Growing up in New England, day trips to Boston meant Red Sox games at Fenway, poking in and out of the shops around Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, and, almost without fail, a rich, creamy bowl of New England clam chowder.
What exactly is this iconic dish? New England clam chowder is a milk- or cream-based soup that generally contains clams, potatoes, onions, and some form of pork (and, it must be emphasized, nary a tomato in sight). It's thicker than other chowder variations such as Manhattan or Rhode Island.
Delving deeper: A really great New England clam chowder should be substantial and filling without hedging into the territory of "heavy" or "gut-busting." As a kid, I preferred a chowder in which the spoon could balance straight up for at least a few seconds—the thicker, the better was my motto. But I've since learned to seek out a creamy yet pliant and well-seasoned base, as thicker clam chowder is largely a result of an infusion of flour, not elements intended to impart flavor.
The clams themselves should yield easily when chewed, evincing not even a hint of the rubberiness that can result from overcooking. The tender potatoes should be bite-sized; salted pork or bacon should set off the creamy base and the delicate brininess of the clams and broth; and an array of simple herbs and spices—fennel, bay leaves, chives, a good grind of black pepper—should accent the balanced composite of flavors.
So how did this dish become such a staple in New England cuisine? For the answer, I turned to Jasper White, chef-owner at Summer Shack, which boasts several locations in the Boston area (as well as an outpost at Mohegan Sun resort and casino in Connecticut). White literally wrote the book on chowder: His opus 50 Chowders: One-Pot Meals—Clam, Corn & Beyond runs down a diverse set of ingredients that can find their way into chowders, clam and otherwise.
"Chowder originated here in the Northeast and in maritime Canada," says White. Over the past 400 years, the one-pot dish evolved substantially. Clam chowder didn't really come into being until the past 100 years, and cream was a later addition, influenced by French-trained chefs in the 1940s. "It took the nation by storm," he said. Now, "when you come to Boston, everyone wants chowder."
Boston visitors—and plenty of Bostonians themselves—gravitate toward their region's namesake chowder, and nobody wants to fall prey to pasty, underseasoned glop. So, when in Boston, here are seven great New England clam chowders to seek out.
For the Traditionalist: Summer Shack
So, let's start at Jasper White's Summer Shack, shall we? The restaurant uses salt pork because White believes "it has a cleaner flavor—a chowder without salt pork or bacon doesn't seem true to me." There's also heavy cream, clam broth ("what makes a chowder great is the broth"), fresh quahogs, cherrystone clams, diced Yukon Gold potatoes, celery, garlic, thyme, freshly ground black pepper, and chives. Stocked with lumpy pink meat and four little biscuits, the flavorful broth really drives this medium-thick chowder home. "For me, it's all about the flavor," White said. And while "we don't do a really thick one—we do it in between," White notes that he tends to serve his chowder a little thicker in the suburbs than in the city, owing to observations about diners' preferences. For one of White's well-known varietals, try the Bermuda fish and crab chowder, a spicy, tomato-based broth infused with All-Spice and other Caribbean spices, providing a bit of a nip. ($10 bowl, $5.50 cup)
For a Pre-Game Indulgence: Island Creek Oyster Bar
This shiny spot in Kenmore Square, helmed by executive chef Jeremy Sewell, operates practically in the shadow of famed Fenway Park, and is a glistening tower to locally sourced seafood. Oysters, as the restaurant's name implies, are a specialty, but clam chowder is executed with the same attention to provenance and detail. Hand-dug clams, house-cured bacon, and cubed potatoes combine in a shallow bowl of light, flavorful broth seasoned with strands of fennel and a shower of chives. And forget those little prepackaged oyster crackers you get at most joints—at ICOB (as the locals call it), you get to sop up the last of your broth with real pièce de résistance: homey, golden-brown miniature buttermilk biscuits. Although surely a winner at any time of year, I'd almost peg this as a summertime New England clam chowder—which, wouldn't you know, aligns almost perfectly with the baseball season. ($11 bowl)
For the Quincy Market Visitor: Ned Devine's Irish Pub
Award-winning New England clam chowder in tourist-heavy Quincy Market? Yeah, I didn't see it coming either. Of all the locations on this list, this is where you're most likely to see tourists joyously lapping up New England clam "chowdah!"—and thankfully, they're in good hands at this Irish pub by day, party spot by night. A three-time Boston Harborfest Chowderfest champion, the chowder here is medium-thick, with bite-sized pieces of tender, briny clams (although it could have used more), giant hunks of potato, bits of celery, and a sprinkle of fresh thyme in a sweet, creamy base. The peppery, steaming bowl is served with the classic packet of oyster crackers, which aren't fancy but are tradition in these parts, and provide a nice textural contrast to the velvety chowder. ($8 bowl)
For the Bread-Bowl Lover: Atlantic Fish Co.
