If you go to Key West, make sure you don’t miss out on Green Republic.
If you’re planning a vegan vacation, the Conch Republic might not sound like your kind of place—as the name suggests, seafood abounds there. But I’ve been to Key West twice this year, and we actually had a lot more options than Happy Cow led me to believe we would.
Upon arrival both times, we headed straight to The Cafe, a vegatarian restaurant on Southard St. with lots of vegan options. The restaurant’s really cute, with paintings by local artists on the walls and crayon drawings by its customers everywhere else. My husband’s not an edamame fan, so both times we started off with the Un-Wing Dings with BBQ sauce—breaded logs of tofu, kind of like what you’d find at Kate’s—which were just spicy enough for me and maybe just a little too much tofu for him. From there we moved on to the Kung Pao Tofu and Veggie Burger, both of which were really good and really substantial. The Kung Pao sauce was incredibly flavorful, and the burger really hit the spot, and not just because it was enormous. Next time we go I’d like to take their Seitan Pepper Steak with jasmine rice for a spin.
If you go to the Cafe, bring an appetite, because the portions are huge!
We missed Help Yourself, on Fleming St., the first time around, but I’m really glad we made it there this trip. HY prides itself on serving food that’s as natural as possible, and it is closer to hippie food than anything else we had in KW (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The restaurant itself isn’t much more than a counter with some benches outside, but that was perfect for lunch. I got the Hummus Wrap bursting with quinoa, veggies and sprouts, and my husband had the Mighty Marinara bowl, with whole wheat noodles and lots of veggies. I would have had a smoothie for dessert, but the wrap was so huge, I ended up saving the rest for the trip home. Delicious as it was the first time around, it tasted even better after sitting in the fridge and marinating for another day and a half.
Help Yourself, as close to vegan hippie heaven as Key West gets
When we strayed from Happy Cow’s guidance, we found a bit of mixed bag. Our first night there this time around, we had some of the worst Mexican food in history at Old Town Mexican Cafe, on Duval St. What a disappointment—the chips were soggy, the guac was tasteless, and while my husband’s burrito was okay, my nachos were bland except for the ridiculously hot peppers piled on top, which set chips they’d barely touched ablaze (and I’m a wimp when it comes to heat in my food to begin with). But that was the one truly low point. Even at a place like Fogarty’s, which definitely isn’t designed with vegans in mind, we ate well. We ordered the Lettuce Wraps minus the chicken, so they loaded us down with extra veggies—I’ve never seen so much food on one plate—and we asked them to leave the cheese off the Bruschetta. Between that and the french fries, we were pretty stuffed. Another shot in the dark that turned out well was La Trattoria. We started with the Insalata Paesana minus the gorgonzola—who needs it when there are all those lovely pecans, red onions, apples, tomatoes and figs in your salad?!—Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (olive oil and garlic might not be innovative, but it was delicious) and Penne Arrabiata. The food was great, and the restaurant, which is a little upscale, was most definitely romantic.
Also on the I’m-so-glad-we-went list is Café Solé, on Southard St. CS has a separate vegetarian menu, with the vegan dishes clearly marked, but the chef is happy to substitute tofu or tempeh for the meat in any dish. Now, tofu gets around, but when was the last time you saw the word “tempeh” on the menu at an omni resturant? Turns out the owner was raised by vegan hippies who traveled cross-country by caravan before settling down on a commune in Tennessee, so this man knows his meat alternatives. My husband and I shared the Ingram’s Salad minus the blue cheese (pears and pecans!), Virgin Tomato Pasta and Stir-Fried Veggies. The food was really good, and if we’d had room for dessert we would have tried their homemade fresh fruit sorbet. Next time, because we’ll definitely be back. And not just for the food: The ambiance was amazing. We had a candlelit table in a quiet little nook off the main room, and the layout gave you the feeling you were eating in someone’s house…which made sense once we found out that the restaurant had, in fact, been a residence in its previous life.
