The Serious Eats Fried Clam Honor Roll

friedclams.jpgAs someone who's written his fair share of fried-clam roundups, I know how hard it is to find anything new to say about those crisp, creamy, full-bellied bivalves. As I said in the post I linked to above, fried clams are either good or they're not. It turns out, however, that my blanket statement has some holes in it.

David Leite's fried clam round-up in today's New York Times is so full of pleasure, nuance, and doggedly reported new information I could only sigh with envy after reading it. Leite tells us why fried clams are so inconsistently prepared (inexperienced temporary student fry-cooks) and so inconsistently sourced and sized (weather is the most influential factor).

My favorite part of the piece is Leite's eureka! moment at the legendary Clam Box in Ipswich, Massachusetts:

To pull this (perfectly fried full-bellied clams-ed.) all off, Ms. Aggelakis (the Clam Box's owner) uses only Ipswich clams unless bad weather or high demand causes her to turn to Maine suppliers. She also double-dips her clams while cooking. Excess coating stays behind in the first deep-fryer, allowing for cleaner cooking in the second. In addition, she closes the restaurant between lunch and dinner — unheard-of — to change the oil, ensuring a clean taste all day long.

It was an offhand comment, though, that gave me the final piece of the puzzle: darker-fried clams, she said, have a nuttier taste, while the lighter version lets the clam flavor predominate. Bingo. “I like to please my customers,” she added. “Some like them big, small, lightly fried, dark — we give them what they want.” Funny, the concept of requesting anything special at a clam shack’s takeout window had eluded me for 40 years.

Leite likes his fried clams light-colored and clammy. I like my fried clams dark, super-crunchy, and nutty. How do you like your fried clams? Order them your way (thank you, David Leite) at any of the places on the Serious Eats Clam (Honor) Roll that follows, and please add your own honor roll candidates to the list.

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. Other location: 162 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, NY Ph: 718-783-3264 * 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.


* 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.


* 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,very good, I didn't see what distinguishes the place from all the other fried clam spots in and around Essex and Ipswich until I read Leite's story. 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.


* 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.

Photograph from reese on Flickr