Beef Sha Bhakleb
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What: Common catches off the Keys that you’re likely to see on “fish of the day” menus down here include mahi-mahi (a.k.a. dolphin fish), wahoo, various species of snapper and grouper (red or black Gulf grouper are best, from an ecological standpoint), and hogfish. You’re probably familiar with all of those but the latter: Hogfish is a tropical fish with an elongated hog-like snout, abundant in the coral reefs off the Keys, where it’s usually caught with a spear. It’s prized for its mild, delicate taste, comparable to a grouper but lighter.
Where: Well off the beaten path on Stock Island—that’s the one just east of Key West—the divey, open-air Hogfish Bar & Grill (6810 Front St. Stock Island, FL) specializes in its namesake fish (although since it relies on divers to catch the fish, availability depends on the weather). It’s the kind of real-deal fisherman-friendly place you’re not likely to stumble upon unless you know where you’re going, which is a rare thing this close to Key West.
When: Mon-Sat, 11am-midnight; Sun, 9am-midnight
Order: We tried the “world-famous ‘killer’ hogfish sandwich” ($14.95)—in which the fish is “smothered” in Swiss cheese, mushrooms, and onion and served on Cuban bread, with fries and fixin’s on the side. The problem was the smothering, as we couldn’t really judge the taste of this delicate, flaky fish under all that stuff. Next time we’d order it plain, or go for the blackened hogfish filet with blackened scallops dinner or the panko-encrusted hogfish with shrimp ceviche. Interestingly, the local fish makes it to the breakfast menu, too, as a fried hogfish Benedict with home fries. This restaurant also serves other local fish, depending on the day, plus plenty of Key West pink shrimp, stone crabs, and fresh Florida lobster.
Alternatively: Our favorite spot for local fish in Key West is uber-casual B.O.’s Fish Wagon (801 Caroline St., map), a buoy-strung, tin-roofed shack-like café with picnic tables, street-facing wooden stools, and excellent blackened fish on Cuban bread with key lime mayo (it’s also celebrated for their cracked conch sandwich: tenderized, breaded, deep-fried conch strips on bread). It’s a worthy place to sit with a few beers and meet the locals. For more modern surrounds, try Flaming Buoy Filet Co. (1100 Packer St., map); its fish options change but are always driven by what’s fresh that day. Other than that, any seafood restaurant in the Keys will offer some locally caught fish, including all of the ones we recommend elsewhere in these pages.
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