You don’t go to China to enjoy great pizza (though I’m sure it can be found somewhere in the Middle Kingdom). Similarly, you don’t go to Florida for good Tex-Mex. No, if you find yourself around 25th parallel, you best ought to stick to the fruits de mer. So while I dug around Key West early last week, the Unabomber’s girlfriend and I decided to hit up (but not blow up) B.O.’s Fish Wagon, a seafood shack well known around those parts for its kitschy decor, come as you are attitude, and approachably delicious food. Popular enough to get a shout out in the NY Times and a visit from Bobby Flay (via Food Nation), it was high times that Buddy Owen’s Key West institution tried to take down the Foodie Buddha. All in all, this was an enjoyable experience, even with some shortcomings in the grub.
Nestled on the restaurant dense Caroline Street, B.O.’s is located just a stone throw from the water in Key West’s historic seaport district. What started as an early form food truck is now a full fledged mob squad destination. Proprietor Buddy Owen started peddling his fish sandwiches out of the back of a branded pick-up truck roughly 30-years back. To say it was popular is an understatement. In a not so surprising move, that “wagon” sits permanently affixed just off the thoroughfare. Around it, Owen has built up a shanty-like open air shack for your eating (and viewing pleasure). In fact, the nailed on and tacked together structure is a bit of a story in and of itself. The joint has blown away more than a few times (but again … not because of the Unabomber’s girlfriend).
Marked up wood and tin, things have been married by everything from license plates to personalized patron carvings to funky signage (my favorite being the pun-tastic SEA FOOD and EAT IT!). While its an atmosphere that seems to exist in at least one establishment in nearly every county from here to California, these pants fit just right.
Sauntering into the Fish Wagon, you’re greeted by a wide ordering window, several hanging fish shaped menus, and a smiling server ready to take your order. Check that – if you show up during peak hours then you’ll be greeted by one hell of a line. Regardless, you get the picture. Step up, order up, and hand over your bills. Yes ladies and germs, this is a cash only establishment.
The menu is heavy on the fish, deep on the fried, and not bad on the pocket book (as tourist traps towns go). Most reports will tell you to grab a fish sandwich. These ample sized servings of Americana include the fish du jour, some straightforward fixings, and come encased in two thick slices of Cuban bread. Being a shellfish glutton, I modified that severing and went with the fried soft-shell crab sandwich ($9.25). In a curious move, the woman behind the counter made sure to have the cook show me the crab of my fate. Apparently, they must get quite a few people who aren’t familiar with soft shell crab and the need to down it tip to tail. It’s a kind gesture, and was returned with a yes please and a smile. Nice to see them looking out for their customers.
In addition, as we were smack dab in the defiant Conch Republic, it seemed necessary to supplement that with an order of six conch fritters. Thankfully, the kind lady was happy to hand some over in exchange for seven dollars.
Meanwhile, and in keeping with her societal indifference, Unabomber went straight for the beef link with fries ($4.75). This dog is scored, dropped in the fryer, and served up in that aforementioned Cuban bread and touched off by whatever mainstream toppings you like.
After turning over the cash, we spun around and looked for a place to plop down. The best seat in the house is the street side counter. You get a panoramic view of the street, allowing you to keep an eye on everyone who enters B.O.’s as well as all the interesting town folk that trek on bye. So yes, that’s where we plopped ourselves. The wait equated to prompt service in Key West time (maybe 15 minutes or so … not uncommon or unreasonable in a laid back town like KW).
Delivered to us by the same bellowing woman who took our order, she tracked us down via a little game of Marco Polo. Mere seconds after the food was delivered, the goring began. I took a glance at the dog, but seeing as I feared for my life … I didn’t dare take a chance at robbing the ‘Bomber of her morsel. I didn’t have a second chance to rethink it as it was consumed post haste. However, her fixation on the burger allowed me to snag a few of the fries. Hand pulled, and heavy on the salt, they looked great and tasted like your basic, competent take on the potato spear.
Meanwhile, I savored my soft shell crab just a little bit longer. Nicely battered and well-dressed, this had a nice meaty texture, but a slight hint of “fishiness” as well. The bread provided a soft bite against the crunch of the sandwich’s fixings. Did anything about it make me go wow? Nope, not in the slightest. But a very solid sandwich and well worth the price I paid for it.
The one true frustration with the meal was in the conch fritters. Though they had an ideal appearance both internally and externally, they were texturally lame and not particularly inspiring otherwise. The conch itself was beyond tough and its flavor was drowned out in the midst of all the onions, celery, and the sort. Most disappointing of all was the lack of crunch. These were soft piles of mush, but they looked good doing it.
On our way out the door, we took a stroll around the small floor space to eyeball all the goodies. As we turned to walk out, a few thanks for coming in were tossed about and we left quite happy.
Was this a meal of legend? Not by a long shot. However, it was a lot of fun and definitely memorable. I can certainly see a less discriminating palate finding utter joy in a sampling of B.O.’s best shot. As Key West is seriously lacking in truly great food, I’d say that this joint falls in the upper echelon of choices round yonder. For me, it’s not bad, reasonably priced, and worth a visit if you find yourself near the southernmost part of the United States.
Cash Only / Beer & Wine / Take-out / Live Music
Foodies on B.O.’s Fish Wagon
- Gastrolust on B.O.’s Fish Wagon (07.12.2009)