What Is New England Clam Chowder?
It turns out that the word traditional, when used to describe New England clam chowder, might not mean a whole lot. In its modern-day form, clam chowder is soup or stew made with clams and a combination of dairy, clam stock, onions, potatoes, and some form of salty pork. Occasionally herbs are added as a flourish, but, at its most austere, New England clam chowder is made with just six ingredients. It’s simple, and it’s rich. It also might be based on a lie—or at least some disingenuous marketing.
According to food historians Kathleen Fitzgerald and Keith Stavely, modern New England clam chowder is more the result of "clever promoters of an invented tradition of 'Yankee New England clam chowder.'" They suggested to me that early versions of chowder would have called for ingredients that could have been stored without refrigeration for long periods of time. Clams and dairy, therefore, would have been off the table.
The earliest versions of New England chowder would also have included the local seafood that was most abundant—i.e., cod or haddock. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that recipes began calling for shellfish as often as white fish.
John Thorne’s essay on clam chowder, taken from his book Serious Pig, claims that "clam chowder increased in popularity as the nineteenth century progressed," though he doesn’t specifically make reference to New England clam chowder. And he cites this famous passage from Moby-Dick as evidence that clams were a chowder ingredient at least as early as 1851, though that passage makes no mention of milk or cream.
If there's one thing that's certain, it's that the origin story of New England clam chowder has some holes. But whether it’s the product of early-20th-century mythmaking or not, the dish is very much a real element of Boston’s dining scene, and has been for at least a century now.
The best versions of present-day chowder seem to include some combination of the below ingredients:
- Dairy: heavy cream, half-and-half, whole milk, or some combination of the three
- Clam (or seafood) stock: preferably fresh, i.e., the liquor that's released when clams are steamed
- Silky cubed potatoes: medium- to high-starch, low-moisture potatoes, like russets
- Salty pork: usually salt pork, pancetta, pork lard, or bacon
- Alliums: onions (compulsory), chives, or even chive-infused oil (optional flourish)
- Seasonings: namely, salt and freshly ground black pepper, though some chefs will add fresh herbs, such as parsley or thyme
- Fresh clams: usually steamers, littlenecks, quahogs, or some combination thereof
In my search for the best clam chowder in Boston, I bounced around the North End, the Seaport, and various other neighborhoods to find the perfect version of one of the city’s favorite foods. These were my criteria for selection:
- Does the chowder contain fresh clams? I tried chowder from a dozen restaurants, and, though there were some palatable examples containing canned clams, the best examples were prepared with fresh ones. They're briny, slightly sweet, and more tender than their canned brethren. Chowders containing tough canned clams can taste fine—they’re still clams, after all—but the texture will always be a bit off.
- Does it use fresh seafood stock? Some chowders that used canned clam stock were acceptable, but nothing topped the ones that used fresh seafood stock, whether made from the bones of white fish or the liquor that’s released from clamshells as they steam. Most chowders made with canned clam stock had a tendency to be overly salty—and not in a "salty like the sea" sort of way, but in an "I just ate a teaspoon of table salt" sort of way. Chowders made with fresh seafood stock tasted like clams, which is the whole point of clam chowder.
- Is it inflected with salty cured pork? Iconoclasm is anathema to traditional cooking, but one cannot be iconoclastic toward a thing that doesn’t actually exist, which is, in this case, a deeply traditional and sacred version of New England clam chowder. The salty pork adds a nice balance, though at least one restaurant’s chowder proved that its presence is not imperative.
- Are the potatoes silky and composed, or are they mealy and disintegrating? You know when you go out for burgers, and the burger is great, but the French fries are soggy and under-salted? Just as a plate of bad French fries can ruin a burger experience, so, too, can poorly cooked potatoes—or, indeed, just the wrong potatoes—ruin an otherwise perfectly serviceable New England clam chowder. The potatoes should be cubed, small enough that you can fit two or three on a spoon adjacent to bits of fresh clams, and they should be silky, like mashed potatoes.
- Is it seasoned simply? Clam chowder should taste like the sea, and especially like clams. Over-seasoning can subvert that purpose. Salt, pepper, and a light sprinkling of fresh herbs are all a good New England clam chowder really needs.
Given these standards, some of the chowders I tried, and even enjoyed, in the course of my research didn't make the cut. I discovered that Boston Chowda Co.'s version, for instance, appears to be made with canned clams and stock; messages sent to the restaurant asking for confirmation of the ingredient list met with no response. Even though that clam chowder might still be pretty good, I firmly believe that fresh clams are necessary for a chowder to qualify as great.
With that in mind, here are the top five places to eat New England clam chowder—whether strictly "traditional" or otherwise—in Boston.
The Best Clam Chowder in Boston
Legal Sea Foods is a Boston institution—famous for its fresh seafood, the ubiquitous chain can be found in posh neighborhoods, malls, and airport food courts alike. While diners can find clam chowder at any of its 34 restaurants on the East Coast, the waterfront location in Boston's Seaport, called Legal Harborside, is the company’s magnum opus. All three levels have sweeping views of Boston Harbor, but drinking and dining at the rooftop bar is the play.
Remarkably, all of Legal’s clam chowder is cooked in a single commissary kitchen and distributed to individual restaurants. Executive Chef Rich Vellante told me the recipe is a secret. "It’s like [the liqueur] Chartreuse—three people have three different parts of the recipe," he joked.
Vellante did reveal that Legal’s clam chowder recipe starts with fish stock, which they make in-house, and is finished with half-and-half. Sticking with centuries of tradition, Legal uses salt pork in its clam chowder. "It imparts great flavor and provides a balance between the salinity of the clams and fish stock," said Vellante. As for clams, Legal Sea Foods uses a combination of fresh littlenecks and quahogs, both chopped and tossed into a chowder that's briny and peppery and medium-thick.
