Ethical Eating

Florida Foods: Why is Fort Lauderdale Hooked on Fish Dip?

I'm not talking about what you might come across in a deli like Lox Haven, though what I'm looking for is certainly a cousin. 

Served with a side of spicy relish and mild Jalapeno Tabasco, the dish in question is the ice cream scoop that's made with smoked kingfish, mahi mahi, or mullet- the really redneck version.

I didn't get it. How does a beautiful fish that's ruined with mayo make its way into so many restaurants?

I started my search on the Florida's Signature Dish thread of the local Chowhound board, 

where one member lovingly described the state's cooking as "cracker cuisine."  Fifth generation Floridian SouthernSteele recalled how her family "makes the best smoked fish spread with horseradish fried snook."  

The Chowhound thread reminded me of the first time I had an oyster roast. Despite that I am an oyster fan, I'd never been to one until I spent a Thanksgiving with a boyfriend's Mississippi family, whose tradition is to buy a bushel from the Gulf. Roasted and covered with wet burlap until they open their shells, oysters are served on a Saltine with horseradish and cocktail sauce. Why no baguette, I wondered aloud. Apparently it's sacrilege. No raw ones. No mignonette. I was learning another's region's traditions.

Just as roasted oysters are an accessible, familial way of eating them, smoked fish dip is a  Floridan comfort food. "It's super local," said Riverside Market owner Julian Siegel, a local and an avid fisherman. "It's something your mom made."

For those who've never had it, here's how I'm told you eat smoked fish dip. Unwrap Saltines. Spread a tablespoon or so on said cracker. Top fish with relish, then add a dash of Tabasco. Shove the whole thing in your mouth. Repeat. It's a fun process that's kind of Dagwoodian. Having to assemble every bite makes me feel like a kid. 

"This isn't something to get fancy with," said Coconuts' owner, Eliot Wolf, Florida native and one of the restaurant's chefs. "You make it the way your family did, because it reminds you of home." 
"What's this?" I asked the server as I ate smoked fish dip at Coconuts on Monday. I pointed to a pliant piece of something about an inch long that looked like peach tape.

"It's skin." Initially I was disturbed, but it was kind of funky and delicious, akin to a thin rind from an aged cheese. Coconuts' smoked fish dip is line-caught mahi, Miracle Whip, mustard, and thyme. I was a little sad about the pile of Saltines served with a tall glass for wrappers, since I so wanted to spread it on crusty bread.  

Coconuts' version has sold me on smoked fish dip, though I savored it as much for the back story. I also tend to appreciate bites I have to work for and put together. I liked Wolf's in particular because of his house-made jalapeno and pickled relish. I can't help but wonder how his dip would taste with less mayo, perhaps homemade a la minute. But tradition is tradition.

Which restaurants make the best smoked fish dip? Or is there little variation?

Follow Clean Plate Charlie on Facebook and on Twitter: @CleanPlateBPB.

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Food Critic
Contact: Melissa McCart