Crab Island BBQ soon to serve up hawg dogs and more

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

Cooking barbecue makes Steve Gilbert happy and he’s ready to make others happy with his signature “hawg dog.” 

So, what’s a hawg dog? It’s pulled barbecue pork wrapped up in a hot dog bun. 

Last year, Gilbert walked around Crab Island, Destin’s water playground just to the north of the Destin bridge, pulling his Boston Whaler loaded with a smoker and a cooler full of his hawg dogs.

Steve Gilbert gets a tray of smoked pulled pork from his smoker aboard his Crab Island BBQ floating restaurant, that will soon be serving world class barbecue at Crab Island.

“Everybody just loved the Whaler with the smoker because you literally had a fire on the boat blowing smoke,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said he’d go out in the morning and check the flags to see which way the wind was blowing, then he’d go upwind. 

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“I’d smoke a good portion of Crab Island. You wanted the smoke to affect people,” he said. 

“I actually say, 'The smoke is the dope,' ” he said, which is his motto to get people wanting to try his barbecue.  

Gilbert said folks would say, “I wasn’t hungry until I smelled the smoke.” 

Crab Island BBQ floating restaurant, that will soon be serving world class barbecue at Crab Island.

So, now Gilbert has graduated from his Boston Whaler to the Crab Island BBQ, a barge-type boat that he hopes to have operational on Crab Island soon, pending permits. 

The 45-feet-long, 40-feet-wide vessel is powered by two 150 motors. 

“We wanted it to be a vessel … to be able to move on its own, so I built and welded and designed brackets for the motors,” Gilbert said. 

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Gilbert is not new to designing and working on boats. He’s spent 35 years in the fiberglass business and in the 1980s he built a vessel called the Reef Runner, which was used to transport artificial reefs out to the Gulf, as well as later for snorkeling. 

The Crab Island BBQ vessel is currently sitting in Destin harbor while he waits for permits to be approved. 

Crab Island BBQ's hawg dog, a pulled pork marvel in a hot dog bun, will soon be available by floating restaurant at Crab Island.

In the meantime, he’s getting his new smoker “dialed in” to provide those hawg dogs, ribs and more. 

Gilbert built the smoker for the Crab Island BBQ himself from pieces and parts. He used a couple of air compressor tanks, the legs for the smoker he found lying around his shop in Freeport. The smoke stack is off a tractor trailer truck he found just lying around as well in a deserted lot. He built his racks on the inside and even has a light off an old Harley Davidson on the smoker as well. 

“I’m still dialing this one in because I just built it,” Gilbert said last week. 

Steve Gilbert talks about the build of his hand made smoker now aboard his Crab Island BBQ floating restaurant, that will soon be serving world class barbecue at Crab Island.

When cooking barbecue, Gilbert likes to use a process called “high heat, high smoke.” 

“I like 250 degrees for 2 ½ hours. When I initially put my meat on the smoker, I want it to sear it and seal in the flavor,” he said. And the process of the rub enhances the flavor in the next five to six hours of cooking. 

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Gilbert learned some of his trade tricks from Quito McKenna of Lillie’s Q in Miramar Beach. McKenna is a two-time winner of Memphis in May BBQ competition.  

“Quito is my teacher. So, associating with him gives me bragging rights,” Gilbert said. 

However, a few months ago, Gilbert entered a barbecue in a competition in DeFuniak Springs and won first place for his ribs and butt, earning his own bragging rights. 

“The whole reason I’m doing this is because I enjoy cooking barbecue and I want people to enjoy the barbecue,” Gilbert said. 

But to make the barbecue and get it on the water is a lot of work. 

When he was doing it on his little whaler last year, he’d start the night before about 8 p.m. prepping the meat and then throwing it on the smoker about 11 o’clock. 

At 4 a.m. he would start making the hawg dogs. Gilbert said he can get about 24 dogs out of a butt. For a Crab Island event, he’d make at least 96 dogs and sometimes up to 144. He would then put them in a cooler with a scalding hot bottle of water to keep the dogs hot until about 3 in the afternoon. 

Steve Gilbert on his Crab Island BBQ floating restaurant, that will soon be serving world class barbecue at Crab Island.

Gilbert said there were days he would get out on the water by 10 a.m. and be sold out by 1 p.m. 

“I just have the smoker on there to draw people in … because the smoke is the dope,” he said. 

“If you don’t see smoke, it’s a joke. You’ve got to have the smoke,” he said or else the barbecue could be from grandma’s crockpot. 

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And once you get off the water, it’s another three hours of cleaning up “the mess” then it’s time to start again, Gilbert said. 

With the Crab Island BBQ, Gilbert hopes to soon be able to sell his hawg dogs and ribs off the vessel. 

He had the vessel operational and in the harbor on July 2 and put the smoker on it last week. 

“Right now, it’s just a private vessel,” Gilbert said. 

“I’m the kind of guy I like to ease into things. For me there’s still got to be the timing and the method. I’m not in a hurry to make a mistake,” he said, noting he’s waiting on permits from the National Park Service.