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Key West Shanties Dish Out Local Fish and Funkiness

By Beth Schucker
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 8, 2009; F01

The sign on the squatty shack at William and Caroline streets reads "B.O.'s Fish Wagon," but the lean-to could easily be confused with debris from the last hurricane. This isn't the only ramshackle eatery in Key West that offers good grub, a pleasant degree of slouch and local louts for company. With no intent to dis Key West's famed culinary icons, sometimes pursuing alternatives to white tablecloths and $39 bone-in rib-eyes can be fun.

Buddy Owen, the owner of B.O.'s, takes pride in his beat-up food shack near Key West's historic seaport, explaining that inspiration struck after a good night of drinking. Meticulous sweeps of the island in search of decor turned up such grungy castaways as a rusty truck, droopy fish nets and salt-crusted lobster floats. The advantage of his decorating scheme, his wife, Holly, says, is the ease of finding replacements: "Mr. Buddy just goes on another hunt."

Buddy Owen's legend as fisherman and Conch, which is shorthand for Key West native, dates to the 1970s and his first fish wagon in the back of a truck on Duval Street. Since then he has regaled the hungry with local catch, salty reminiscences of Key West's past and squawks about the Board of Health.

The Owens prepare their food the way islanders used to, simply and with fresh ingredients, mostly on the premises. The fish (grouper, tuna, mahi-mahi or wahoo), caught by local watermen when possible, are lightly breaded with a seasoned egg wash, beer and cracker meal. Russet potatoes are hand-cut into fries, and the award-winning conch fritters are hand-formed. A house-made Key lime sauce slathered on Cuban bread adds a tangy accent to the fish, shredded lettuce and sliced onion and tomato.

The fried square grouper sandwich is the most popular ($10.75, cash only). What's a square grouper? Don't ask; you'll be branded a tourist. (It's a joke: dock-speak derived from 1970s code, used by soon-to-be-rich fishermen who were able to rescue bales of marijuana falling off drug-smuggling vessels.) Quaff a cold beer or wine (in a plastic glass) with your sandwich and you'll be ready to redefine paradise. The shack is open seven days a week; Holly Owen's favorite times are rainy days and Friday nights, when the joint jumps to the music of Barry Cuda and the Sharks. "People cram into the place," she says. "It's so crowded there's no room for pretense, just fun and good food."

One day last spring, Holly was surprised to see a distinguished elderly couple maneuver their way through the side door amid the clutter. Seemingly oblivious to the commotion in the place, the couple ate quietly. On their way out, the old guy gushed with enthusiasm about their lunch, Holly says. "I always thought this was a place for rummage sales," he told her. "Even today I wasn't sure it was safe for my new bride."

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The oft-heard expression "You have to leave Key West to find Key West" points the way to Stock Island, a few miles out of town. As the last vestige of old Key West, the island's harbor is home to what's left of Key West's commercial shrimp fleet. Fresh doesn't get any fresher than at the dockside Hogfish Bar and Grill, Bobby and Michelle Mongelli's respectable haunt, where it's possible to peel your Key West pinks while listening to scuttlebutt from the shrimper who brought them into port. If hogfish, coveted by connoisseurs for its sweet, delicate flavor, isn't available, sidle up to the bar and ask a working fisherman about catching them.

Sitting at the full-service bar by the pool table, you'll feel the whish of servers racing to the waterside tables and tiki hut booths while customer chatter marks time to the boom, boom, boom of the jukebox and bandstand.

But food is the main attraction: hogfish, speared in nearby coral reefs, and heavy doses of shrimp: in po' boys and potpies, stuffed in tacos or with crabmeat, battered with coconut or bound with bacon. Order the hogfish special the Killer and savor the sweet, flaky fish on Cuban bread with or without the smother of Swiss cheese, onions and mushrooms ($14.95). (Check ahead for availability, as divers can't dive in bad weather.) The final "uhmms" of the evening salute Michelle Mongelli's homemade tropical guava bread pudding doused with piƱa colada sauce.

* * *

On Big Pine Key, No Name Pub has been feeding locals since the 1930s. It's hard to find, so stop for directions or you'll roam aimlessly with the cute little Key deer. The pub boasts a colorful history as a general store, a brothel during tough times and a longtime restaurant. The pizza recipes of past Italian owners still star today. In a final flourish of merriment, you'll want to sign one of your dollar bills and hang it from the rafters with the thousands of others left by earlier revelers who, like you, drank beer, ate heartily and danced to the jukebox.

If this shanty fare whets your appetite for more reveries of old Key West, you might be interested in "The Key West Picture Show," a riotous 1970s documentary that pays homage to the island's history of ragged funkiness. It shows most Saturdays at 12:45 p.m. at the Tropic Cinema.

B.O.'s Fish Wagon, 801 Caroline St., Key West, 305-294-9272. Hogfish Bar and Grill, 6810 Front St., Stock Island, 305-293-4041, http://www.hogfishbar.com. No Name Pub, North Watson Boulevard (mile marker 30.5), Big Pine Key, 305-872-9115, http://www.nonamepub.com. Tropic Cinema, 416 Eaton St., Key West, 305-295-9493, http://www.tropiccinema.com.

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