Ah, the bread bowl. As a chowder vehicle, it's a definite step up from a plain old bowl, and the version at Atlantic Fish Co. on Boylston Street in Boston's Back Bay is my favorite in the city. In a kitchen overseen by executive chef Danny Levesque, an oversized fresh boule is carved out and filled to the very brim with chowder; the boule top teeters atop like a jaunty cap. It's not exactly neat: The chowder spills out over the sides of the boule like a volcanic eruption, but that lava flow's chock full of fresh chopped clam meat and softened potatoes. Atlantic Fish's chowder is a reasonably thick, creamy variety, but not pasty or lacking in depth. And of course, the bread bowl is not simply ornamental, but can be used to scoop up every delicious drop. ($9 bread bowl, $6 cup)
For the Seafood Nerd: Neptune Oyster
Another stellar seafood joint, this eentsy-weentsy spot in Boston's North End is revered for its rotating menu of oysters, its lobster roll brimming with fresh meat, and its clam chowder, which I consider the most aromatic and flavorful of the bunch. The made-to-order bowl is suffused with fresh pink cherrystones from Wellfleet, salt pork, clam stock, and a bit of béchamel. It comes in as the thinnest chowder of the bunch, but it's a clean, perky bowl, the flavors not muddled or diluted by any unnecessary add-ins. You probably won't get to pick your seat here (the lines are notoriously long) but, on the off chance you do, try to sidle up to the bar overlooking the oyster-shucking station at the front for a slurp and a show. ($11 bowl)
For Thick Chowder and Outdoor Dining: Barking Crab
"What's in the clam chowder?" I ask the waitress as I slide into a shared booth under the restaurant's festive red-and-yellow awning on a porch overlooking Fort Port Channel. "Calories," she replies with a laugh. "Lots of calories." Points for honesty! More specifically, Barking Crab's clam chowder has gotten a recent re-do under new executive chef Joshua Brown. The New England chowder here is made from scratch daily, with steamed local quahogs poached in white wine. Toss in some heavy cream, smoked bacon, onion, celery, and black pepper, and you've got yourself a chowder worthy of the staff's "Crabe Diem" T-shirts. Served in a deep paper cup, this chowder is the thickest of the bunch I tried, the most worthy inheritor of my childhood "spoon test." What can I say? I'm still a sucker for a thick chowder. ($8 large, $5 small)
For Chowder Fit for Presidents: Legal Sea Foods
"We're kind of known for our chowder," the waiter humblebrags when I ask for his recommendations. But he's not wrong: Legal Sea Foods is kind of the standard bearer of New England clam chowder. Its recipe has been served at U.S. presidential inaugurations since 1981, and Roger Berkowitz, the chain's president and CEO, has overseen an expansion that stretches as far as Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, not to mention an ever-growing number of Boston-area iterations. But back to that chowder: It's rich without being leaden, relying on a light, flavorful seafood broth, plus cream, tender littleneck clams, pork salt, onions, diced potatoes, salt and pepper. Bonus: If you're visiting Boston and fall short of your chowder fix, there are several branches at Logan Airport. ($7.50 bowl, $5.50 cup)