When you want to soak up the flavor of Key West -- the last link in the archipelago that reaches from south Miami to the open seas -- but don't want to travel, a visit to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville might satisfy at least the drink-and-be-merry craving. Some tricky navigation is necessary, though, to find the way through the maze of parking garages and electronic people-movers at Universal Studios Escape. Just when you're ready to give up, you arrive in the heart of glitzy CityWalk, where the Jimmy Buffet-inspired party house fits right in.
For another paradigm shift, step inside the re-created Margaritaville, which is steeped in the icons of Key West. If you could accuse this restaurant of any one thing, it would be the cartoonish, commercialization of the romanticized hideaway Buffet paid homage to in his '70s song. Witness the margarita volcano that erupts over the bar periodically and the well-stocked gift shop. The sherbet shades of gingerbread houses are perfectly refabricated here, minus the morning-after stench of Duval Street and the stray pop-tops underfoot. Safe, clean and wholesome, it's certainly not the real Key West, but then we went there for the food.
On a previous visit, the conch fritters ($6.45) were in top form: sizzling, sweet, meaty and blissfully free of chewy, unidentified objects. This time, they were a disappointment -- overly battered and weak on the conch. Fortunately, the "pink crustaceans" crab cakes ($16.95) were loaded with blue crabmeat, pan-sautéed with spices, fresh mixed vegetables and potatoes to perfection.
While my guest loved "Jimmy's jammin' jambalaya" ($12.95), I thought the spices were far too tame. Still, there were generous amounts of shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage and Cajun rice.
When dessert arrived, my guest was skeptical. True Key lime pie ($4.95) should never be weighed down with a cream-based preparation, she said, as was the case here -- it makes it too heavy and oily. This version was prepared with a 100-year-old lime-juice recipe from the famed Joe & Nellie's factory in Key West, and it was properly tart and tangy without too much of the pucker factor. It sported a fluffy meringue and crisp graham-cracker crust, but I had to admit it didn't pass the ultimate dessert test, which is to say, I probably would not order it next time.
Our waiter was knowledgeable about the menu, and he had a casual, friendly efficiency without interfering. In the end, our trip to the theme-park Margaritaville was all flash with just a little substance. It was noisy. It was crowded. The food was OK. But there was an ocean of margarita varieties. What more could a Parrothead want?