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.
Little Palm Island: Few can afford to overnight on this dreamy island, but anyone is welcome to take the romantic, quick boat trip (free) for lunch or dinner there. This luxurious hideaway is surely where Ginger and the Howells envisioned landing on Gilligan's Island. The view, mood, service, and fare lull you right out of reality. And pastry chef Dawn Runge's tall Key lime pie with crunchy cashew crust and ethereal orange whipped cream will make you pray to be eternally stranded. U.S. 1, MM 28.5 Oceanside, Little Torch Key; (305) 872-2524 or 1-800-343-8567.
The Deli: The homey pie topped with unabashed, softly weeping meringue at this 52-year-old restaurant melted my heart. The founder, John Bernreuter, gave me a smile and change from an espresso cup next to his cash register. His now-grown granddaughter Patty has worked here with the rest of the family since age 9, and she makes three to nine of the disks daily. I adore her recipe: a flaky pastry crust; a filling so cold, so thick, so puckery; and a meringue as sturdy and sweet and pure as this family tradition. 531 Truman Avenue, Key West; (305) 294-1464.
Alice's at La-Te-Da: A startling antithesis to the past, young and brash Alice Weingarten delights with her wild-print chef attire, collection of cat's-eye glasses, and vibrant lipstick. But her plates show a serious side, dallying in beurre blanc, white truffles, and lavender vinaigrette. Her Key lime pie is "black bottom": a veneer of deep chocolate ganache between from-scratch Key lime curd and classic graham cracker crust. She encourages pastry chef Sharon Madden to dream with daily specials such as a charlotte of Key lime mousse with "ice cubes" of clear lime-vanilla gelatin. Very clever. 1125 Duval Street, Key West; (305) 296-6706.
The Key Lime Tree: A souvenir shop honoring the itty-bitty citrus. Skip the mediocre pie, and stock up on sweetly scalding Key lime hot sauce, creamy Key lime mustard sauce, and oddities such as the alligator-shaped pasta. Snap the perfect vacation photo outside this quirky spot. U.S. 1, MM 95 Oceanside, Key Largo; (305) 853-0378 or 1-800-870-1780.
Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe: If you missed the Key Lime Tree back at Key Largo, here is your second chance for a citrus-themed shopping spree--a bizarre bazaar--this one with funny man Kermit Carpenter. 200 Elizabeth Street, Key West; (305) 296-0806, 1-800-376-0806, or www.keylimeshop.com.
Seven Mile Grill: Okay, not the best pie, but a place you ought to see. This 48-year-old tradition is usually packed for breakfast. If you think that Key lime pie is a nutritious a.m. option, by golly, so do they. And if Rebecca McDaniel is waiting tables with the usual huge hibiscus tucked into her long brunette braid, you're in for sunshine and a laugh. For those who'd rather sleep till lunch, we hear they do an "honest fish sandwich." U.S. 1, MM 47.5 Bayside, Marathon; (305) 743-4481.
Atlantic's Edge, Cheeca Lodge & Spa: Ah, the first of the uppity renditions. Besides an oceanfront view worthy of a painting, this popular resort's dining room also woos with a classy taste of the tropics. After savories (such as Key lime-marinated seviche and garlic-scented shrimp with homemade pappardelle noodles), slip into sweetness with pillow-soft Key lime mille-feuille (meel-FWEE). That's just a posh term for pastry chef Michael Smith's chilly layers of tangy custard between shattering slivers of phyllo pastry. A mosaic of precisely sliced and pureed fruits paints the plate around it. This indeed leaves those foil-piepan versions squirted with fake topping quivering pitifully on the sidelines. U.S. 1, MM 82 Oceanside, Islamorada; (305) 664-4651 or 1-800-327-2888.
Trust us: You're going to need some horizontal time on this filling adventure. Try these sweet stays.
Sticking with the trip's theme, we chose this freshened inn in Key West.
This article is from the January 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.