The State(s) of Fried Clams

Having just come from a thoroughly disappointing meat at NY's latest attempt at a clam shack, Ditch Plains, I began to ruminate on how much I love fried clams.

With Memorial Day, the official start of the fried clam eating season, just around the corner, here is my absolutely incomplete guide to eating fried clams in the NYC area, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, with a southern Maine spot thrown in for good measure.

The descriptions of the clams themselves will be minimal. As I discovered a couple of years ago when I went on a ten clamshack eating adventure with Dave Pastnernack, the chef of Esca, fried clams are either really good (sweet, nutty, crisp and greaselessly fried with no breading other than flour) or they're not. And even the best clam shacks don't put enough salt into the frying mixture. One more important note: I've found that if you ask that the clams be put on a plate instead of one of those impossibly cute cardboard clam boxes, the result is clams that stay crisp and crunchy. Those "cute" boxes are actually a dastardly form of fried clamicide, because the fried clams end up steamed and soggy when they're piled on top of each other. And no fried clam meal is complete without an ice cream or frozen custard for dessert. Even bad ice cream tastes great after eating fried clams.

NYC and vicinity:

  • Mary's Fish Camp: Mary Redding is a highly trained serious chef, so it's no surprise that her fried clams are excellent, crunchy and clammy and delicious. Will somebody who's been to the Brooklyn location of MFC please let us know how it is? {246 W. 4th Street, New York, NY}. 646-486-2185.
  • Pearl: They don't ordinarily have fried clams at Pearl, but the fried oysters are so good I keep hoping they'll get around to frying up some clams as well. Maybe if we all keep asking for them, Rebecca Charles will give in and put fried clams on the menu. {18 Cornelia St., New York, NY}. 212-691-8211
  • Johnny's Famous Reef: The fried clams are good, but it's the amazingly vibrant, multi-cultural scene that is most alluring about Johnny's. Just make sure you go on a nice day. Beware of the extremely aggressive seagulls. They'll steal a clam right out of your hand (they don't even need a fork). {2 City Island Ave, City Island, NY}. 718-885-2086.
  • Bigelow's: This quintessential Long Island clam shack is really just one horseshoe counter. Bigelow's is where big-time chefs like Alex Lee (former executive chef, Daniel) and Dave Pasternack go for their fried clam fix. The clams here are fabulous, and so is the french fry draining ritual. They take the french fries out of the fryer when they are done, put them in a white cloth napkin, and shake them all around like the hokey pokey. The fries themselves are standard frozen french fries, but with this kind of floor show it doesn't matter. {79 N. Long Beach Rd., Rockville Center, LI}. 516-678-3878.

Connecticut:

  • Lenny's Indian Head Inn: The clams are superfine at this cool spot in Branford right on the water. Don't confuse it with the four Lenny and Joe's Fish Tales locations, which are more commercial endeavors and not as good. {205 South Montowese St., Branford CT}. 203-488-1500.
  • Sea Swirl: This is our family stop on the way to the Cape. It's about a seven minute detour off I-95. The clams are delicious, the fries are skippable, and the onion rings are the side of choice. Excellent soft ice cream for dessert with intriguing dip flavors like capuccino. {30 Williams Ave., Mystic, CT}. 860-536-3452.

I have also had good fried clams in Connecticut at the Clam Castle, {1324 Boston Post Rd., Madison, CT}, 203-245-4911 and at Johnny Ad's, {910 Boston Post Rd., Old Saybrook, CT}. 860-388-4032.

Massachusetts:

  • Christies: One of Dave Pasternack's fish suppliers turned us on to Christies. It's not much to look at, an old box of a place on a depressing street overlooking the water, but the fried clams are excellent, and for once, properly salted. The best thing about the place is its proximity to Logan Airport. If you don't get lost, as we did, you can get to the airport in twenty minutes. {17 Lynnway, Lynn, MA}. 617-397-9957.
  • The Clam Box: Everyone rhapsodizes about the Clam Box, and though it's very good, I didn't see what distinguishes the place from all the other fried clam spots in and around Essex and Ipswich. Beware of long, long lines at the Clam Box. {246 High St., Ipswich, MA}. 978-336-9707.
  • Woodman's: The claim at Woodman's is that on July 3, 1916, Lawrence Dexter "Chubby" Woodman was frying a batch of his homemade potato chips at his stand on the road from Ipswich to Gloucester when he either accidentally knocked a clam into the fryer or got an inspiration for a line extension. Ninety years later Woodman's has become the equivalent of a fried clam theme restaurant, complete with frozen drinks and a line of merchandise that includes t-shirts, umbrellas, mugs and visors. The clams are certainly good, but the reconstituted lemon juice you see all over the place is a real bummer. Skip the clam cakes, which are a sodden, heavy disaster. {121 Main St., Essex, MA}. 978-768-6057.
  • J.T. Farnham's: Farnham's is an actual shack that overlooks the Essex Salt Marsh that many clams that end up in fryers are harvested from. Pleasant view, very fine fried clams. {88 Eastern Ave. Essex, MA}. 978-768-6643.
  • Essex Seafood: You don't come for the view at Essex Seafood, which is of the parking lot. They fry the clams here a little longer, so they end up a lovely dark brown color, which is quite appealing. {143 Eastern Ave., Essex, MA}. 978-768-7233.
  • Oxford Creamery: Our friends the Kaisers live right down the road from the Oxford Creamery, which serves an excellent fried clam roll and fine local ice cream. {98 County Rd., Mattapoisett, MA}. 508-758-3847.
  • The Bite: I have probably had more fried clams at the Bite than any place else on this list. The clams are excellent (though they do come in the dreaded box) and the bite fries are delicious, irregularly shaped chunks of fried new potato. The only problem with the Bite is its location in Menemsha Harbor, which has become one of the tourist spots on the Vineyard. So there's always a long line at the Bite, and there's only two picnic tables to eat at. We often get our clams and take them to the beach right up the road from the Bite. Basin Road, Menemsha, MA. 508-645-9239.
  • Sandy's Fish and Chips: Sandy's adjoins John's Fish Market. Again, there's really no place to eat the clams except for one picnic table in the parking lot., State Rd. Vineyard Haven, MA. 508-693-1220.

Maine:

  • Bob's Clam Hut: Bob's is a legendary clam shack that is now surrounded by outlet malls. Not very romantic, but those shops sometimes come in really handy. 315 Route 1, Kittery, Maine. 207-439-4233.

The New York Times recommended four clam shacks recently, and I must admit I haven't been to one of them. I'm going to try and hit The Clam Shack in Falmouth, Harbor, this weekend.

I recently received a copy of New England's Favorite Seafood Shacks, by Elizabeth Bougerol. The book is a lot of fun, and it's filled with tons of information (it has every place mentioned here except Christies, but it does suffer a tad from the "everything is great" school of romantic, funky food writing. Sometimes we food lovers need a discouraging word in books like this so that we believe the author is discerning. That same affliction inhabited a similar book by Brooke Dojny that came out a couple of years ago.

I'm sure I missed a bunch of places. Please, ELE readers, fill in the gaps in this woefully incomplete list.

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