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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The World’s Best Smoked Tuna Dip

June 18, 2007

The World’s Best Smoked Tuna Dip

WATERCOLOR, Fla.— Twenty years ago, before I opened my first restaurant, I lived in the Florida Panhandle and worked as a waiter. I was single, the money was good, and I had the stress level of a turtle.

In my Florida days I awoke around 10 a.m., traveled across the street to the beach, walked a mile or so along the shore’s edge to June’s Dunes restaurant, ate breakfast, messed around in the sand and water most of the afternoon, showered, went to work, got off work around 10 p.m., showered, enjoyed the nightlife, fell into bed around 2 a.m., woke up at 10 a.m., lather, rinse, repeat…

These days, I wake at 5 a.m., exercise, have breakfast with the kids, work, eat lunch, work, have supper with the kids, spend time with the kids, and fall into the bed. Occasionally, around this time of year, I have been known to fall into bed before the sun has completely set. Even on vacation I wake up early, this is why I currently have the stress level of a gnat.

Even on a bad day I wouldn’t trade my current life for my past life, though it would be nice to toggle the stress level down a few notches.

In those days I worked at Harbor Docks, a restaurant with humble beginnings as a small, oyster bar/beer joint in 1979. By the time I joined the staff, the restaurant had an eight-year track record of success and had grown into one of the busiest restaurants and hottest nightspots in the area.

I ran into Harbor Docks owner, Charles Morgan, at Watercolor today. I hadn’t seen him in two decades. In the years since I left his restaurants we both have opened and closed several concepts, luckily opening more than we have closed. “There aren’t many of us (independent restaurateurs) around anymore,” he said. He is right.

In my hometown, and down here in the Destin area, the restaurant business is becoming increasingly corporate. This is not an anti-chain restaurant rant, I occasionally visit chain restaurants with my children. The problem is that the restaurants located off of the interstate ramp in Mississippi are the same as the ones located immediately off of the interstate in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. They tell you nothing about that community’s character.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for independent restaurants to thrive in today’s corporate culture. Once a charming fishing village filled with locally owned and operated seafood houses— most by ship’s captains or men who claimed to be ships captains— Destin has seen the same influx of chain restaurants as the rest of the country.

Harbor Docks is full of character and local characters. Every time I am in the area, I try to eat at Harbor Docks as many times as my schedule allows. Now opened for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I return for the food, to see old friends, and to relive those stress-free days, if even for a moment. My wife— who didn’t know me back then— likes to visit Harbor Docks for the smoked tuna dip. She likes my cooking, but she like Harbor Docks smoked tuna dip, more.

The smoked tuna dip at Harbor docks is, by far, the best in the area. Actually, it’s the best I have ever tasted. Over the years I have taken a few stabs at recreating a Harbor Dock’s version, but always come up short. After several failed attempts, and facing a cookbook deadline, I finally worked up a recipe for smoked crab dip, which is excellent, though my wife still prefers Harbor Docks smoked tuna dip.

There are several places in the Panhandle that serve smoked tuna dip. Bud and Alley’s restaurant at Seaside, serves a good version, though theirs relies more on mayonnaise. All of the seafood retailers serve a version of a smoked fish dip, though none come anywhere close to Harbor Docks.

While dining at Harbor Docks, we always eat a serving or two and then purchase several portions to take with us.

There are three reasons why Harbor Docks smoked tuna dip reigns supreme:
1.) Harbor Docks owns their own seafood market. It’s located next door. When the tuna hits the docks, it’s filleted, then smoked, and then immediately made into a dip.
2.) The smoked tuna dip is made fresh, from scratch, every morning.
3.) The recipe, like all good recipes, is simple and uncomplicated with minimal ingredients.

I called Charles to see if he would allow me to publish his recipe for smoked tuna dip. Without hesitation, he rattled off the ingredients. He has no idea how happy he has made my wife. Now I wonder if my former boss could do anything about this gnat-like stress level.

My Version of Harbor Docks Smoked Yellowfin Tuna Dip

1 lb Smoked Yellowfin tuna loin, minced
1 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 tsp Black Pepper
1 cup Hellman’s Mayonnaise

Mix together and store refrigerated for up to five days.

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