A table on the three-tiered deck of Louie's Backyard is an enchanting place to dine, especially in the evening. Perched on the waterline over the Atlantic Ocean in Key West, Florida, diners look out over a fathomless horizon where the clouds and waves weave together in cobalt blue striations. Hurricane lamps on the tables flicker in the calm island breeze. Bulbs strung among branches in the overhead wild hibiscus tree form a radiant canopy. Waves lap the shore like a soft rhythm guitar that sets the tune for laughter and chatter at the restaurant’s outdoor Afterdeck bar. There isn't a dreamier place to dine anywhere in America.
And, if such a thing is possible, the meal matches: beautiful, sexy, pleasure-giving food made from ripe fruits fresh off the tree and fish only just caught in ocean waters and prepared with an enchanted mix of seasonings that could only come together in the never-never land that is Key West.
Louie's Backyard is one of many good places to eat in town, but for us it is the Key West restaurant. For one thing, it has been around a long time, and its roots grow deep in the traditions of local life. When it opened in 1970, an unknown Jimmy Buffett lived in the house next door and palled around with waiter Phil Tenney, who is now Louie's owner. Buffett's cat Radar hung out with the bartender's dog, Ten Speed, and it is said that the two of them regularly bellied up to the bar in the afternoon for broad champagne glasses filled with Kahlua and cream.
Aside from its Buffett connection and the parade of other Key West-related celebrities who have stopped in for a meal, Louie's demands the attention of any eater interested in discovering the unique style of cooking (and eating and serving) known as Conch cuisine.
Natives of Key West call themselves Conchs (pronounced konks), after the hard-shelled, spiral shellfish that is found in nearby waters. While the term used to be derisive (like redneck), it has taken on a distinct air of pride in the last several decades as the key that now calls itself The Conch Republic has defined its own cultural identity. Part of that identity is a sense of the island's unique fare. The Conch kitchen is in some measure the progeny of nearby Cuba, of the Caribbean (both culturally and piscatorially), of Dixieland, and the Cordon Bleu, but it has evolved a style all its own.
The meat of the conch itself is an essential provision at Louie's Back Yard (visitors must try conch fritters and conch chowder, not to mention raw conch salad), and so are spearfished grouper, Florida pink shrimp, and dooryard fruit that include Key limes, calamondins (little, bright-flavored tangerines), and sour oranges. Several varieties of banana grow here, and mango season on the island is huge. Put these ingredients together with a freewheeling kitchen spirit and the hands-on culinary education of Louie's chef, Doug Shook, and you have an inevitably spectacular meal.
It is hard to recommend exactly what to order because Louie's food changes daily. There are a handful of things you can count on when you peruse the menu, such as Key West pink shrimp, Bahamian conch chowder with bird pepper hot sauce, and, of course, Key lime pie for dessert. Beyond such classics, the daily repertoire reflects not only the catch of the day and what is seasonal, but also Chef Shook's restless creativity. Even when a night's special is well liked by customers, it may not return to the menu for many months, and it may be reinvented with a different sauce or an altered presentation.
One afternoon at 5:30 p.m., we sit in the dining room as Doug briefs the staff about the evening special: Hawaiian pink snapper. "It's rubbed with curry and five-spice powder," he explains as waiters take notes. "It is served atop tamarind butter sauce and topped with grilled pineapple salsa."
"Is that like our snapper?" someone asks.
"It's not as fine-flaked as yellowtail," Doug answers, having spent the afternoon cutting the filets and conjuring up the recipe and presentation. "The fish are running four to six pounds. These are the ones we are getting from Hawaii twice a week now. I know it's far flung, but it's an alternative to the yellowtail we sell all the time."
Doug later explains to us, "The specials are about seeing what you have and imagining the best thing to do with it. Earlier today, I walked around the kitchen holding one of those pink snappers, half in a daze, thinking what I could do with it. For me, it is all about making it up as I go along."
There you have the spirit of Louie's Back Yard. Some aspects of the dining experience are predictable: the spectacular views over the ocean, the expertly-concocted margaritas and mojitos. But when it comes to eating a meal, all you know for sure is that it will be colorful, high-flavored, and Conch in character.
Louie's Back Yard: 700 Waddell Ave., Key West, FL. 305-294-1061.