What: Conch (pronounced “konk”), a gastropod mollusk native to the Caribbean basin and famous for its pretty spiral shell, is nearly as synonymous with the Florida Keys as key limes. But like them, conch is no longer a geographically local food here—in fact, it’s been illegal to harvest them in U.S. waters since 1986, thanks to severe overfishing, so this is one seafood you should not ever eat in Florida, from Florida (see more on this below). Conch meat is tough; it has to be pounded, marinated, or otherwise tenderized before eating, and then it tastes mild and sweet, a bit like clam. You’ll most commonly encounter conch in deep-fried fritters, but also in chowder and (comparatively lighter) salads.
A note about sustainability: Queen conch, the conch of choice, is not only commercially extinct here; other fisheries have closed over the years, sometimes temporarily, to at least marginally address the species’ decline—they are easily caught slow movers and reach sexual maturity late in life, so the odds are stacked against them. Imports from some countries (the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras) with notoriously exploitative fisheries are likewise prohibited in the U.S. Nonetheless, you’ll notice that conch is still on every seafood menu in town. In the Keys, most restaurant staff we spoke to said, with some vagueness, that they source from the Bahamas, or were unsure of exactly where their critters come from. (And according to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, even conch-exporting nations with decent management are unreliable about providing population numbers.) We've since learned that the conch stocks in the Bahamas are declining as well, and juvenile conch are sometimes (illegally) harvested there; since all imported conch arrives frozen and out of its shell, there is no way to know if the conch you eat in Florida is from an adult or not. Ultimately we decided conch is too traditional a Keys food to completely exclude it, so we’re featuring it here from vendors we generally trust—but not without a caveat: To ensure conch survives in Caribbean waters, try to limit your consumption of wild-caught Bahamian conch to one serving. And if you'd like to help the conch-conservation cause, start a dialogue with your wait staff by asking if the conch meat they're serving is from sustainably caught adults.
Where: You’d do well to make your one taste of conch the excellent homemade conch fritters at Alabama Jack’s (305-248-8741; 58000 Card Sound Rd., Homestead, map), a festive, open-air, biker-friendly dive that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but is in fact located on the highway connecting North Key Largo to the rest of Florida. This route is considered the slightly longer way to get back to the mainland, but AJ’s makes it a worthy detour. Its wooden deck is right on the sound, so expect to chow down among herons, fish, and lush mangroves.
When: Daily, 11am-6:30pm
Order: The conch fritters ($8.50) here are something special, and quite unlike the comparatively hard, heavy golfball-size fritters being peddled by just about everyone else in the state (seriously, those aren't even that good). These fritters are fluffy and sweet, almost like a funnel cake in their texture, golden-hued and dotted with celery and green pepper; the recipe, of course, is a closely guarded secret. They’re served with lime and cocktail/tartar sauces, though we reached only for the hot sauce on the table. We were told the conch comes from either Turks and Caicos or the Bahamas—it can vary, but both of those sources are considered better than some others—and hear the conch chowder and conch salad are also very good here. Wash any of them down with a cold Key West Sunset Ale: Somewhat misleadingly brewed in Melbourne four hours to the north, it’s the kind of beer that benefits from surrounds like these.
Alternatively: Other spots we reckon are good places to try conch are Marathon Key’s no-frills, waterfront Keys Fisheries Market & Marina (3502 Gulf View Ave., Marathon, map)—the source of much seafood in the area—and B.O.’s Fish Wagon (801 Caroline St., map) in Key West, a buoy-strung shack-like restaurant with big veggie-dotted fritters and a popular cracked-conch sandwich.
To read more about the issue of conch sustainability in the Caribbean, see "In the Bahamas, to Conch or Not to Conch?" on the EYW Blog.