I had determined before we set out that I wanted to eat local seafood in the Keys, whereas the kids ate whatever struck their fancy. In this case, Trevor had an deep dish of rigatoni and meatballs, which he enjoyed but was unable to finish. Emma had steak soft tacos, which smelled and looked delicious. I had one of the house specialties: the “famous” seafood pasta, with fresh lobster, scallops, shrimp, and the local “catch of the day” fish, which I forget, in a lobster cream sauce. I also had a solid local lager to wash it down. Our server was friendly and helpful, and locals were eating there, too. All in all, a great first meal in the Keys.
Next morning, we drove 45 minutes to Key West for breakfast, arriving at Cuban Coffee Queen just as the morning rush was starting. A fearless rooster was crowing in the street; locals, tourists, and camo-clad service men and women from the nearby Naval installation were lining up for strong coffee and home-cooked, Cuban-inspired breakfast sandwiches and breakfast burritos.
Emma and Trevor each got a Key Wester: two eggs, American cheese, and bacon on pressed, toasted Cuban bread — it came piping hot, with a side of rice and black beans. I had the Cuban Breakfast Burrito — three eggs, American cheese, chorizo, rice, and black beans in a tortilla — perhaps the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever enjoyed — along with their Cuban American coffee: “gringo” coffee with a shot of bucci, or Cuban espresso. It was strong, black, flavorful, and had the strange quality of making you feel, at least temporarily, superhuman! (I understood immediately where the slogan on their t-shirts comes from: Drink More Cuban Coffee and Do Stupid Things Faster!
Three or four people staffed the little shop. About halfway through our breakfast, which we ate seated on a bench nearby, a lovely woman rode up on a bicycle to deliver supplies; she kissed the man who had taken our order, and for all the world, the little joint appeared to be a family affair. Indeed, later the same woman returned with a toddler in tow, and I found myself hoping this Key West landmark was, in fact, the love and livelihood of this young family. I may have to order a t-shirt!
We walked a ton that day, in part due to the fact that the tourist map I was given had no scale, and nothing to indicate that the streets shown were only “major” streets, with numerous lesser avenues and alleys between. Everything that appeared to be four or five blocks away turned out to be a mile or more, and the kids (against my advice) wore flip-flops instead of sneakers — plus we left the sunscreen in the car. As a result, by late morning we were seeking shelter, and found a gelato shop in which to cool ourselves. Emma, Trevor, and I enjoyed mango sorbet, cherry gelato, and strawberry gelato, respectively — and agreed to skip lunch in favor of finding Blue Heaven and enjoying some of its famous, towering Key lime pie in the afternoon.
We walked and walked. As previously mentioned, we visited the Basilica, the Hemingway House, the Southernmost Point marker, and a stretch of beach that required miles of walking and no end to twisting and turning to locate. Finally a beach-clad local on a bicycle saw me looking at a map and pointed us in the right direction, then rode make from whence he came to rejoin a group of bikers — apparently he had seen us from a few blocks away and stopped to approach us and help!
Finally, late in the afternoon (knowing supper would not come until well after the Key West sunset), we walked to Blue Heaven for desserts. We had all planned on the Key lime pie, with its towering, toasted meringue, but I glimpsed “Banana Heaven” on the menu and ordered it to share. The pie was a triumph of refreshing lime flavor and airy architecture, perfect for the long, hot day we had experienced, and just as good as everyone said. Banana Heaven lived up to its name: flambéed bananas and warm banana bread with homemade vanilla ice cream slowly melting on top. It was rich, decadent — almost too much to handle on so hot a day. Almost.
We drove back to the beach for sunset, then trekked to Stock Island in search of Hogfish Bar and Grill for supper. Hogfish Bar boasts of its signature fish and of being a glimpse of the Keys of yesterday. The menu says “A Great Place If You Can Find It” — I was grateful for GPS, and even so, nearly turned back. We drove down a side street, then turned down another, and another — each darker than the one before, with no signs of business and little of life. We drove through a trailer park and past a sign that said “Public road ends here” or some such thing — past stacks of crates and darkened windows — and up to a crowded parking lot and well-lit saloon on the docks of Stock Island!
They seated us a picnic table right on the docks, where we watched a local fisherman fleshing what appeared to be the gaping jaws of a medium-size shark. I had heard nothing but good things about hogfish, though I had no clear idea what it was — so Emma and I ordered the hogfish tacos (mine with jalapenos; hers without). Trevor ordered Cuban spiced pork, and I added a local brew to wash it down. Hogfish, it turns out, is delicious — light, flavorful, reminiscent of shellfish. This may be my favorite meal the entire trip, edging out the others by reason of my complete inability to to replicate it in any way!
