Despite Key West’s reputation as a town full of dive bars, fish tacos and “Trop Rock” fanatics, there is a lot more being made here than just bad decisions (yes, that includes that Hawaiian shirt you’re contemplating purchasing and also that stranger you tried to bring back to your hotel room last night after your third shot of Fireball). Our diverse, vibrant island community is home to artists and artisans of all kinds — painters, potters, jewelers, musicians, gastronomes and everything in between. Our local businesses are a criti- cal component of what makes Key West so special and unique. New businesses spring up seemingly every other day thanks to the enduring spirit of quirky artistic innovation that pervades the island (they don’t call us “Key Weird” for nothing).
Farm to table dining is all the rage these days, and while there’s an obvious way to partake in Key West — hello, hogfish charter-to-table dinner — you’d be missing out if you thought the only way to pile your plate with local delicacies was by sampling whatever seafood was freshest on the docks this morning.
First, when putting your cocktail order in, specify you’d like your rum from Papa’s Pilar, Key West’s brand spanking new rum distillery inspired by Papa Hemingway himself. Named for Ernest Hemingway’s favorite muse, his sailboat the Pilar, Papa’s Pilar’s motto is “Never a Spectator” — a tribute to the adventuring lifestyle of one of America’s greatest novelists and (possibly) one of the world’s greatest adventurers. Papa’s Pilar rums are solera blended, a unique process that blends spirits of mixed ages in such a way that the average age of the spirit gradually increases as the process continues over a number of years. In the case of Papa’s Pilar’s rums, the blonde is solera aged in bourbon barrels whereas the dark is aged in a mixture of bourbon barrels and port wine casks. This time-intensive process lends each rum a very distinctive taste — citrus and vanilla for the blonde and cinnamon and coffee for the dark — and an exceptionally smooth texture. Though this author will never turn down a Dark and Stormy on a hot day, Papa’s Pilar’s rums are equally delicious served over ice and savored sip by sip. Those hankering for a taste should make their way to the distillery’s home at 201 Simonton St., for rum tastings and hourly guided tours of the factory’s stills. And if rum isn’t your thing (gasp!), the Papa’s Pilar distillery is full of incredible Hemingway-related memorabilia and history so you can get an education while your companions get tipsy. Win-win!
Equally delicious, but with decidedly less of a hangover, the artisanal hummus made by Keys to the Kitchen is the island’s latest savory snack of choice. After noticing that customers dining at Café Marquesa couldn’t get enough of the complimentary pita and hummus platters served in lieu of the more traditional bread and butter, bartenders Blondie Gindele and Tim Schwarz teamed up with the restaurant’s chef, Susan Ferry, to bring the creamy treat to the masses. Though the trio had no experience in packaging and selling foods, they researched their way to a successful brand to the delight of Key West’s chickpea-loving populous. At the moment, you can find both their signature Wholly Hummus and a newly-introduced black bean version, dubbed Wholly Smokes, at local grocery chain Fausto’s, or onboard one of Fury Watersports’ ocean charters. But the company isn’t stopping there — it’s got world domination on its plate (along with a few squares of freshly baked pita bread, one assumes) and plan to expand the distribution to include national stores and markets. In the meantime, we recommend you get your fill here in Key West while the tangy, tahini-free dish is still a (mostly) hidden treasure.
If you’ve saved room for dessert, Key West offers one of the more unique options available: sushi. No, we’re not suggesting you follow-up a plate of hummus with fish roe and seaweed (though we pass no judgment on those who think that sounds delicious). We’re huge fans of Key West’s own Cupcake Sushi, which is precisely what it sounds like — delectable, colorful “sushi” rolls made of cake and frosting, authentically served with chopsticks. Local chef Lori Shubert, who invented Cupcake Sushi after trying to perfect mini-cupcakes for her clients, is fully cognizant of how much diners enjoy the theatrical aspects of watching one’s sushi be handmade in front of them. As such, she makes each roll by hand behind her rolling sushi cart. Cupcake Sushi is available at its storefront location of 431 Front St., as well as at farmers markets and private events (occasionally you’ll find a roll packaged to go at both Fausto’s locations and at Eaton Street Seafood, but they tend to fly off the shelves as soon as they’re stocked). With flavors like Caramel Peanut, Chocolate Almond, Red Velvet, and even Maple Crunchy Bacon, it’s a far cry from your traditional spicy tuna roll… though we wouldn’t say no to one of each.
If you’ve spent any time in Key West, you know our island is extremely walkable, with many historic points of interest located near enough one another to warrant a full day of strolling the streets. That kind of pavement pounding can be murder on the feet, not to mention your footwear.
Tradition says that when a pair of shoes is extremely comfortable, they’re usually not very attractive (see: Crocs, Uggs, and those white off-brand sneakers your grandfather wears). But if it’s handcrafted quality you’re after, be prepared to wait weeks, sometimes months, to receive your goods. And if, miraculously, a pair manages to be attractive, comfortable, made by hand and they don’t take a month to arrive, they will invariably cost a fortune. The only exception we’ve found? Key West’s local sandal shop: the eponymously named Kino’s, whose origin story reads like a Lifetime movie. After he and his family were able to escape Cuba in 1965, Roberto “Kino” Lopez arrived in Key West with the dream of opening his own leather sandal factory. His old world-style, handmade sandals quickly gained in popularity thanks to their legendary comfort, affordability and quality materials.
Today, the Kino family manufactures over 20 different styles of sandals, as well as purses, wallets and various other leather goods. Each is handmade in the family’s open-air factory at Old Town’s Kino’s Plaza, located at the corner of Green Street and Fitzpatrick Street. Customers waiting to snag a few pairs can watch the artisans assembling sandals by hand right in front of them. The whole experience conjures the feeling that one has stepped backward in time, with architecture reminiscent of old Havana, the scent of leather and rubber heavy on the breeze, the prices so low you won’t have to choose between your top three choices — buy them all, as well as a couple of pairs for folks back home. Kinos doesn’t ship or allow other stores to carry its merchandise; its shoes are only offered at their factory (though tawdry imitations can be found throughout the U.S.). So, you can feel good knowing you’ve purchased something truly unique to the island. So, strap on a pair, head out into the sun and start exploring. Who knows, you might wind up getting inspired to start your own Key West business. (Who knows? Sushi hummus could be a huge hit.) ¦