The day after Christmas in 2020, Eric and I packed The Beast (our nickname for the camper) and headed to Florida to rest, rejuvenate, and escape the cold New England winter. Sanibel is very low key. Folks tend not to congregate in large groups, and it’s not a reckless party spot, so even with the virus still a concern, we were able to comfortably stroll the beaches and bike around the island in relative solitude.
We ate one meal out while we were in Sanibel. I chose a restaurant that had top reviews and that we’d not been to on previous trips--The Sunset Grill. We enjoyed a fabulous meal on the outdoor patio as the sunset cast hues of lavender and mango over the Gulf, and then it was time for dessert. I didn’t even need to look at the menu. We shared a slice of heaven. Florida Key Lime pie.
And so it began, the world took on a silky texture bathed in chartreuse and scented with citrus – The Sunset Grill became the jumping off point for the two-year-long Key Lime Pie obsession.
Before I launch into the results of my jaunt on what I’ve dubbed the “Key Lime Pie trail”, first a bit of background on the trip. My husband and I have been married for 25 years. A milestone achieved largely because we have two homes and live separately most of the time. That being said, on this particular trip, we had spent three solid weeks traveling together, sharing a 150-square-foot living space – The Beast.
While socially distanced from everyone else in the world, the lack of distance between us was magnified. I credit part of our survival to our shared sense of purpose – finding the best Key Lime pie.
Our path ultimately stretched from Captiva to Key West, over two trips, with the final sampling in February of 2022. During our time in the Key West campground, friends goaded us to join them for drinks, but we declined. I had three goals in Key West: 1) to sit at our waterfront campsite and read; 2) to visit the Hemmingway home; and 3) to sample Key Lime pie from Kermit’s.
In total, we sampled pies from three places in Key West, and as we made our way through the islands on the Overseas Highway, we stopped at Amara Cay to try the ‘deep fried’ key lime pie I had read about in a food review sent by a friend.
Back on Sanibel, we stopped at Jerry’s market – self-proclaimed “best key lime pie on the island”, and over the next couple of years, sampled pie at three other locations between Sanibel and Captiva. The trail ended this February at my friend KD’s kitchen in Cape Coral, where I had the hands-down best gluten-free key lime pie on the trail!
I had imagined extending my jaunt into this foodie adventure, but after seeing a disturbing article in the Miami Herald, I knew it was time to go public with the blog post. The future status of Key Lime Pie may depend upon it! The infamous dessert is threatened with none other than political overthrow by a scheme to “support” strawberry farming districts (i.e., to get their vote). Seriously? Dessert is now political too? Apparently, nothing is off-limits.
You can read about the ongoing controversy here -- Florida makes strawberry shortcake official dessert | Miami Herald.
Don’t let this happen! A survey in that same article showed overwhelming support (262 votes out of 296) for keeping Key Lime Pie as the poster dessert of Florida. Strawberry shortcake came in with a pathetic 12 votes, below even the slippery custard, flan, which had 25 votes.
Take a stand with the Conch Republic Key Lime Pie Council for this silly momentary diversion from the suffering in the world. Lift your fork in support of the crumbly, tart, graham-crackery goodness of Key Lime Pie. You can sign the petition against the overthrow at change.org, but if you need more convincing first – or a tastier means of support -- here are the rankings from the Key Lime Pie trail. Bon Appetit!
Note: I ranked the following pies #1 – 10; with #1 basking in the limelight as the best overall. The results are not statistically significant (there are many more pies to sample!), however, they will still provide a mouthful of gastronomic insight. Locations are given after the ranking, followed by a description of the pie and comparison to others sampled.
#1 Overall best: K.D.’s house, Cape Coral (private residence). Although geographically a bit off the trail, the final pie I sampled, took the number one spot for best gluten-free pie, and the number one spot overall. Aside from the lovely presentation, which was the only pie served with lime zest, the whipped cream was freshly made in front of me. The flavor of the pie was tart and refreshing, the thickness of both the filling and the crust was substantial, the crust was not overly sweet, and there was an opportunity for seconds without anyone raising an eyebrow!
#2: Sunset Grill, Sanibel-Captiva. A close second, their artful presentation made a great first impression. The pie was accompanied by a generous amount of fresh whipped cream. Hail to a thick pie and a thick crust! The subtle flavor of the crust included a hint of brown-sugar, that perfectly mingled with the subtle graham flavor. The substantial filling had a lively tang, balanced with just the right sweetness and held by a sturdy cheesecake texture. The one drawback -- the crust was only on the bottom of the pie.
#3: Moon Dog Café, Whitehead Street, near Hemingway home on Key West. An impressive presentation with lightly browned meringue topping. This pie had a generous, thick filling, with a crisp tang and creamy-silky texture. The flavors of butter and graham stood out in the crust, and the texture was sturdy yet crumbly. The filling had a better mouth feel than Sunset Grill and was the only sample of the group to include meringue, but together these strengths were not enough to boost it into the #2 spot.
