Forget key lime pie. Here, we hunt for the perfect conch meal — an equally iconic and no less delicious Key West staple.
"Conch" (pronounced "conk") is the nickname for anyone born in Key West. Even the local high school's sports teams are Fighting Conchs. But as food, conch is not, technically, local. At least not anymore. Since November 1985, it's been illegal to harvest in the wild locally. Nevertheless, though the meat is now imported, conch remains an essential and iconic Key West ingredient. Previously an indigenous seafood, it's one locals see as laden with tradition and memories as mom's meatloaf elsewhere.
Doug Shook, executive chef of Louie's Backyard restaurant, landed here from Washington DC the same month conch became protected. As head of the island's most prestigious fine dining restaurant, Shook has sampled, prepared and strived to surpass every imaginable conch dish. In his travels, if he encounters a new conch specialty, he tries it. He's a relentless conch foodie, a self-taught expert. And now he's agreed to accompany me on a local tasting tour of the aquatic snail. Our goal? To determine which dish, either traditional or not, best accentuates conch's delicate flavor.
At our first stop, former football pro Buddy Owens, owner of B.O.'s Fish Wagon, greets us with mitt-sized handshakes. Seated at one of the seafood shack's picnic benches, Owens describes pulling conch from the Gulf of Mexico floor as a teenager here and rinsing the meat in salt water to eat fresh from the shell. He kisses his fingertips, conveying, in that simple gesture, the impossible freshness that we missed.
B.O.'s cracked conch — a tumble of golden-fried strips with homemade cocktail and tartar sauces — arrives, and we dive right in. Shook's eyes widen at the surprising tenderness and clean, oceanic flavors that B.O. has managed to seal in a light crunch. It's damn good. So good, in fact, that Shook is nearly speechless. "Good," he keeps repeating. "Really, really good."
Our next stop is the elegant, Vic-torian mansion that houses Louie's Backyard for a bowl of tomato-based, Bahamian chowder.
"I've never tasted better," says Shook, presenting a tureen with a side of what appears to be balsamic vinegar. "I'm not even bragging. It's not my recipe; it's the previous chef's."
The condiment proves to be a bird pepper sherry vinegar. By itself, the soup possesses rich tomato flavor, chunks of fresh vegetables and ample ground conch. But with a dash of sherry, the flavors soar operatically. It really is superb, but Shook and I agree that the conch's subtleties are ultimately masked.
Our last stop is a charming, crooked garden table at the Provence-style restaurant Café Solé for its conch carpaccio. A Boston native and avid boater, chef/owner John Correa frequently cruises the Bahamas, always toting along his own condiments. For sport, he challenges local chefs to taste and compare this dish to their own traditional conch salads (usually made with onion, lime juice, peppers and, occasionally, hot sauce — similar to ceviche.)
"I always win," he grins. Shaved thin on a meat slicer while partially frozen, the pieces of conch lie like translucent petals in a pool of olive oil and lemon, dappled with capers and minced red bell pepper.
We love the lightness and purity of this dish — there's really nothing between the seafood and our tastebuds. But we can't stop thinking about B.O.'s cracked conch. Local or not, it seems conch is still best prepared by conchs.