A PREEMPTORY NOTE: IF YOU’RE OF THE OPINION that “real lobster” has two big ol’ pinchy claws and is properly pronounced “lobstah,” then the following may not be to your liking. If, however, your crustacean preferences are a little more liberal, allow us to enlighten you on the clawless wonder that is the spiny lobster — a delicacy so prized that Key West has devoted an entire four-day festival to it: Key West Lobsterfest, which kicks off this Thursday, Aug. 8, and celebrates the Florida spiny lobster, an alienesque creature that looks nothing like the crimson Maine variety.
Unlike its Northern counterpart, the American lobster (Homarus americanus), which is best known for its giant, succulent claws, the Caribbean spiny lobster (Panuliris argus) is clawless, smaller and harder of shell. Devotees of both species will argue themselves blue in the face as to which is better, but regardless of the provenance of the bug, there remain about a zillion ways to prepare them for human consumption.
Purists avow that anything more than a bit of melted butter and, if one is absolutely determined to add additional flavor, the tiniest hint of lemon or Key lime juice (just a fine misting — more like a sneeze than a squeeze) may be applied just before chowing down. But traveling around town in Key West, it’s clear our chefs are far less obdurate in their respective beliefs (to the benefit of hungry bellies across the island).
Here, our restaurants serve lobster that is braised in beer, liquefied into bisque, swaddled in bacon, grilled alongside a meaty steak, battered and deep-fried until golden and crispy, lightly sautéed with vegetables, pan seared in garlic, rolled in breadcrumbs, rubbed in creole spices, frittered with conch, enveloped by ravioli, pickled with lime juice, submerged inside a skillet of mac ‘n cheese or absolutely smothered in a river of velvety hollandaise sauce and served over perfectly poached eggs. There is no right or wrong way to consume the Caribbean lobster. On its own, cooked simply, it is mild, bouncy and remarkably low in fat and high in vitamin B-12 (hello, natural antidepressant!). And at the hands of our able local cooks, it’s delicious no matter the preparation or accompaniments.
Incredibly, these spiny, detritus-eating sea bugs are responsible for millions of dollars in revenue and hundreds of jobs here in Monroe County. During mini-season, which always takes place on the last Wednesday and Thursday in July, hotel occupancy rates skyrocket and charter boats book up months in advance; the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department even employs lobster-sniffing dogs for the occasion. Hot on the heels of this year’s mini-season, the proceeds of which are estimated to total more than $4 million, the highly contagious Lobster Fever is the headline-making disease of the season (symptoms include dehydration as a result of excessive drooling, stomach ache, over-consumption of butter, grill burns and the occasional underwater fist-fight).
Key West Lobsterfest, now in its 23rd year, is the product of a friendly rivalry between a handful of local restaurants to prove which establishment had earned the right to call its Lobster Chilau the best in town. This intimate contest amongst friends blossomed into what is now Key West’s most popular summer festival, with an estimated yearly attendance hovering around 20,000 voracious lobster lovers. Chilau, for those unfamiliar with the dish, is a boldly spiced, deeply Floridian type of seafood stew, the origins of which can be traced back to the late 1800s, when a mix of Italians, Cubans and Spaniards emigrated to Tampa in search of work in one of the region’s many factories. Tampa Bay, with its abundance of cheap and tasty blue crabs, became a melting pot of cuisine, with each ethnic group’s distinctive recipes becoming fabulously muddled together. Legend has it that it was the love child of the Italians’ beloved spaghetti, paces the Spaniards’ distinctive spices and the Cubans’ Enchilado Cangrejoejo (a type of crayfish stew) that birthed “Crab Enchilado,” shortened to Crab Chilau for brevity’s sake.
Further south, blue crab was eventually snubbed out for the Caribbean lobster, and thus the Lobster Chilauu of South Florida was born. It’s a powerfully territorial dish; families who have claimed residence in the o-Keys for generations are known to guard their respective lineage’s particular recipe with a tenacity usually – reserved for billion-dollar food secrets like KFC’s legendary eleven herbs and spices (the recipe for which, the company says, is scribbled in pencil on a yellowed piece of notebook paper that resides in a state-of-the-art vault surrounded by cameras, motion detectors and guards who may or may not be trained in the deadly art of Filipino knife fighting we couldn’t get confirmation as of press time). In short, to claim one’s Lobster Chilau is the best in town is akin to claiming your restaurant serves the best jambalaya in New Orleans, and we all know culinary turf wars never end well — the 2014 NYC hot dog vendor skirmish was mayhem on wheels, literally.
Two-plus decades after its inception in the small courtyard of Durty Harry’s bar on Duval Street, Key West Lobsterfest is now much more than a neighborhood contest over lobster stew; it has become a bona-fide smash hit for South Florida, with four days of events ranging from boat trips and bar crawls to a street fair that closes down lower Duval. Instead of serving as a venue for restaurants to establish chilau supremacy, it has become a celebration of all things lobster-related, and with good reason: the lobster is a huge earner for the Keys, where just the draw of mini-season, the alarmingly popular 48-hour window for lobstering that non-commercial “bug lovers” are given at the end of each July, can draw tens of thousands of visitors to the islands.