#4: Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill, Sanibel. Their presentation included an artful swirl of raspberry sauce, a ribbony dollop of whipped cream, and a fresh mint leaf standing on end, showcasing the slice of pie on a rectangular off-white plate. The whipped cream was non-dairy, a disappointment, but the merits of the pie somewhat atoned for that. The filling, although not as thick as others, was the perfect density, with a creamy-silky-smooth texture, and just the right tartness. The crust was more of a traditional graham cracker, could have been thicker, but did not have the brown sugar overload. It was rather subtle in flavor, but better than overwhelming sweetness of other crusts. Flavor of filling stood out as one of the best, but lack of thickness kept this one from ranking in the top 3.
#5: Sanibel Grill, Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel. Simple, yet inviting presentation with raspberry puree, and slice of lime. This pie had a dense filling, with intense flavor, and a lively tang. Their filling was not as thick as The Sunset Grill, but the taste was comparable. The whipped cream was non-dairy, but good, light, and airy, and not overly sweet. The crust – although a decent thickness and density to complement the filling – had too much brown sugar. The excess sweetness of the crust was somewhat balanced by the lime tang of the filling.
#6: Mangoes Restaurant, Duval Street, Key West. Presented with small dollops of sweet, whipped cream on the crust end, and rested on a swirl of raspberry puree. Filling thickness was similar to Kermit’s, less than Moon dog and Sunset Grill. This pie incorporated lime zest, which was a nice touch. The texture was more cheesecake-like but had a crystalline-grainy texture on the tongue which added a little too much sweetness. I wasn’t a fan of the sugar crystals, but the raspberry puree added a nice complexity to the citrus and graham flavors. Their crust broke cleanly with the fork, and was not overly sweet, but the thickness could have been more substantial.
#7: Kermit’s Key Lime Pie Shop, Key West. After rave reviews from friends, I walked a significant distance to sample this pie. Was it worth it? For all the glory of the recommendation, Kermit’s had a disappointingly simple presentation with pre-packaged whipped cream (tasted non-dairy), that had an oddly sweet marshmallow taste, and dense texture. Their pie was not as thick as Sunset Grill or Moon Dog, and the texture of the filling was more cheesecake-like. It had a clean citrus flavor, but was missing the tang of Moon Dog, and the complexity of Sunset Grill. Graham flavor of the crust was good, not overly sweet, but the crust was thinner than others sampled, and had a rubbery texture.
#8: Amara Cay, Islamorada, Overseas Highway. When we arrived, I was disappointed to hear from the staff that they no longer serve deep fried Key Lime Pie. Nevertheless, we had stopped there, so we sat at their tiki bar looking out at the white sand, swaying palm trees, and aquamarine ocean, and ordered a slice of what they had to offer. They served their pie on a sheet of tropical parchment paper with a light dusting of confectioners’ sugar and fresh slices of strawberry on top. The absence of whipped cream was a disappointment. The filling had a creamier texture and a tang that danced on the tongue, similar to Sunset Grill. But the thickness was less than many of the top ranked pies, and a bit disappointing. The crust broke clean with my fork (not rubbery) but was thinner than Sunset Grill (similar to Moon Dog) and had too much brown sugar which gave it an odd aftertaste.
#9: Bubble Room, Captiva Island. Their cheerful presentation included lime, kiwi, and strawberry slices, and flowers of whipped cream. The pie, however, was disappointingly thin, an upsetting trend, similar to Kermit’s. The whipped cream tasted as though it was non–dairy, but had a subtle citrus tang to it, which was unique. The brown sugar in crust overpowered the tastebuds. The filling redeemed the crust a bit with its’ tart flavor, clean, refreshing lime tang, and creamy texture. This did help to balance the sweet crust, but the filling needed to have a more substantial thickness to effectively tone down the power of the brown sugar crust.
#10: Jerry’s Market, Sanibel. For a place that touts itself as having the best pie on the island, it was not an impressive presentation -- pie in a cup – with no option for a single slice. The ‘crust’ consisted of loose graham cracker crumbs in bottom. The pie filling was like a key lime pudding topped with whipped cream and dusted with more graham cracker crumbs. The filling taste was low on the tang and a bit too sweet. The texture was creamy like the Sunset Grill, but this alone was not enough to lift it in the rankings. Whipped cream was on the sweet side, but not overly so. As far as their claim to ‘best pie on Sanibel’, they might want to sample their competition. They would have scored higher had their “pie cup” had a crust. To be fair, I didn’t want to buy an entire pie in order to include them in the competition. They might consider mini-pie tins or serving single slices, rather than a plastic cup for presentation, and the ability to properly include a crust.
And now you know the Zest of the story! Long live Key Lime Pie!