Fisherman’s Café: A little bit of old Key West



 

 

“We are trying to represent Old Key West,” says the co-owner of Fisherman’s Café, Scott Saunders. “We are making what the old Conchs ate but with a new island flavor. When I grew up, this was the epicenter of the island. The economy was here. There used to be countless shrimp net factories, and even my grandpa had a bar just across the street where Pepe’s is.”

I take in the scenery of the Key West Seaport from my seat at one of the only two high-top tables that sprawl out onto Lazy Way Lane, a small, curving backroad of locally owned shops, where the order window of the tiny little restaurant faces the edge of the gulf. Boats of every shape and size are parked all along the dock. Seagulls swoop endlessly. A tourist on a bench nearby is covering himself with a healthy layer of sunscreen in preparation for an all-day snorkeling trip, filling the crisp morning air with a hint of coconut. I try to imagine what it was like back in the day, wondering what used to be here and what has been built since.

 

 

“Well, that used to be an ice house over there,” Scott explains, pointing to a popular restaurant along the boardwalk. What was once commonly used to store large amounts of ice prior to refrigerators is now an open-aired dining room with a gigantic bar that is almost always crowded.

As a fourth-generation native, Scott can probably tell you more about the historic seaport than any average tour book can. He does it by working with chef and co-owner Rick Zapka and using food to share his stories and pass on his heritage.

“I opened this place because of my daughter and I wanted to have my friends experience the foods I ate growing up here.”

Like the El Cubano breakfast sandwich with farmhouse organic eggs, chorizo, espresso-smothered pork shoulder and Swiss cheese on Cuban bread or the lobster enchilua tacos stuffed with Florida spiny lobster in “an old world, Latin flavor” island sauce made from pureed tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, lime and lemon juice. Or the conch salad, which follows a house-made recipe that the café describes as “conch salad with some pepper in it, not pepper salad with some conch in it.” Perhaps its biggest claim to fame and one of the reasons why the place even exists is its grilled or fried fresh hogfish local sandwich, never frozen, and carefully topped with caramelized onion, avocado and sauce remoulade — a French mayonnaise sauce that is similar to tartar. It is served openfaced, so you can see the purity of the fish and the brightness of the avocado, along with a handful of homemade fries.

“A friend called me up one day and said ‘Where can I get the best fish sandwich?’ and that’s when I said this island needs a good fish sandwich,” Scott says about the last thing that convinced him three years ago to fulfill that niche.

From there it was only a matter of finding someone who could make a fish sandwich that was the most authentic, according to Scott. Rick seemed like the perfect person to partner with. Rick has worked in kitchens for 17 years and interned at the very exclusive Little Palm Island, which unfortunately has been closed since Hurricane Irma. It was one of the most luxurious places to stay in the Florida Keys. However, Rick’s professional talents are still prominently showcased in his minimal style of cooking and in his business connections. He is working directly with a fish house to get the daily catch delivered right to his door and refuses to work with anything but the best.

“We are making simple food on purpose,” says Rick “and the fish is always fresh. The fishermen are always calling me right off of the docks.”

“I can’t think of anyone else who is doing what we are doing here at Fisherman Café,” Scott adds.

Hence their name, of course, but I’d never heard until now of anyone getting a baseball card with the name and picture of the fisherman who caught your meal. It’s one of the many things done at the café that Scott remembers of his childhood. You would always get a baseball card of a fisherman when buying a fish so that you would know the fish came from a real person and not company thousands of miles away. At Fisherman’s Café, this bit of novelty is a normal part of its service.

As well as working with well-known local commercial seafood provider Three Hands Fish, Scott and Rick have partnered up with Amazing Cakes and Creations, 507 Fleming St., for their pastries and desserts. They make their parfaits and everything else from scratch.

Keep an eye out for them to start doing whole fried snapper and introducing fish fry Fridays. Stay up to date with their specials by following them on Facebook. Their hours are 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., but during the summer, when the daysarelonger,theyshifttoa7p.m. closing.

“We take pride in what we serve and if it costs more, it doesn’t matter. It’s the experience,” Scott expresses. “We provide a throwback if you want authentic Key West.” ¦

Fisherman’s Cafe 205 Elizabeth St. www.fishermanscafekeywest.com

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