One of the best meals we had was at Origami, in Duval Square. We’d planned to go to another Japanese restaurant, but thankfully we asked a few locals first, and hands down everyone recommended Origami. The restaurant’s decor is nothing to write home about, but it was gorgeous out that night, so we sat out in the courtyard, which was amazingly quiet and beautifully lit. We started off with the Avocado Sashimi, which was basically a salad with onions and huge slices of tender avocado…very simple but absolutely delicious. The Vegetable Tempura—not battered in egg!!!—was incredibly tender and flavorful, just the right balance of veggies and batter. And we had not one but two orders of Vegetable Rolls—’nuff said. The food was exquisite, one of the all-time best meals we’ve had in Key West, and our waitress was super-sweet. We’ll definitely be back.
Breakfast and brunch were tougher to do well, no surprise there. But we ended up doing okay despite the lack of real vegan options. The Banana Cafe couldn’t offer us much besides potatoes, baguettes with jam, fruit salad and a lovely window seat, but never question the happiness a warm length of baguette can bring.
Eating at Blue Heaven is like hanging out in someone’s backyard…
It was a little more of the same at Blue Heaven, on Thomas St., except the atmosphere is amazing: You dine outdoors in what feels like someone’s backyard, while chickens, roosters and cats hang off roofs and speak their minds. BH has more options for lunch and dinner (black bean and gumbo soups, tofu stir-fry, tortillas with tofu, black beans, brown rice and avocado), but the cozy atmosphere just screams brunch. The food was really good, just not very exciting from a vegan point of view: roasted potatoes, fruit salad, granola with soymilk, and toast with jam.
…if that someone’s yard has cats, roosters and chickens hanging from the rooftops.
Another beautiful place to eat with limited breakfast options is Hot Tin Roof, the restaurant at the Ocean Key Resort & Spa, where we stayed when we eloped. I’ve had toast and fruit salad before, but it never looked like this! And my husband’s steel-cut oats was a delicious work of art, complete with tropical fruit chutney, candied pecans, berries and brown sugar. (Sorry for the lack of evidence, he dug in before I had a chance to get a photo.)
When’s the last time your fruit and toast looked like this?
If it’s nice out and you don’t want to be even semi-indoors, you can always opt for a picnic. The morning we decided to go DIY, we headed over to the Sugar Apple on Simonton St. for supplies.
Sugar Apple is part grocery, part apothecary, part cafe.
The cafe wasn’t technically open yet, so we kept to the grocery section and loaded our electric car up with mangoes, bananas, toasted whole grain bread (the cafe’s one concession to our pleas), vegan cream cheese, soy jerky and banana bread, and headed over to Smathers Beach, where we’d gotten married the day before. Aside from the ants that were determined to join us, it was a perfect lazy morning with a delicious assortment of treats and an incredible view.
Smathers Beach: not a bad place to picnic
On our way home this trip, my husband, a fairly recent vegan, was getting the blues—not because our vacation was over, but because we were headed back to Fort Lauderdale, where we wouldn’t have as many tasty options. So we decided to stop at one more place and bring dinner back with us. I can’t tell you how glad I am that we did! This was our first time at Green Republic, on Fleming St., and we both regret not having found it sooner. The vegetarian founders are on a mission: “Wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy flavorful American and island comfort foods although meatless (plant protein based) that had the same texture and taste as the real counterpart?” Um, yes, it would! And boy, do those guys deliver. Even after sitting in the car for four hours, being refrigerated and then reheated that night, their sandwiches absolutely astounded us. My husband had the Classic Cuban, while I had the Meatball Parm. Wow! Both sandwiches really hit their mark, and my husband swears that GR’s Cuban would put any other to shame, even those with “real” meat and cheese. (GR does serve dairy cheese, but you can ask them to substitute Teese instead.) For dessert we had cupcakes: chocolate peanut butter for him and lemon chiffon for me. They were on the smaller side, but they might as well have been twice their size, that’s how rich and dense and delicious they were. Green Republic won our undying love that day, and we will definitely, absolutely be back.
Green Republic, the vegan mecca of Key West!
Have you been to Key West and had vegan chow that we need to know about? Please share in the comments!