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Conch Fritters

5 Places for the Best Conch Fritters In Key West

Sampling local cuisine is one of the most fun things about traveling. Key West isn’t an exotic destination, but the island’s culture has been influenced more heavily by Caribbean islands than you might imagine. Conch fritters are just one of the interesting Florida Keys specialties you should sample while you’re here.

What Is Conch?

First, an important disclosure. Yes, Spongebob Squarepants was created by a marine scientist. Still, Spongebob and friends inexplicably pronounced “conch” incorrectly. As a result, an entire generation of people come to the Keys to argue with the locals about pronouncing the troublesome shellfish. 

When in Rome, do as the Romans do and ride a Vespa. When in Key West, do as the locals do and say “konk,” not “kon-ch.” 

Conch is a giant sea snail native to the waters off of Key West. It’s also very common throughout the Caribbean and The Bahamas. It’s the second most popular edible snail in the world after French escargot. Queen conchs grow to be about the size of, well, a conch shell. You’ll see them all over the island.

The classic conch, like the one on the Key West flag, is the Queen Conch. But there are several other species of conch. For example, the Key West High School mascot is the Fighting Conch. Fighting Conchs are like Queen Conchs—only they get in more bar fights. There are also Helmet Conchs, which probably evolved their helmet-shaped shells due to all of the Fighting Conchs in the area.

Conch are such a part of island life that Key West locals call themselves Conchs. They would never, ever say it with a soft “-ch” sound at the end, though.

Conch Fritters

What Is a Conch Fritter?

One reason the Key West conch is so big here is that we like eating them. For early island settlers, like the wreckers from The Bahamas, conch was a staple food. It was an easy-to-come-by source of protein, just as it is to this day in isolated spots of The Bahamas.

Conch are easy prey. They poke around in seagrass beds, waiting to be plucked up and deep-fried. Plus, they live long lives (assuming they avoid the fryer), and it takes them years to reproduce. 

As a result, there aren’t many left in the Florida wild. In the United States, it has been illegal to take conch since the 1970s. When you see conch on the menu, it has been imported from aquaculture farms in the Turks and Caicos Islands or the Caribbean.

So, what do you do with conch meat? As easy as the critter is to grab, making an edible food product is another matter. Getting the meat out of the shell is hard. Then, the meat is chewy and tough. Proper preparation is key, and it takes a lot of tenderizing to make it edible.

The most popular Key West dish to try while you’re here is conch fritters. Conch fritters are like hushpuppies–balls of fried dough with chopped veggies and conch inside them. When they are cooked properly, they are moist and delicious. Dipped in a little spicy cajun-style remoulade, they make the perfect Key West meal when paired with a cup of spicy conch chowder.

Keys to the Best Conch Fritters

Most of the conch dishes in Key West are descended from old-island Creole recipes. They’re a little bit spicy, very flavorful, and satisfying for the soul. There are hints of French, Cajun, and Haitian cooking in every bite. Yum, yum, yum.

You’ll find line cooks rolling conch into the standard American fried seafood fare at touristy places. Some abominations you might encounter are cocktail sauce (oh, the humanity), chewy meat, and bland flavors. 

It’s also a bad sign if the conch is too chewy. The conch takes time to tenderize, and it will be only slightly tough when cooked well. 

With all this said, the conch is not very flavorful. Its mild flavor means it can taste bland if the rest of the dish doesn’t have any zing.

The worst conch fritters are large, dry batter balls with no chopped veggies, tiny flicks of conch, and hardly any flavor. Dipped in red cocktail sauce, you can taste the chef’s failings. They taste like disappointment

Good conch fritters have some crunch and zing, a little chew, and some texture. You’ll taste the conch and notice the bite of some red bell pepper and maybe sweet onions in the batter. The dipping sauce is tangy, usually with some citrus and maybe a little horseradish. The shape doesn’t matter. Although most are round, you can also pan-fry them in small, flat patties.

Other Conch Dishes to Try

Here are a few other common conch dishes you might want to seek out or find in Key West.

Conch fritters — The must-have appetizer of Key West. Chunks of conch and chopped veggies, fried in a flavorful batter and served with remoulade or the chef’s special sauce. If they give you store-bought red cocktail sauce, it’s best to walk away immediately because they aren’t even trying. If they hand me red cocktail sauce, I like to begin my reviews with the phrase, “Zero stars if I could…”

Conch chowder — Many folks describe conch chowder as being “Manhatten” style, which is just this side of ridiculous. These aren’t clams. How many conches do you see sliming their way down Wall Street on a given day? Fifth Avenue? I rest my case.

Conch chowder is a modified Creole seafood stew. It’s tomato-based, spicy, and a little acidic. 

Conch salad — If you’re trendy, maybe you say Conch Ceviche. Chopped conch and veggies in a citrus and vinegar dressing. It’s tangy and refreshing on a cool day.

There are more variations of this recipe than there are chefs, so expect something different everywhere you go. Most recipes are often spicy. 

Cracked Conch or Crack Conch — The name comes from how you prepare a conch and have to crack it’s shell open to get the meat out. Steaks of the meat are then tenderized and deep-fried. This dish is for you if you like fried clams or fried fish. It’s often served this way as a sandwich or burger. Not recommended if you have a blood cholesterol test scheduled soon.

5 Best Places in Key West to Try Conch Fritters for the First Time

Don’t come to Key West and not try the conch. Mollusks everywhere will take it personally, and soon Spongebob won’t be returning your calls. 

The Conch Shack

In The Bahamas, fishermen set up shacks on the dock to sell their conch and conch salads. The Conch Shack is a little taste of that island tradition on Duval Street. 

The Conch Shack’s fritters are served with a Key Lime aioli or a spicy pink sauce. It’s also a good spot to try authentic cracked conch.

Thirsty Mermaid Key West

The Thirsty Mermaid is fancy but not fancy at the same time. The quality is excellent, and it’s a great place to try conch for the first time. The sautéed Bahamian conch and marinated artichoke salad is their take on the classic conch salad. Unfortunately, The Thirsty Mermaid doesn’t regularly sell fritters or cracked conch. 

Half Shell Raw Bar

Right on the water overlooking the boats in the harbor is the best place to eat conch. Half Shell Raw Bar offers just the right venue! They’ve got conch chowder, conch fritters, and conch ceviche on their starter menu, making it a great place to sample all three.

Maybe they’ll get the idea if we all ask for something better than cocktail sauce. Finish it off with their bread pudding with bourbon creme sauce. 

The Boat House Bar and Grill

The Boat House happy hour is an island secret, so don’t tell anyone. It’s so cheap, it’s not even funny. Plus, the food and atmosphere are great—open air, nothing fancy, and cool decor.

The conch fritters are served with Key Lime Mustard, and the Boat House Conch Chowder is GF (good as f***). Oh, maybe that means gluten-free. Whatever.

Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe

While the name of this spot is not Jimmy Buffett’s Conch Fritter Cafe, it maybe should be. The man has a great recipe and makes a mean conch fritter, small and flavorful and served with a tangy remoulade. Yum. 

Come on a Snorkel or Sandbar Charter and See Some Wild Conch

Conch are some creepy critters, but seeing them sliming their way across a sandbar or grass flat is pretty neat. Even if the only wild conch you find is Captain Zak himself, you’ll have tons of fun living like a local. Call today to book your private Key West charter tour.

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