Family vacations, at least in my family, involved a lot of traditions. We didn't just visit Martha's Vineyard on an annual basis when I was a kid. We also ate at the same places every year, and in many cases, ate the exact same things over and over again. I chalk it up to sheer anticipation of the trip coupled with some sort of "if it ain't broke..." mentality.
Menemsha Beachwas a regular destination, as was lunch at The Menemsha Deli and The Bite, two almost-waterside eateries with long lines, steep prices, and plenty of ways to spend your calorie chips. That they are across the street from one another made life easy; while I (as a pre-teen) polished off a Menemsha Deli meatball sub as handily as any adult male, my dad satisfied his chowder and fried clam fix for the season, and my comments about the ickiness of fried clams—any clams not in chowder, really—were relentless.
If they don't do anything for you taste bud-wise, whole clams are not the most aesthetic of sea creatures. Maybe it's because I'd watched my dad eat steamers so many times, and been totally grossed out by the slimy, drippy, jiggly bellies with their chewy top strips, but even the thought of eating the crumb-coated, deep-fried numbers with a thimble full of tartar sauce didn't grow on me for several years.
And now when I—a full-fledged fried-clam freak—think back on it, I recall of all those wasted meal opportunities and scold myself.
Bite clams ($25/medium) come crammed in one of those classic cardboard boxes that all New England seafood shacks seem to have, fresh out of the hot oil so that the bottom of the container develops oil spots. If you eat them quickly enough, the sogging batter problem is never a problem. And due to the crazy long lines that form—it's a tourist trap, for sure—having them packed into an easy-to-carry container is ideal. Just walk your lunch a few paces down to the Menemsha Harbor, or a bit further to the beach itself.
The batter is substantial and craggy—perfect for swiping up the pickle-y tartar sauce without falling apart—but light enough that the rich, creamy, mineral-y clam belly flavor comes through bright and clear. The coating's not as refined and the bellies not quite as gushy as the ones that Barbara Lynch serves up at B&G, but then, Tremont Street doesn't overlook a quaint fishing village.
As for the chowder ($5.95/medium), it might be my favorite anywhere. My dad and I have a running debate as to which New England establishment makes the best, and I've stood firmly with these guys from the beginning. It's the perfect thickness: spoon-coating, but not so gluey that you could stand the spoon in it. The chopped local clams are plentiful and flavorful with satisfying chew. The potatoes are firm and creamy, and chunked small enough to fit in the spoon's bowl with the clam. The pork product is subtle, but obvious. There's a good bit of thyme infused into the pot, but not so much that it's distracting. And even on a sticky summer day, that first spoonful is oddly refreshing.
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