Vellante, who grew up in New England, makes a lot of clam chowder—and, while it’s not his first choice while dining out, he also eats a lot of it, to ensure Legal’s standards remain high. His reverence for the stuff is clear: "This started as sustenance for people who lived so long ago," he said. "And it’s provided so much joy to people over the years. I respect that, and I don't take that lightly."
For a reliably good (and traditional) New England clam chowder, Legal Sea Foods is hard to beat.
Yankee Lobster Company
Yankee Lobster Company is a two-minute walk from Legal Harborside, but if you didn't know better, you wouldn’t believe they’re in the same universe. This counter-service fish shack, known for its fried food and lobster rolls, has none of the frills of its fancy neighbor—diners who aren't ordering takeout must either squeeze into close quarters indoors or sit out on the patio, which is more like an alley. Yet Yankee Lobster Company is always busy; depending on the season, wait times can approach an hour.
During my most recent taste test, I ordered a to-go cup, packed with fresh Ipswich clams, and was pleased to find that it held its own even after it had cooled a bit (it was takeout, after all). The flavor was sweet and slightly funky, in the same pleasant way that the seaside can smell slightly funky, and I imagine that's due to the liquor released from the clams.
The chowder base, made with butter, heavy cream, and half-and-half, is thick enough that it clings to the spoon if you hold it above the bowl. The potatoes are just about cooked through and on the firmer side, but not unsettlingly so, while celery adds a nice textural element.
This North End oyster and seafood joint doesn’t accept reservations, and it accommodates just 42 guests between the banquettes and bar. That, combined with the exceptional menu—the Duxbury littlenecks in broth with pancetta and white beech mushrooms are among Boston’s best eats, as is the lobster roll—dictates that Neptune Oyster always has a line snaking out the front door and down Salem Street. It’s open continuously each day of the week, from lunch till close, and there's never a good time to beat the rush. If you want to eat here, you'll just have to accept the wait.
For its clam chowder, Neptune uses quahogs from Ipswich or Wellfleet, which Chef Eric Frier told me are shucked in-house every day to keep up with demand. The chowder is a mix of heavy cream, whole milk, and clam stock, added to a base of cubed Idaho russets, celery, white onion, and thyme. After that’s warmed through, chopped quahogs, pork lard, salt, and pepper are added, and the bowl is finished with a flick of parsley.
Neptune’s clam chowder is always made to order; it’s delicate, with a texture like that of melted ice cream, and it tastes a bit like a salt marsh smells. Which is to say, it tastes first and foremost of clams. It’s not the clam chowder of the budget-conscious diner (especially when coupled with a pint of light domestic lager, which goes for a cool $11 here), nor of the impatient diner. But it’s a chowder made by cooks who care deeply about what they’re cooking.
Eventide Fenway is the Boston-based, fast-casual, counter-service sibling of Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Maine. It's clean and well lit, with exposed-concrete floors and an asymmetrical wooden ceiling through which some of the ductwork is visible; the space reminds me of the hull of a wrecked clipper ship. Diners order at the counter, then saddle up with food and drink at one of the restaurant’s many high-tops. Eventide is on the pricier end of the options on this list, but the gratuity is baked in—while shelling out a little more for your bowl of clam chowder, you can feel good about the fact that Eventide pays its employees a fair wage.
Eventide makes large batches of its chowder in a commissary kitchen in Biddeford, Maine; chills it; and reheats it in its restaurants. The clams Eventide uses in it are a combination of diced quahogs (from Massachusetts and Maine) and whole steamers (from Maine), all fresh. "The primary benefit from getting fresh clams is the incredible liquid that is released when they’re steamed," says co-owner Andrew Taylor, who's been perfecting his clam chowder recipe since he was a kid.
That liquor released by the clams, rather than frozen clam juice, is combined with cream to serve as the base for this chowder. Eventide uses frying potatoes from a farm in Fryeburg, Maine; for the salt-pork component, pork belly is sourced from a farm in Pennsylvania and braised before it's added to the chowder. Each bowl is finished with a drizzle of grass-green chive-infused canola oil and served with a slab of salty cracker.
Compared with other bowls on this list, this version is on the thinner side—which, for me, is a plus, as thickeners like flour can sometimes mute the rich flavors of the clam liquor. The potatoes are small, velvety cubes, and there are so many steamers floating at the top of the cardboard takeout container it’s served in, you’ll almost forget there’s soup underneath. It’s an exemplar of New England clam chowder, and the one on this list that is absolutely not to be missed.
Saltie Girl is the Fenway-based, fast-casual, food-hall version of a full-service restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay that puts out a well-balanced take on the soup, and one diners can order and eat quickly for under $10. Despite its thicker constitution, Saltie Girl’s clam chowder tastes deeply of clams. That’s because the recipe calls for three fresh types: chopped quahogs, whole cockles, and Manilas (a kind of steamer), all sourced in Massachusetts waters. It also uses fresh clam stock, which helps.
Chef Kyle McClelland, who’s cooked in many Boston kitchens, loves clam chowder and thinks a great version must include the deep, charred flavor of cured pork. That's why he house-cures his own pork belly, which is seared on a flattop before it's added to the base, providing a note of slight char and caramelization. The potatoes in Saltie Girl’s chowder are like little cubes of mashed potatoes, adding a sweetness that serves as a foil to the smoky bits of pork belly.
Each bowl of Saltie Girl clam chowder is garnished with chopped chives and a drizzle of olive oil. While there’s plenty to eat at the shiny new food hall that is Time Out Market Boston, Saltie Girl’s clam chowder should be at the top of your list.
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