Before you get to Key West is Stock Island. Here, Hogfish Bar & Grill is perched on the pier in Safe Harbor within spitting distance of the boats on a street that feels more like an alley. If you feel like you’re maybe in the wrong spot, you’re exactly where you should be.
Inside, there is no pretension or air of entitlement. It’s a local place with an unaffected attitude and relaxed atmosphere. In a tourist destination that can easily unbalance your chill factor, Hogfish is a welcome respite.
We sit at a table outside, which in the current winds is a little chilly. The tables are well-worn and clearly often used. The waitress is all smiles and patience, tipping us off to a “secret” happy hour that is not advertised, from 4-5 most weekdays, where everything at the bar is $1 off. Otherwise, you’re sticking to the menu, which isn’t a bargain, but is fair — again, especially compared to the mammoth prices of tourist traps in Key West.
We start with margaritas, served strong and in pint glasses. Then, red conch chowder, which is more like minestrone than chowder. The spice level is nice: It’s spicy enough for flavor but not incendiary.
Fried grouper cheeks are a winner. A well-fried crunch doesn’t take away from the buttery meat, which is slightly richer than your typical flaky white fish. Kkey lime mustard is an optional condiment; but it can overpower the tender flavor of the grouper.
The hogfish sandwich is famous, made with fish supplied by local divers: As they say here, it has “a delicious scallop-like flavor.” I like the idea of it in a sandwiich with Swiss cheese, onions, and mushrooms on Cuban bread, but when it arrives, all I want is the fish. It is thinly cut, light and flaky — good enough to stand out on its own without the sandwich add-ons
Key lime pie, light on sugar, is served in huge slices. Its crumbly cinnamon-y crust houses a more-lemon-than-lime custard topped with frothy whipped cream. It’s a nice way to round out the meal.
The relaxed atmosphere gains momentum as the Friday night crowd rolls in: fishermen, locals who live just down the pier, and families. They say this is what the Keys used to feel like, and I get it: It’s got that “I’m just happy to be here” vibe that makes you grateful to be where you are.