Key Lime Pie Safari

Notes from our Dining Diva as she hunts for the perfect wedge of electric silk.
Dana Adkins Campbell

How exactly do you track down the best Key lime pie south of Miami and north of Cuba? Follow the Southern Living Dining Diva on her recent hunt for the best of this tangy treasure.

The task: Find the best Key lime pie in, of course, the Keys. The plan: Pack a swimsuit and a fork, and spend a month or two lying in the sun, tasting an occasional custardy, tart slice. Our Editor's response: "You've got three days, an even shorter budget, and 100-plus miles of road to cover. Now get going."

Well, that's hardly the Florida take-it-easy spirit, but we complied. Meanwhile, here's the strategy behind the game.

First, I did a little math: 72 hours between landing and takeoff in Miami, minus time to sleep, shower, drive the Keys from top to bottom, and occasionally eat something that isn't loaded with lime juice and sugar. Down to 35 hours. We have to return with not only a list of the winning pies but also fabulous shots of them. That means our shutterbug (indomitable Senior Travel Photographer Art Meripol) has to spend a lot of time clicking. This is hardly point-and-shoot stuff, so that leaves about 21 hours. Divide that by the gazillion pies--each insisting it's the fairest in this funky land--and you see the challenge.

To prepare, I first dialed both professional and amateur food fanatics all over the state, and some Florida expatriates as well. "Where do you get your favorite Key lime pie, and why is it the best?" I demanded.

Then I started down the long list of "winners." "Hello? I'm just a pie nut, and I hear you make the best Key lime in the Keys. So what's the key?" I inquired. Graham cracker or pastry crust? Sweetened condensed milk or egg custard? Fresh Key limes or bottled juice? Meringue, whipped cream, or topless?

No one thought I was a nut at all. I had conversations as leisurely as a day at the beach, and we covered every atom of the vying pie by voice. Then I finalized a battle plan of a couple dozen likely ones to sample. Art and I stepped out of Miami International with vigorous appetites and a rigorous schedule. We eyed a cute convertible in the car rental lot but wistfully threw our unnecessary sun hats into the backseat of a four-door sedan. We toodled toward U.S. 1, waving and winking at fellow drivers from a rented vehicle that might be cool in, say, Boise, but that got us nowhere cruising the Keys.

At our first stop, they had forgotten to make their daily pie. Forgot? I sipped a peace offering--a Key lime milk shake--and we zipped on down the highway. Art constantly pulled over so I could grab a slice to go. We tasted on the move, tucking our plastic forks in the visor for emergencies.

I was smart enough to schedule some fancy stops to sample chefs' creative takes on the tradition--we still smile at those this-is-the-life memories. However, standing in the smoky bar at Mangrove Mama's begging for bottled water (no, I really, really don't want a beer) to wash down the last five pies was not one of them. Neither were the chocolate-covered pie-on-a-stick versions several vendors pushed on us. Yuck. Then there was that slightly tense moment on idyllic Little Palm Island when Art wanted me to block the wind--but not his light--from a pie that was threatening to lose its meringue to the strong gusts. And while vacationers lolled inside the Cheeca Lodge & Spa, we broke down the outdoor set three times in a rainstorm. But we finally got that pie on film.

I know already when you read my list, you'll be calling and writing, "How could you have possibly left out ____'s Key lime pie?" Well, just maybe we'll book another flight and go see what we missed. But we're getting the convertible next time. If you see us, please, please wink and wave. It would be so cool.

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.