Keys residents, mainland Floridians, and foreigners alike can begin the four-day celebration on Aug. 8 by attending the Waterfront Brewery’s (201 William St.) oceanfront rooftop lobster boil from 5-8 p.m., which will feature live music, drink specials and copious amounts of the Waterfront Brewery’s beers brewed right on site (we highly recommend the Crazy Lady, the perfect crisp accompaniment to the lobster’s natural sweetness). For a mere $29.95 (or $15.95 for kids 11 and under), attendees receive a full pound of the lobster boil along with all the sides, which include freshly baked jalapeño corn bread and homemade dirty rice.
If you’d rather spend your evening on the water, Fury will be running its Champagne Sunset Sail, where you can watch Key West’s legendary sunset from the deck of its 45-foot power catamaran (but be warned: this event is strictly BYOL – Bring Your Own Lobster). If you declined Fury’s Thursday night sunset sail, you can make it up on Friday afternoon with its Reef & Ritas three-hour catamaran sail and snorkel trip. Reef & Ritas will offer lobster fans the chance to get out and into the very same ocean that their favorite spiky crustaceans call home — think of it as Key West’s version of farm-to-table tourism. (An insider’s tip: for a limited time only, all of Fury’s trips are up to $20 off with the code FURY – that includes any snorkel/eco tour/parasailing/Ultimate Adventure trips. Book online ASAP at www.furycat.com.)
Would you prefer to spend your Friday by the water, instead of on it? Then the Fiesta De Longosta Pool Party at Havana Cabana Resort (3420 N. Roosevelt Dr.) is probably more your speed. From noon until 4 p.m., the chef at Floridita, the onsite restaurant, will be serving up amazing lobster dishes accompanied by specials on Corona at the pool bar. Live music, contests and giveaways will make the pool party one fiesta you shouldn’t miss.
Of course, no festival in Key West would be complete without a Duval Crawl, but if the lure of discounted drinks and souvenir lanyards isn’t tempting enough, know that a portion of the proceeds from Friday night’s post-sunset crawl go toward funding local Key West High School’s Scholarship Fund. (And no, you cannot write off your dozen Coronas as a tax-deductible charitable contribution. We already asked.) Participating bars include Schooner Wharf, Sunset Tiki Bar & Grille, Bagatelle, Tiki House, Hard Rock Café, The Grand Café, The Sand Bar, General Horseplay, Tattoos & Scars, Rick’s, Durty Harry’s, Smokin’k Tuna Saloon,l Margaritaville, Mary Ellen’s, Willie T’s and Pinchers Crab Shack. For the love of all things alcoholic, we hope you’ve at least gotten a good, lobster-ful meal in before you hit the streets.
Saturday, Aug. 10, the hungry hordes will have a chance to stroll the 100 to 500 blocks of Duval Street in a pedestrianonly zone, where vendor stalls featuring arts, crafts and, of course, lobster cooked countless ways will line the street. This year, representatives from many local restaurants will be out on the street hawking their particular take on the best way to cook a bug, with selections ranging from appetizer-sized samples to full-size lunch and dinner portions. Pros know the best way to take in the scene is to stroll the full length of the fair first, scoping out which booths have the best-looking bites to eat and prioritizing accordingly. (Take it from us: you spend one Lobsterfest stuffing yourself silly on lobster cakes and rolls, only to find out there was lobster ceviche worth killing for just one block ahead of you, and you’ll never forgive yourself. Ever.)
Of course, the original impetus for Lobsterfest, the Chilau, should be sampled throughout. But our first stop this year will undoubtedly be local favorite Bagatelle, whose take on the best way to cook lobster (battered in tempura, fried and served corndog-style on a stick with a side of honey butter) is the stuff of legends. The street fair officially starts at noon, but make sure you’re at least there by 1 p.m. to catch a series of free concerts featuring George Chapman, Cool Breeze and The DurtBags.
If you just can’t get enough lobster, the festival ends with a decadent, official Lobsterfest Brunch hosted at First Flight Island Restaurant & Brewery (301 Whitehead St.), where diners will enjoy a tantalizing spread that includes a lobster egg scramble, Caribbean-style lobster rolls, mini lobster pot pies, cheddar biscuits and lobster gravy and truffle lobster mac n’ cheese (are we sensing a theme here?), plus bottomless mimosas and bloody Marys — the hangover helping nectar of the gods.
Key West Lobsterfest is sponsored by Corona and Corona Light, Mi Campo Tequila, Coca Cola, the Rick’s Entertainment Complex, Waterfront Brewery and First Flight Island Restaurant & Brewery. For more information, (or to simply get excited by viewing pictures of Lobsterfest celebrations past), visit www.keywestlobsterfest.com. ¦