Too impatient for spring last year, Senior Photographer Art Meripol and I clicked our ruby slippers (er, flip-flops) together three times, reciting, "There's no taste like Key lime pie." Soon we were twirling south to that last trickle of Florida for the perfect fluff-filled pastry. Done right, that wedge is cool and creamy with a sharp citrus backhand--a radiant slice of electric silk.
From Homestead to Key West, we tasted a couple dozen pies that beckoned and bragged. Along the way, we bumped into Nashville readers Sandi and Ron Sudduth, who traipsed those connected islands with the same gustatory goal: to find a favorite among the many. We giddily compared notes, nudging each other toward the good and away from the ugly.
And we stumbled upon some surprises, finding that there isn't just one ideal for the confection, but three. First: the traditional homemade recipe in comfy restaurants. Second: the gussied-up remakes by creative chefs in fancy dining rooms and resorts. And third: mass-produced pies at take-out and mail-order shops. We didn't quite expect the Key lime cookies, fudge, candy, jelly, hot sauce, drinks--and candles, lotions, and shampoos. Even if it's not all palatable, it's all fun. Enjoy the hunt! Here are our picks, from north to south along U.S. 1. When you return from your own journey, let us hear yours.
Robert Is Here Fruit Stand: Now a father of four teenagers, Robert Moehling started this produce-peddling business at just 7 years old. (Ask him for the cute story behind its name.) Oldest daughter Victoria whips up Key lime pies--with meringue--in her summer months off. The rest of the year, the pie supply is meringueless and less reliable. The day we visited, no one had baked any. (This is laid-back Florida, after all.) So we made do with a Key lime milk shake, and it made us pretty happy. 19200 SW. 344th Street (off U.S. 1), Florida City; (305) 246-1592.
Blond Giraffe: I eyed this take-out shop's perfect wedges in plastic containers doubtfully. All others like this had failed me. But one bite, and I silently apologized. This recipe from Brazilians Roberto Madeira and Tania Beguinati (actually, from Tania's grandmother) teams rich "cookie dough" crust with light, zingy custard and piped meringue. They've mechanized the process somewhat, but I saw workers grating lime and piping meringue by hand. (By the way, this was the top pick for the Sudduths from Nashville.) 1209 Truman Avenue and 629 Duval Street, Key West; 1-888-432-6283 or www.blondgiraffe.com.