KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Sample the sweetness of fried plantains served with lime-kissed pork chops. Sway to the infectious rhythms of an outdoor salsa band. Savor the rush of caffeine from a shot of cafécito sold by a smiling vendor. And as you do, breathe a fervent “thank you” for the Cuban heritage that enlivens and enhances Key West.
Key West is located just 90 miles from Cuba, and the two islands have a cultural connection that dates back about 180 years.
In the early 1830s, Cuban people began migrating to Key West in search of personal and political freedom. Among them were scores of skilled cigar-makers who quickly founded factories. By the mid- to late-1800s, Key West was known as the cigar manufacturing capital of the world — producing an astonishing 100 million hand-rolled cigars each year.
Given this rich heritage, it’s no surprise that Cuban food is the most popular ethnic cuisine in Key West. Cuban delicacies include ropa vieja, a tasty concoction of shredded beef, tomatoes, green peppers, onions and red wine.
Picadillo, a seasoned ground beef, is another favorite — as are pork chunks marinated in lime and garlic or mojo criollo marinade. Cuban entrees are typically served with black beans, yellow rice, Cuban bread and fried plantains that add an unexpected sweetness.
For a lighter meal, try a traditional Cuban mix sandwich — a blend of meats and cheese on Cuban bread toasted and flattened in a press that looks like a waffle iron.
While Key West has several restaurants that specialize in authentic Cuban fare, two are particular favorites of locals and visitors.
El Siboney is an out-of-the-way spot located at 900 Catherine St. in a quiet residential neighborhood. Since 1984, the inexpensive family-friendly eatery has served Cuban specialties including roast chicken that’s perfectly seasoned and so tender it practically falls off the bone. El Siboney also offers ropa vieja, picadillo, savory roast pork and much more.
El Meson de Pepe stands at 410 Wall St. next to Mallory Square, site of Key West’s renowned nightly sunset celebration. It offers indoor dining in a large room decorated with Cuban-themed memorabilia, plus outdoor dining on a wide verandah and in a garden festooned with lights. El Meson’s specialties include Cuban pork and chicken dishes, ropa vieja, picadillo and some intriguing fish creations.
A Latin band typically plays to entice children, oldsters and those in between to dance — and celebrate the Cuban heritage that has flavored Key West for nearly two centuries.
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest or 1-800-LAST-KEY
Picadillo, seasoned pork chunks marinated in lime and garlic, with black beans, yellow rice, Cuban bread and fried plantains.