We slept in a bit (not much) the next morning, then ate ham and boiled eggs on the beach near our tent before tearing down. Our goal was a late brunch at Mangrove Mike’s Cafe on Islamorada on our way back to the mainland. Their website promotes their catering business well — the cafe itself appears as a typical small-town family restaurant, tucked into a little strip mall between two art galleries: one stocking high-end wood carvings; the other, brightly colored island photos, arts, and crafts, as well as frames made from the weathered wood of crab traps.
Mangrove Mike’s boasts a assortment of delicious French toasts made from breads, rolls, and cakes. Emma and I opted for cinnamon-roll French toast; Trevor, for the apple cake version. Both were sweet and delicious — well worth the wait and drive — but I give the edge to Trevor’s choice. By his estimation, it may be the best thing he ate the whole trip!
We headed north, first to Everglades City for our mangrove adventure, then to Fort Myers. We had all agreed that one of our goals was to say we tried alligator. Capt. Kent of Allure Adventures departs from a dockside eatery and market called Triad Seafood
— known for stone crabs, but serving gator bites, as well. Similar to Hogfish Bar, getting to Triad involved side streets, alleys, and stacks of crates and seemingly abandoned gear — which, based on the previous evening’s meal, boded well for us! Unfortunately, we were all suffering from no-see-um bites, and Emma particularly badly, so we tracked down Benadryl for her and took a drive while she dozed. I lost track of time, and returned to Triad just as the restaurant closed. (I have no doubt it would have been good: while we waited for our Everglades cruise, a carload of well-dressed women from Miami arrived to purchase a couple hundred dollars worth of stone crab for dinner that night — they marched straight back to the kitchen and refused to take “we’re closed” for an answer!)
So we ate our own snacks, and then, after our cruise, drove to Ft. Myers for the night — where we found a gator-themed sports bar called Gatorbites
. We ordered the sampler, and ate five flavors of deep-fried gator tail tenders — in texture, like slightly chewy calamari; in flavor, two parts chicken, one part shellfish. It was tasty, and we’re glad we tried it — but we wouldn’t drive extra miles to try it again.
The next day, after a hotel breakfast, we pushed for Alabama. We finished our road lunches en route, and as we approach Montgomery, I asked the kids what they wanted for supper. We all had a craving for pizza, so I had Trev google “best pizza in montgomery” and “best woodfired pizza.” One pizza place showed up near the top of both searches: Midtown Pizza Kitchen
. Again, hard-to-find: tucked in behind a maze of businesses, parking lots, and strip malls; again, packed with locals. It was nearly full when we arrived, and people were standing in the doorway when we left. We ordered the Cheese Bread and the 5-Meat Pizza — plenty of food for the three of us, and exactly what we had hoped for in well-crafted, wood-fired pizza!
We stayed the night outside Mongomery, then met our new friends, Randy and Pat, and their Airedales after our motel breakfast. Our goal was to grab lunch at a hole-in-the-wall soul food restaurant in Wetumpka called the Chicken Shack (good things are said online!) but unfortunately, it was closed, with no indication of opening soon. (Maybe when we go after a pup…)
So we stopped at Chic-fil-a on the road, pushing hard to get to Memphis for Mass at St. Peter Catholic Church, then dinner at a barbecue landmark: Rendezvous!
St. Peter is a beautiful downtown church within walking distance of Rendezvous, and with free parking — perfect. Eucharist first, then barbecue. Rendezvous is down an alley in downtown Memphis; you can smell the smoke before you ever see the signs, and we walked past it before seeing a sidewalk sign directing us to the side street we had just crossed, and the alley off that.
Rendezvous is an institution, introduced to me when I worked for Hanley Wood and wrote for FedEx, headquartered in Memphis. They boast a wonderful dry rub and famous ribs. We opted for a full order of ribs and a ribs/brisket combo plate to share, along with slaw, beans, and bread. Smoke, spice, vinegar, char, succulent pork and tender beef. Perfection. This was Emma’s favorite meal, and a close second for me!
That was last Saturday. Sunday morning, after another motel breakfast, we drove hard for home — stopping at Wendy’s for lunch. We were home in time for supper…but strangely, not hungry!
All in all, I think the goal of eating good food in interesting places was satisfied.