As you may have figured out, we like to eat. We set some goals before hitting the road to try to experience as many local delicacies and cuisines as possible. You can imagine that through 30 states and across more than 12,000 miles, we had the chance to try many new and different foods- some that we dream about eating again, others that we are happy to forget. In Maine, we chose to indulge in lobster rolls, because Maine. While enjoying the first of our lobster rolls at a picnic table overlooking Sheepscot Bay on the edge of the dock where the lobster had been caught, we decided that it would be fun to taste as many as we could get our hands on and share our findings (much like we did with tasting notes for our wines) in the Ultimate Maine Lobster Roll Smackdown. We enjoyed the task of tasting and assessing the lobster rolls so much that we wanted to take on another food smackdown. Enter Key West and the Key Lime Pie Smackdown.
Spending ten sun-filled, lazy days sitting on a private dock overlooking the ocean, we decided that Key West was the perfect place to take on the Ultimate Key Lime Pie Smackdown. Originating in Key West in the 1800s, there is no actual recorded documentation about who created the Key Lime Pie, but Key West has staked a claim on being the home of the first pie and as of 2006 declared it the Official State Pie for Florida. As with the Lobster Roll Smackdown, we chose to taste and compare at least five slices. We ended up being overachievers and tasted three from restaurants in Key West; and because Key Lime Pie is so good and we wanted to be sure that we had a broad base of comparison, we also had a slices in Islamorada, FL, Flagler Beach, FL and Folly Beach, SC. Just like with the lobster rolls, they were all good but there was one that set (forgive the pie humor) the bar high above the rest. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we shipped one to share with our friends in Tulsa!
Key Lime Pie #1- Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Pie Shoppe, Key West
A legend among Key Lime Pie producers, Kermit’s sits on a busy corner just a block from the ocean. Home to not only a world-famous pie proclaimed the “best” by the Food Network, National Geographic, Paula Deen, and others, the shoppe also carries everything Key Lime- from cookies and fudge to shampoo and dog treats, there is something for everyone. Incredibly welcoming, the employees not only let us sit on their outdoor patio to enjoy our slice while it was fresh, they also insisted that Finley come in and taste test the dog treats. As expected, he was a fan and we (of course) bought him a bag to take home.
Topped with three large dollops of whipped cream, the pie from Kermit’s had high acid and a good lime flavor. The filling was very fluffy, with a light and creamy texture, sitting atop a thin and dry traditional graham cracker crust. There were no obvious signs of lime zest in the slice, but the flavor of it was detectable and added to the complexity of the bite. Looking back at our notes, Jay described it as “very elegant texture with awesome fluffiness” and Jen was a bit more succinct in her “really, really good” description. The only flaw that we found with the pie was that the volume of whipped cream was a bit too much as it covered the flavor more than we would have liked, but it was such a nice balance with the acid that we wouldn’t have changed it. Was it good? Oh, yeah. Was it so good that we were tempted to immediately go back in and get another slice? Umm, maybe.
Key Lime Pie #2- The Original Key Lime Bakery, Key West
Just down the street from Kermit’s is The Original Key Lime Pie Bakery, with a plaque on the door proclaiming it as the “Birthplace of Key Lime Pie” in 1856. Whoa, how do you compete with that kind of pedigree? Did we have high expectations based on this claim alone? You bet. Wanting to ensure that we tasted the “original” so that it was as fresh as possible, we took a seat on the bench just outside the front door and dug in. Slightly larger than the slice from Kermit’s, this slice looked quite similar with a large dollop of whipped cream and a graham cracker crust. A denser, more custard-like texture, the “original” had a higher zest and lower acidity than we typically expect in a Key Lime Pie. The crunchy, ultra-thin crust was a nice balance with the “bite” of lime in each taste. More along the lines of what we would consider a traditional slice of pie, we can all thank the Original Key Lime Bakery for creating one of our favorite desserts and a reason for us to undertake this serious taste test.
Key Lime Pie #3- Blue Heaven, Key West
It may be the palms and tropical bushes partially covering the sign into the patio area or maybe it’s the chickens and cats wandering freely amongst the diners or perhaps the tiki-style bar. Regardless of the reason, Blue Heaven feels like a tropical paradise, you could easily be in the Caribbean (not that it’s very far from here) or any other tropical island of your choice. Having just come from a fabulous lunch of Korean BBQ and Mahi-Mahi tacos from Garbo’s Grill, located in an Airstream on the back patio of Grunt’s Bar, we were rather full so we opted to carry out what was perhaps the biggest slice of pie we’ve ever seen. And not only was the slice itself already huge, but the incredibly friendly bartender that took our order was worried that our slice was too small since it was the last one of the pie, so he gave us a “little extra”.
