(Key West, FL) — Even though the previous evening was New Year’s Eve, we hadn’t made it to see the ball drop (or, in Key West’s case, the oversized high heel shoe containing a drag queen). So, tonight, we are well rested and hungry for something a bit different. A short walk away from our condo is a harbor offering respite for those who spent all day fishing. Floating alongside one of the overlong docks is a restaurant called Thai Life...
Our vacation is nearing the finish line. It’s been a relaxing week in Key West, and already I’m dreading a return to the snow and cold of Michigan. So what better way to store up some heat than spicy food?
The floating restaurant is a long, narrow barge permanently docked and glowing like some fisherman’s haven. Signs outside proclaim they can cook your catch and prepare it any way you like. Part of me wishes we had sought out a fishing adventure for Juliet, just so we could experience her catch fried up Thai style. Alas, we must make do with what the kitchen has in stock.
We are greeted somewhat cursorily and asked if we have reservations? Yes, thankfully, I had used OpenTable. “No problem, sit here,” our hostess commands, putting two laminated menus on a table before she scurries off. Turns out, the hostess is our waitress...actually, the only waitress. Two other workers called in sick and she is practically sprinting from one end of the boat to the other, shuttling orders. During our visit, she turns away at least four parties who do not have reservations.
While Juliet sips a local favorite, Corona, I decide to lager it up with cold bottle of Chang. I’m not really a fan of Thai beers, but they do pair well with spicy foods. Speaking of which, we need an appetizer! We focus immediately on the small Larb ($10), since I made a great rendition of it at home last month and have been craving it ever since. Thai Life’s version looks quite a bit different than mine, with rough cut red onions, mint leaves, lettuce, fish sauce, lime juice, chili flakes and minced pork. Some crunchy bits of sticky rice give it some texture. It’s spicy, tangy, puckery and fresh tasting, all at once. Taking turns, we scrape the plate until it’s empty. My only regret is that we didn’t order the large version.
For my main, I can’t pass up the opportunity to try their Beef Massaman ($17). It’s a deceptively small bowl of white, lumpy curry. I stir in some white rice, bending my face over the bowl to sniff the delightfully sweet and spicy odors wafting upward. My first spoonful brings a blast of coconut, onion, beef and peanuts. On the back end is a lingering, mischievous dance of cardamom, cinnamon and curry. The second spoon brings big chunks of potato, again spiced enticingly. I plow ahead and the bowl seems not to empty, although I am becoming full. Somehow, I make it to the end...with help from a second bottle of Chang.
We finish up our drinks while looking out over the harbour. Fish surface occasionally, rippling the water for a moment before diving again. Pelicans swoop down to skim and score a slower water dweller. Our server thanks us for our patience. Now that the dinner hour has dwindled, most of the patrons have left, and fewer hungry patrons are bothering her without reservations, she almost seems lonely. Nevertheless, we are anxious to return to our temporary home and enjoy what few hours we have left to enjoy this temperate clime.
Jeremy and I both love Thai food so we’re eager to try this highly recommended Thai eatery. It’s a “floating restaurant”, essentially a boat (complete with a second story) permanently anchored at the dock. After a week of temperatures in the upper 80’s and extremely high humidity, tonight is relatively temperate with a light breeze. It makes the short walk from our rental condo pleasant. And after walking several miles each day, a mere half mile walk to dinner is a real treat!
We arrive to find the place close to capacity. The server hollers as she passes with a huge tray piled high with platters of food, “You two got a reservation?” When we tell her we do, she tells us it will be a minute. Throughout the evening we see her yell at approaching customers, asking if they have reservations, while delivering dinners throughout the restaurant. When she approaches our table to take orders, her voice is at a normal tone and she’s perfectly friendly. It becomes apparent quickly that she’s the only server on the boat and we later learn that someone called in sick tonight, leaving them short-staffed.
Thai Life is anchored near a charter fishing service and a series of rental slips. As we sip our beers, there is a fair amount of boat traffic returning from a day out on the water. As the boats pull in to their dock, the restaurant bobs and rocks in the light wake. After working aviation, I rarely get motion sick but this movement takes some getting used to. The boat traffic slows as night falls, however.
We begin with a small Pork Larb Salad and a bowl of Shrimp Tom Kha Soup ($9). Both are favorites of mine and Thai Life does not disappoint. The larb is addictive with spicy pork, verdant mint and cilantro, and pungent red onions on a bed of greens. The soup is so comforting with coconut milk, lemongrass, and sweet shrimp. Jeremy’s not as enamored with Tom Kha as me so I get the lion’s share of the soup and am in heaven.
So I know I should be brave and order a whole fish or something, but honestly I just want the Shrimp Pad Thai ($17). I’ve been on a quest to see how much shrimp I can eat on this vacation (the answer is A LOT) and I’m not stopping tonight. It’s probably the best pad Thai I’ve ever had, with a generous amount of good-sized shrimp. So pink, so sweet...what’s not to love about Key West? The noodles are cooked perfectly, while the bean sprouts, crushed peanuts and green onions give it a little crunch. I eat one layer of noodles and then give the next one a sprinkle of peanuts and a squirt of fresh lime. It’s divine!
I’m not sure why I find Thai food so comforting and homey as it wasn’t something I grew up with. For whatever reason, I rank Thai right up there with pasta and mashed potatoes when I am need of comfort. The food tonight has been absolutely amazing. We ordered everything “American Hot” on their scale of Mild, Medium, American Hot, Thai Hot and while it was indeed hot, it wasn’t overly so. Well worth checking out...just be sure to make a reservation!