We were heading out to Sandbar Sunday when I made the executive decision to give Island Thyme Subs a try. A co-worker, during the starvation week between food vendors here, told me to go try the Bahn Mi or the Chimi because she said they were fabulous, but things had come up, and I didn’t get there. I had already sent a couple of friends as spies because I don’t think one shot at being amazing is very fair, and we all have an off day, and I’d hate to not do a review because I didn’t like something that’s usually spectacular.
Plus, I told them not to tell me anything lest my opinion be colored. Finally, I promised myself that I would not hold the whole “subs” thing against them just because they don’t understand that they are making hoagies.
I will not lie. A sandwich shop in a Chevron gas station would have put me off a little if I had not come from the land up north known as the Main Line (near Philadelphia), wherein there is Three Crazy Ladies, where you can buy the biggest, most fabulous breakfasts and lunches to be had. In a Sunoco. In upscale Malvern. Just thinking about it…mmmm.
So, great food in a gas station? Not unheard of to me. In fact, I’m pretty sure if I pitched a show to The Food Network called Gastronomical Gas Stations© I could totally sell it based just on the few I’ve had the pleasure to try, and I think it would be a super-fun road trip kind of show traveling around from fill-up to fill-up literally filling up. That is my idea Do not steal it.
I was nonplussed by the off-beat location. It actually kind of works in a Key West because it is Key West and what is this town if not always unexpected? Located where it is, on the outbound side of US1 from Key West right past the Cow Key Bridge on Stock Island, it’s an easy stop for you. And heading into Key West, it’s situated between two places you can turn around without having to cross the bridge at the light (this will make sense to Key West locals and those who frequent the islands).
If you’re facing the Chevron gas station, the shop is over to the far right, and it’s a little easy to miss. But it’s there, behind a screened door.
And once you get to the door, you’ll meet one of the owners, both of whom are friendly and charming. I met Robert on Sunday, and as we were chatting about kayaking, I noticed this, which is well-hidden from the street traffic behind a large shrub.
Sooo cute, right? You can sit and eat your meal, and it’s not even like you’re at a busy gas station.
Bonus points for the hidden patio tables, umbrellas and peaceful, clean little space they created there. But then there was the menu, on which I found too many yummy things to make a good choice. My friends sat and ate there and reported that 1) it did not smell like a gas station, 2) no one bugged them including our famous Key West insects, and 3) you couldn’t hear the traffic at all. So they gave the dining there option a thumb’s up.
That’s probably hard to see?
My friends tried the Rican (mojo skirt steak, sweet plantains, mojo bacon) and the Tree Hugger (roasted poblanos, red onion, sweet onions, tomato, pepper, garlic, hummus, and arugula) and loved both of them. Friend One, who is a foodie, said that the Rican was delicious and was both savory and sweet at the same time. She said skirt steak is pretty hard to get “just right” but they had done it perfectly, and she wished could have bought some plain to take home with her or gotten the chef (who is actually a well-trained chef) to show her how to do it. The tree hugging friend who is a vegetarian enjoyed the Tree Hugger, though he said it had heat, so be warned. He reported that it was just spicy enough to be hot, but not so much so that you couldn’t taste all of the other flavors or needed to call an EMT or eat a loaf of bread. Foodie friend explained this is a most excellent balance to achieve. Both want to go back for breakfast, and I may join them because the Island Slam looks like it might be kinda tasty, and this place seems to get the flavors just right.
I ordered the El Cubano because who doesn’t love a Cuban Sandwich, and this one had a twist. Murph got a root beer because he’s Murph and doesn’t like new foods much. I chatted with Robert while he prepared the food, and it turns out they make their own pickles. And right then, I was sold because you all know how I love homemade pickles and how Murph and I make all kinds of varieties of them – hot and spicy, sneaky, regular and sweet. I miss making pickles — you cannot find pickling pickles on this island, and a single cucumber can cost $2 — but was so happy to eat some good ones!
Sumptuous smells abounded while Murph and I tried to decide which Sandbar we heading out to for the afternoon. And then there was El Cubano!
Then I noticed the sauces on the shelf in the kitchen, and Robert invited me in to see them. The kitchen was spotless and well organized. Not much bigger than a food truck but galley-style and easy to clean stainless everywhere. And a shelf full of all of the good stuff they put on the sandwiches that they sell.
Robert explained that his partner, Anthony, makes them. Anthony is there on Saturdays when Island Thyme Subs turns into Pepper Pot! Totally changes the menu and all. I was flummoxed. The place is a like a twofer. Rather than the Carribbean/Latin flavor extravaganza that is Island Thyme, Pepper Pot is all about West Indian treats that aren’t easy to find, with Roti, Dhal and Geera. Plus, Anthony sells the amazing sauces he uses to flavor his dishes under his Pepper Pot label.
Hmmm. Back to the review. We packed the sandwich up, put it in a container and headed out onto the water. About an hour later, I got hungry, and I unwrapped it.
Layers of honey ham (which Murph decided he liked), mojo smoked pork, swiss cheese and mojo thyme aioli (I am so buying that next time I have a chance) and homemade pickles. I was in heaven. I’m picky about pork, but this was really good and really tender and flavorful, and yes, both sweet and savory. I’d have bet that it was slow cooked. It melted in my mouth, which I love because chewy pork? No. Just make bacon outta that pig. And the mojo thyme aioli could easily become my favorite condiment. The pickles were, in fairness, pretty good. The sandwich was well-wrapped and so still warm. It was definitely the best Cuban sandwich I’ve had. And now I really want to try their homemade bacon.
I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it while soaking up the sun and quiet of the gorgeous day on the sandbar.
Murph ate an entire key lime pie from Publix. It was adequate, as they go. He isn’t very discriminating. Also, he’s ready to go back to school because he’s all he’s doing is reading, playing Minecraft and bugging me take him paddling or to the beach.
One of the things you can love about Key West is that there is fun, fresh, affordable food everywhere if you know where to look. You don’t have to spend $75 pp at a resort or restaurant on Duval to find it. There are hidden spots with lots of options for meat eaters, vegetarians, and vegans (and those who avoid gluten and carbs and so on). The menus are as a diverse as the chefs that populate the island. I’m really enjoying trying to the small, out of the way spots like Taco Grilla and Island Thyme Subs. Yeah, they’re on Stock Island, technically, but that’s technically Key West, and I think Stock Island is emerging as a kind of a food mecca of its own with so many restaurants and quirky dining options. Plus, you can park on Stock Island without paying an arm, a leg and your first born child, and you don’t have to worry about lingering past the meter’s limit.
I would definitely recommend that you try this place. Subs is a misnomer. Don’t think hoagies or lunch meat or Subway or Miami Subs. Think freshly prepared, almost gourmet sandwiches that are big, filling and a delightful. I saw one review that said it was a great place to stop if you need gas. NOOOOO. It’s a place to go eat whether or not you need gas. It’s the destination, not the sideshow.
*I am not a professional food critic, but I am a consistent food consumer as are my colleagues. I paid for the food, and I did not tell them I’d be writing a review. I received no compensation of any form for this, and my policy for reviewing products/food/events on this blog is that if I can’t say good things, I don’t say anything at all.
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