By Susannah Nesmith
The couple from San Angelo, Texas, looked at each other as though they had found paradise, right there on the dance floor of Alabama Jacks in Key Largo. The Card Sound Machine was playing their usual honky tonk and Chris and Joana Heronema were dancing and gazing deeply into each other’s eyes, their clashing Hawaiian shirts unable to intrude on that clearly connected vibe.
Nearby, as the breeze blew off the water, some bikers argued, getting increasingly louder but not disruptive. It would be hard to disrupt this storied bar.
The Heronemas were celebrating their 19th anniversary with a big family trip – their teenage daughter, their parents and an aunt and uncle came along to celebrate the milestone.
They found out about Alabama Jacks from a guidebook. And they were stunned that the detour the guidebook suggested led them to exactly what was described – an open-air fish shack full of locals enjoying great food, an unbeatable water-front location, fun music and a place as friendly to children and grandmothers in wheelchairs as it is to inebriated bikers.
“It’s just great,” Joana Heronema said. “Exactly what we were looking for.”
This restaurant in Key Largo has been featured by Emeril Lagasse, Conde Nast and Kathie Lee Gifford, who owns a home in the nearby community of Ocean Reef. The New York Times recently called it one of the great Florida fish shacks and The Guardian of London ranked it one of the best bars in the state. But it never loses its out-of-the-way local hang-out flavor. Because it is out of the way.
It sits on Card Sound Road, the alternate route to Key West. Every so often an accident closes U.S. 1 and people are forced to use Card Sound Road, which charges a $1 toll. When there’s no reason to take a detour, many people don’t bother. Their loss.
There’s nothing like Alabama Jacks on the road oft traveled. Don Crouch, Superintendent of the Card Sound Toll Authority, said that people taking Card Sound Road specifically to get to Alabama Jacks have a “significant effect” on the tolls his office collects.
“I would say it’s 10 or 20 percent,” he said. The toll authority collects $1 million a year.
“It’s an interesting place,” he said. “You never know whether you’re going to be sitting next to a group of rowdy bikers or next to somebody who has a house in Ocean Reef. The boating club will have an outing and all the yachts will pull up, or the antique car people will all go there one day.”
Alabama Jacks is a favorite day trip for people from Miami, and folks who live in Homestead, just 14 miles away, venture through the mangroves regularly.
“You’ve got the nicest people in the world here,” said Paul Ramee, a Homestead retiree who was enjoying conch fritters with his wife, Alfreda. “It’s just so low-key. The first time I came here, I had the chicken wings and when I was finished, the waitress came to the table and tossed the bones in the water for the fish to eat. They’re just down to earth people.”
Alabama Jacks is known for its conch fritters, with more conch than fritter.
“They say they’re the best conch fritters in the Keys and I believe that’s true,” said Robert Johnson, a stonemason who works in Ocean Reef. He said he comes to Alabama Jacks every single day. “During the week, it’s the manliest bar in the Keys.”
The lima bean soup and the fish spread are also big sellers.
The seats by the rail, directly over the water, are great spots to catch a glimpse of manatees and watch the red-winged blackbirds flitting through the mangroves. In the late afternoon, as the bar clears out to make way for the descending mosquitoes, the birds come through to clean up any crackers kids have dropped. The flashy males perch on empty chairs, calling their distinctive song.
Alabama Jacks was built in the 1950s by a man named Jack Stratham who may or may not have been from Alabama – some say he was actually from Georgia. The current owner, Phyllis Sague, bought it in 1981. The building was damaged in Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but Sague got the kitchen up and running quickly so she could feed the utility workers who were repairing the power lines. Her son, Mike, now owns it with her and can often be found behind the bar with his American bulldog, Blue.
Alabama Jacks closes promptly at 7 p.m., mostly because of the mosquitoes, though general manager Mike “Dog” Arnold said the owners also don’t want people making the drive after dark.
“There are no lights on this road for 13 miles in both directions,” he said. “We don’t want folks leaving and running off the road.”
During the winter, lines often form shortly after it opens at 11 a.m., Arnold said.
“This past year, from Christmas until April, was our busiest ever,” he said. “And they’ve never done any advertising. People just hear about it.”
Directions to Alabama Jacks
58000 Card Sound Rd., Key Largo, Fla., 33037
For this and other tips on best places to eat and drink in Florida, go to VISIT FLORIDA's official restaurants and bars guide.
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