Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Get a Taste of Marathon in the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys is home to five districts, each with their own personalities and attractions that make visitors feel like they are a world away.

Stretching only ten miles, the islands of Marathon are right in the middle of the chain of the Keys islands.  Traditionally a home to fishing and marine activities and beachside restaurants, the city loves its stone crab, lobster, and other fresh seafood that come straight from its waters. Local chef John Mirabella has become one with the local seafood and community, immersing himself completely, so I asked him to take us on an edible tour of Marathon.

Growing up aboard a sailboat in Titusville, Florida, he is quite familiar with the sea. He spent his childhood sailboat racing and traveling, all the while catching dinner in the fresh waters below. While he has cooked his whole life, becoming chef, John spent more time on the sea by working for the US Navy.  Today, the locals know this Marathon chef and his wife Arlene by name and enjoy eating at his island restaurant, Castaway.

The waterside restaurant is known for its impeccable seafood, including fresh daily sushi rolls, but ask the restaurateur what his favorite hobby is and it's actually one step before cooking, spearfishing, 200 feet below the surface. Not only is John's activity adventurous, but it brings some amazingly fresh seafood straight into his restaurant.  One of his favorite catches to serve is the invasive lion fish, which is perfect for ceviche.  Chef John admits that the connection between the fishing and culinary communities is strong, something that can be seen on his menu as he tries to take the invasive species out of the sea to prevent them from further harming the environment.

If you're headed to Marathon for the first time, we suggest you get a taste for the sea for yourself.  Follow in Chef John's lead and do some fishing for a hands-on experience in the local waters. Because of its special location, Marathon offers backwater fishing, flats fishing, bottom fishing on the reef, and offshore trolling as well as deep dropping from 600 to 1200 feet.  John charters a boat right out of his own restaurant so you can grab a guide and go. He also has great connections to favorite guides and other charters for the best Marathon fishing experience possible. Once you nab a great catch, it's time to cook.

John says, "When you catch fish locally, you can also have it prepared in restaurants like mine which is a pretty big deal around here.  We have many many people come through our door every day carrying bags of fresh fish they caught and we prepare them in many different ways."

Of course John and the locals recommended his very own Castaway as a spot to eat,  which is also the oldest restaurant on the island and he is proud to say the eatery has been open since 1951.  Today, the menu covers a wide range of Floridian seafood as well as craft beers and wines to match the dishes.  Another one of John's favorite spots is Brutus Seafood, a market and restaurant owned by a family of fishermen who serve up one of his favorite lunches in Marathon.  If you're looking for a fancier,  but still relaxed, beachy atmosphere, John recommends Barracuda Grill. The local restaurant offers a variety of fresh seafood and steak dishes that are sure to impress.

Besides eating and fishing, plan a visit to the Dolphin Research Center where you can see how dolphins in the surrounding waters are helped and even take a swim with the impressive mammals.  For another educational adventure, take a trip to Marathon's Turtle Hospital and see how the endangered sea turtle is rehabilitated.  To round out your aquatic vacation, stop by the new Aquarium Encounters.  Not only does the aquarium offer an unclose look at interesting underwater creatures, but also a chance to get right in the tank.

When we travel, we always seek out and try a common dish to the area.  According to John, Marathon's specialty dish is often something made with Florida's favorite Hogfish or the locally loved lion shish.  Chef John's restaurant was the first in the state of Florida to serve the lionfish and received recognition for cooking the endangered species.  Thankfully, the invasive fish is buttery and tender, and delicious for cooking.  In order to spear the fish, one must dive very deep. The lionfish live about 1,000 feet down and come up between 200 and 400 feet.  To make matters even more challenging, the spines of lionfish contain venom and can cause extreme pain if one is pricked.  John still calls this kind of difficult fishing a sport, but admits that one must be careful.

If that sounds a bit too wild for your vacation, no worries. Chef John has shared one of his favorite lionfish recipes to try at home the next time you are feeling adventurous.

Castaway's Wreck Diver-Style Lionfish

Courtesy of Castaway Waterfront Restaurant


42 ounces lionfish fillets, patted dry
flour (for coating)
5 cloves garlic, diced
2 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes
5 tsp. capers
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp. chopped fesh basil
parsley or kale for garnish


Dredge fillets in flour to lightly dust. Place in saute pan with small amount of hot butter over medium heat.  Cook first side, careful not to burn. Turn over fish when golden, and reduce heat while adding garlic, tomatoes, capers, white wine,  and lemon juice.  Cover to hold steam in and cook until fish is fork-tender.  Add basil and serve immediately. Garnish with sprig of parsley or kale and lemon wedge.

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