A Delicious Debate: What’s the Best Key Lime Pie in Key West?
- Eat and Drink
- Florida Keys
- Sunset Key Cottages
- The Laureate Key West
- The Capitana Key West
- Opal Key Resort & Marina
There’s no arguing that savoring this silky, sweet, and tart treat is a must-do when in Key West. What is up for debate, however, is the truly proper way to prepare the iconic pie. Luckily, there are a multitude of variations to dig into across the island – including two twists from our Opal resort restaurants – so grab your fork and find out which side of the fence your tastebuds stand.
There’s a great debate that consumes Key West. No, it’s not about whether the eight-square-mile island is the true southernmost point (many allege it’s Ballast Key). Or which watering hole – Sloppy Joe’s Bar or Captain Tony’s Saloon – was actually Ernest Hemingway’s favorite stomping grounds. Rather, this debate is over a sweet and tart dessert, made from sweetened condensed milk, eggs, and lime juice. We’re talking about the proper way to prepare a key lime pie, which is believed to have originated in Key West in the late 1800s. Aficionados argue (very tongue-in-cheek, of course) over whether it must be in a graham cracker crust or traditional pastry crust? Baked or not? Tart and tangy versus sweeter and silkier? And, perhaps most importantly, meringue or whipped cream?
“That – the toppings – tends to be the biggest thing up for debate,” says Pastry Chef Zack Brinker and head of the pastry kitchen for Sunset Key Cottages’s Latitudes and Opal Key Resort & Marina’s Bistro 245. “So that’s why we serve one style in Latitudes, the other in Bistro 245. Whatever your preference, you’ll find it at one of our restaurants.”
But these two versions aren’t the only unique twists on the treasured treat you’ll find across Key West. The variations range from uncooked, vegan/gluten-free options to confections topped in mile-high meringue – and we’ve got just the suggestions to find a pie that suits your preference.
OPAL’S TWO DELICIOUS DEEP-DISH DECISIONS
Latitudes & Bistro 245
Espresso cheesecake, milk chocolate raspberry bombe, salted caramel crème brulee – there are plenty of drool-worthy dessert dishes to be had between Latitudes, Sunset Key Cottages’s award-winning beach-based restaurant, and Bistro 245, Opal Key Resort & Marina’s open-air eatery based on Mallory Square. But the confectionery that is most ordered (requiring the staff to crank out 40 to 50 pies weekly during peak season) is, undeniably, the key lime pie with a homemade graham cracker pie crust.
What sets it apart from any other pie is that it’s cooked in a deep-dish pie pan, meaning you get more than two inches of the creamy custard filling as opposed to the inch or inch-and-a-half that traditional pie pans produce. “It’s heartier in that sense,” says Brinker, who has helmed the pastry kitchen at Sunset Key Cottages and Opal Key Resort & Marina since 2016, but previously worked in other Opal kitchens, including Samoset Resort in Rockport, Maine; The Sagamore Resort in Bolton Landing, New York; and Harborside Hotel, Spa & Marina in Bar Harbor, Maine. “We also add a hint of cinnamon to the filling, which gives it a little something extra and nicely balances with the lime.”
Then come the toppings: Bistro 245’s slice featuring a delicate swirl of light whipped cream and Latitudes’s version topped in an Italian meringue that is toasted to perfection with a pastry torch right before being served. “I prefer the meringue,” admits Brinker. “It’s the more traditional way, but I know plenty of people who opt for the whipped topping.”
THE ISLAND’S ONLY VEGAN & GLUTEN-FREE VARIATION
Moondog Cafe & Bakery
Set in a quaint garden cottage just next door to the Hemingway House on Whitehead Street, this neighborhood bakery and café serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, yet it’s their racks upon racks of baked goods made daily that get a lot of buzz. While offering your traditional key lime pie – a crumbly graham cracker crust; a silky, perfectly tart, and sweet filling; fresh zest; and torched meringue – Moondog also makes a version of the pie that vegans and gluten-free eaters can get behind. In fact, it’s the only vegan and gluten-free pie on the island.
Personal-sized, this tart treat is made from a coconut milk-based key lime curd set in an almond pastry shell. As for the meringue (which typically includes egg whites), Moondog’s iteration is made from toasted Aquafaba – the liquid leftover from cooked chickpeas that makes for an excellent egg white substitute – that is light and airy and will fool you into thinking it’s the real thing.
DENSE, RICH & A SUPER-SIZED SLICE
You know the sweets are in high demand when a single family-owned dessert business boasts three locations in the same city. Such is the case for Mattheeseen’s with two storefronts on the main artery of Duval and another on Greene. While known for marble-slab fudge, homemade ice cream, and half-pound cookies (yes, you read that correctly: half-pound), they also sell the classic key lime treat – both in pie form and frozen on a stick and dipped in Belgium dark chocolate.
As for the pie itself, owner Christina Mattheessen says key characteristics include a thick homemade graham cracker crust, the perfect balance of sweet and tart key lime custard that is weighty and dense (more like a pudding), but, most importantly, the size. That’s because they’re baked in 10-inch pans – an extra inch than standard pans – meaning you get an even bigger slice. As for a topping, this one comes naked, ensuring nothing gets in the way of fully savoring that tangy flavor and rich, creamy texture.
MILE-HIGH MERINGUE MASTERPIECE
It’s not the Jamaican jerk chicken, fresh local seafood, or mouthwatering mound of a burger. No, the most eye-popping dish to come sailing out of the kitchen and into the open and airy backyard-style dining courtyard that makes up Blue Heaven – a Key West institution set in the Bahama Village of Old Town – is the key lime pie. Why? Because out of all the pies on the island, this one is a sight to behold.
The confection starts out pretty traditional, featuring a buttery and crunchy graham cracker crust and not-too-over-the-top citrus-flavor filling (which is lighter than most, not as thick). But what distinguishes it from the rest is the tower of melt-in-your-mouth, lightly browned meringue that tops it – we’re talking at least five pillowy and oh-so-delicate inches. In fact, when parceling out slices of the pie, only an experienced staffer is permitted to do so, using a hot, wet knife to prevent collapsing.
KEY-LIME CONCENTRATED CLASSIC
Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe
Of course, when it comes to key lime pie, we’d be remiss if we failed to mention what’s known as the all-things key lime mecca: Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe. And the king of that landmark is none other than founder Kermit Carpenter himself, who, for the last 30 years during the winter season, has been seen always clad in lime green standing outside his Elizabeth and Greene Street corner shop with a pie in hand. In fact, he’s become such a staple that the city recently honored him in 2022 by declaring every July 6 “Kermit Carpenter Day.”
So what’s all the fuss over Kermit’s key lime pie? It’s not the classic graham-cracker crust or fluffy whipped cream topping. It’s the fact that its filling is extra tart, a result of Kermit’s secret ingredient: homemade, double-strength key lime juice, part of a family recipe that was handed down from his grandmother. So much so, since opening his first location in 1993, he’s been recognized by Food Network, National Geographic, and Paula Deen.
But the pie isn’t his sole key lime product, he also sells key lime pie bars, cookies, candy, sauces, jams and jellies, and more, including the key lime concentrate that has made his pies the stuff of lime legend.