Once again finding ourselves a sunny seat on a bench to taste while the pie was at its freshest (thanks to Key West for having benches all over town!), we dug into a slice that was a decadent combination of spongy meringue and creamy pie. Completely different from any other Key Lime pie we’ve ever had, the slice from Blue Heaven had a thick, moist, and buttery graham cracker crust and a silky texture with creamy, eggy flavor and just a hint of lime. The acid was a little lighter than we would have preferred and we didn’t detect any zest, but still the pillowy meringue, creamy pie, and a crust that we can would wager was homemade, was so tasty and filling that we weren’t able to finish it…though it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Key Lime Pie #4- Marker 88, Islamorada, FL
Jay’s parents used to make it point to visit Marker 88 when they regularly visited the Keys back in the ’80s and ’90s, so it was pretty much mandatory that we stop not only for dinner but more importantly, for the pie and the view. Having been regaled with tales of how amazing Marker 88 was, we did have pretty high expectations. Lucky for us, we weren’t disappointed. Seated at a table just feet from the water on the dog-friendly patio, we struggled to focus on eating during one of the most gorgeous sunsets we’d seen throughout our travels. Thankfully the sun had set by the time we ordered dessert, allowing us to give the Key Lime Pie our undivided attention.
Not dissimilar from the pie we enjoyed from Blue Heaven, the Marker 88 slice was also topped with a pillowy mound of meringue. Sweet with the perfect amount of char on top and a hint of confectioner’s sugar, the meringue was in a word- divine. The pie filling was thick and tended a little more towards custardy than creamy, but had nice lime flavor and a good amount of acid. Though we found the crust to be more dense than we prefer and the Key Lime whipped cream to be tasty but a bit too sweet, they were hardly reason to not finish the pie and debate another one “for research purposes”. Paired with a double espresso and a mesmerizing sunset, the pie from Marker 88 was definitely memorable and another generation can now sing the praises of this Keys dining tradition.
Key Lime Pie #5- High Tides at Snack Jack, Flagler Beach, FL
One of the best parts of traveling around the country is the opportunity to catch up with friends. While staying near St. Augustine we were lucky enough to get together with our friend Becky in Flagler Beach and share a perfectly Florida lunch of conch fritters, fish tacos, and Key Lime Pie. Located just steps from the ocean, Snack Jacks has been described by Coastal Living Magazine as “Gidget Goes to South Beach“, and you would be hard pressed to find a prettier spot to catch up and share some bites alone or with friends.
More tart than pie, the offering at Snack Jacks in Flagler Beach was the hardest one of our pie samplings to compare. Small in size and enclosed within a crust shell, the pie to crust ratio was different than a traditional piece but not necessarily a negative. The pie texture was rich and creamy more akin to cheesecake, had very little lime flavor, and no detectable zest; but the crust with hints of gingerbread was tasty and undeniably the best part of the pie, making it an interesting variation on a classic. While it is always fun to try reimagined recipes of classics, we found this one to be just a bit too far from the traditional Key Lime Pie for our liking.
Key Lime Pie #6- Bert’s Market, Folly Beach, SC
Self-described as “the rockingest grocery in town”, Bert’s Market sits in a nondescript, weathered concrete building just two blocks off the beach in the heart of Folly Beach. Even though we were in town during the off-season (late October), the market was still full of people stocking up on the organic produce, cold-pressed juices, and replenishing their beer supply at the Growler Station. As much as we love specialty markets (and could easily spend the equivalent of a mortgage payment if we didn’t have restraint), we came to Bert’s with one mission- Key Lime Pie.
Taken straight from the cooler and placed into a plastic to-go container, we headed back to the truck to taste what was the first piece of Key Lime Pie in the smackdown. Served with no whipped cream, the pie was dense and more custard-like than the pieces of Key Lime pie that we’ve had in the past. Not too sweet, but perfectly balanced with the high acidity, the pie was well-set with good texture. A thin, buttery, graham cracker crust was the perfect pair with the zesty lime flavor. As we enjoyed our last bites, Jay declared that this pie was “really, really good”. A walk on the dog-friendly beach, an afternoon cocktail on a breezy patio overlooking the ocean, and most importantly, a piece of pie that you don’t really want to share but do because you love your spouse, makes for a perfect visit to Folly Beach.