Gulf Coast Gourmet: A Journey Through Florida's Finest Smoked Dips - 30A



Gulf Coast Gourmet: A Journey Through Florida’s Finest Smoked Dips

By: Carrie Honaker | Posted Dec 26, 2023

My first taste of smoked fish dip happened in 1992 on a Sunday during my freshman year of college in Tallahassee (I grew up in Vermont). I was at Outz in Crawfordville listening to local musicians Pickin’ and Grinnin’ amid the sweltery swamp. Leo Lovell who owned Spring Creek Restaurant was there. We talked about fishing, evading the game wardens, and his smoked mullet dip. I’ve been hooked ever since.

On the slim line of Florida’s Gulf Coast, from Spring Creek snaking along the Forgotten Coast to Destin, smoked fish dip is ubiquitous. Every place has its own version, and they all think their dip reigns supreme. After an odyssey of 200 miles, 10 stops, 12 tubs, and five boxes of crackers, the field narrowed. These are our favorite smoked fish dips.

Mineral Springs Seafood Market

You will drive right on by if you aren’t paying attention. Only two things identify the white concrete block house set back from the road: a plume of smoke coming out of a trailer and a sign advertising, “The Place with the Dips.” Old Florida oozes inside. A Loyal Order of the Mullet poster hangs alongside vintage glass fishing floats and remnants of nets. A whiteboard with today’s seafood lineup sets over a case full of everything from fresh flounder to frog legs. Sitting adjacent is the holy grail: a cooler full of dips.

The Hot Mess blends smoked cobia, tuna, and salmon with little jewels of candied jalapeno pepper. It explodes with a smoky, spicy flavor. If you like a variety of fish with some heat, this is the dip. The Leftovers stood out as well—it had all the same fish but no candied jalapenos. The fish really shined without the extra spice. With every bite, another layer of flavor presented, but the hunks of smoked salmon, cobia, and tuna were always front and center. They have others that incorporate royal red shrimp, lump crab, grouper, and more (if there’s gator, get it), but for straight smoked fish, Hot Mess and The Leftovers reeled me in.

1612 Coastal Hwy, Panacea  

Tarpon Dock Seafood Market

Tubs of smoked tuna dip are snuggled into the iced case alongside glistening whole snapper, filets of tilefish, and hunks of meaty black grouper. Rolling up here on a Saturday morning, you can see boats coming in with their daily catch while hungry neighbors plow down smoked tuna dip with saltines in their cars—it’s that good.

When you think of smoked fish dip, it’s this version with its meaty consistency, smoky flavor, perfect seasoning, not too much mayonnaise, and flecked with celery and pepper. It’s a classic, unadulterated by extras.

234 E Beach Dr, Panama City  

Cat 5 Raw Bar & Grill

Don’t be fooled by the steel storage building—a legit seafood mecca hides inside. Make your way past the cornhole and kitschy signage to the weathered stairs with pithy messages attached to the side of the building (or take the unique elevator if you dare). At the top, an expansive view of Port St. Joe awaits with plenty of picnic tables to take in a Gulf sunset. Inside vintage oyster tongs, crab traps, old skiffs, and local art decorate the walls. Windows run the building’s length telegraphing the incredible view.

Service is fast and friendly, and our smoked triple tail dip (yes, triple tail) arrived speedily. Triple tail draws comparisons to grouper and snapper from those who know the fish. It is exceptionally good for eating. An enormous scoop of dip nestles in the center of a ring of freshly made tortilla chips dusted with old bay—it looks like a really delicious flower. The classic texture blends some finely chopped fish and some hunks, and bits of green pepper. The seasoning is spot-on with not too much smoke, a little sweetness, and a kiss of old bay.

1937 County Rd 30A, Port St Joe

Pineapple Willy’s

In the land of tourist destinations, this restaurant ranks high. The remnants of the first Panama City Beach Pier remain intact despite hurricanes, nearby fires, and barge accidents, and that piece of history offers some of the best seats on the Emerald Coast. The former county pier became Pier 99 Lounge and eventually Pineapple Willy’s. But what hasn’t changed is their smoked tuna dip (and the daiquiris!).

Served with seasoned tortilla chips and a cup of pickled jalapenos, this dip looks like a scoop of humble tuna fish salad. From the first taste, you know that’s not the case—bits of carrot and celery provide texture, citrus brings brightness, the smoke doesn’t overpower, but the thing they do best is season their food.

And you can’t beat that view.

9875 S Thomas Dr, Panama City Beach

Red Bar (& Louis Louis)

After a fire destroyed the original building, the Petits, along with a dedicated group of residents, banded together to resurrect this Grayton Beach icon. Today, a version that feels just like the old one but with updates (like an improved bathroom situation) still serves the delicious comfort food the Red Bar has always been known for, and the smoked tuna dip is an ingredient in that recipe. They fire up the smoker every morning to smoke the daily catch destined for their buckets full of fish dip. The diced tomatoes, a squeeze of lemon, and seeded lavash crackers all add to the symphony of flavor that delivers an unexpected kick of spice.

Their secret ingredient? “Chipotle dressing—it’s like a delicious spicy mayo situation,” said co-owner Kyle Petit. If you want a break from the crowd, visit Louie Louie for the exact same smoked tuna dip but better parking.

70 Hotz Ave, Grayton Beach 

The Citizen

Nestled amid Alys Beach’s whitewashed exteriors, The Citizen shines with its marine blue and mid-century modern brass interior. The quiet, coastal elegance radiates, and each ingredient is thoughtfully curated and plated for an elevated dining experience, including the smoked tuna dip.

The oyster-shucking show at the raw bar captures my attention as the server deftly slides the dip in front of me.

Hunks of deeply smoked tuna with visible bits of bark fill the scoop—no heavy binder interrupts the texture. Crispy shallots adorn the dip, lending a crunch I didn’t know I was missing. Slivers of pickled onion add acid and tang.

Chef Coleman Jernigan adds, “The most important thing in our process is the slow smoking of the fish, which includes being hearth smoked with indirect heat over a mix of charcoal and oak. With our method of slow smoking, the fish stands out. The kicker though is the Hot Buttered Saltines that we serve with them. It truly is a great bite.”

20 Mark Twain Lane, Alys Beach

Harbor Docks

The smoked tuna dip here is legendary, but it’s the ice-cold AC on a 98-degree day with 100% humidity that really catches me. Harbor Docks is all about the fish from the shadow box of lures and rods to the family fishing photographs scattered around the restaurant to the extensive menu of locally-sourced seafood. The Morgans have championed local fishermen and tide-to-table restaurants for over 40 years.

On this steamy afternoon, I sidle up to the bar, sitting among locals who have been coming here for decades, and order their house-smoked yellowfin tuna dip with homemade spicy potato chips and pickles. It’s been a few years, but I remember the ample portion of finely chopped smoky tuna (hickory, maybe?) blended with just the right amount of salt, pepper, and garlic, drizzled with olive oil. The chips dusted with creole spice make the best vehicle to get the delicious dip to your mouth, and don’t get me started on the pickles. I placed my order. Two minutes later, I got the news: “We’re out of smoked tuna dip.” I can’t try it again for this trip, but the memory lives on, and its greatness affords it a spot in my favorites.

538 Harbor Blvd, Destin

For more fun coastal recipes and features, check out Beach Happy Magazine.

Don't miss out!

Sign up for 30A's FREE email newsletter

Invalid email address
You can unsubscribe at any time.
Carrie Honaker is a Florida-based freelance writer who is not sure where she will land next, but it will involve messy eating, a spicy Tempranillo, and finding the local dive bar. Her work has been featured in Wine Enthusiast, Bon Appetit, and others. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @writeonhonaker.