Best Fried Clam Guide
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME
This region is smack in the heart of Fried Clam country. People get in SUVs, buses and airplanes just to get here where the clams are. But there are rules, my friend, and not all fried clams are equal. Here’s why and how to get the best of the best in the Seacoast.
ATTACK OF THE FRIED CLAM PEOPLE
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My brother Brian, the archaeologist, once jokingly suggested that the indigenous people of the New Hampshire seacoast could be divided into two groups – The Fried Clam People and The Steamed Clam People. That’s because, the one thing we know about local Native Americans is, they all loved seafood. Huge piles of discarded shells or "middens" dating back thousands of years are a key feature of prehistoric Indian settlements.
My family, as I’ve often noted, makes the best clam chowder in the world. No eatery in the seacoast – and I’ve tried them all – can hold a candle to ours. Passed down from my great grandfather on my mother’s side, our recipe was a family treasure until I posted it on the Internet years ago. It must be good because it’s still listed in the Top Ten out of a million entries for "clam chowder" on Google.
But when it comes to fried clams, even the Robinson’s do take-out. The location of the best fried clams I ever ate is lost to history. I recall I was wearing "footy" pajamas at the time and sleeping in the back of a Ford station wagon with a blanket and a spare tire. My parents pulled into some place near Falmouth at Cape Cod. A woman hooked a tray on the side of the car. One bite of that hot mucky beast and I was off the bottle for life.
Hold a razor clam to my throat and I will confess that the best clams I’ve had recently were at the Clam Box in Ipswich, MA. That’s the place where the roof explodes open like a box of clams. Everyone knows about this spot, so it is inevitably crowded. Clams are more expensive than steak these days, but the Clam Box never disappoints.
Around here, more often than not, we do Bob’s Fried Clams in Kittery. Places that stake their name on the clam often beat out other seafood spots. It’s all about the batter, the frying oil, the temperature, and the clams of course, flavorful Ipswich clams being the best. The quality of the cole slaw is another indicator. Places where it is too milky, too old, too fresh, too tangy or laced with vinegar are often equally unable to get the clam batter right. Bob’s gets both, and has put great effort into being consistent, clean, quick and courteous. The clam dinner isn’t cheap anymore, but it’s big enough for two, as long as you order a second side of slaw.
Another rule of thumb – don’t order fried clams unless you can see salt water, or at least smell the tide, from the order counter at the restaurant. Whenever possible, avoid ordering clams from a waitperson. They are best when served take-out style and consumed on premises, either in your car or at an outdoor picnic table. Never attempt to pick up fried clams and drive them home, unless you can also see your house from the order counter. Once fried, clams have a half-life of about 6 minutes. Waitpeople can cut precious seconds off the time between the fryer and the palate. And, if you don’t like the bellies, you don’t like clams. Those who claim to be "neck" or "clam strip" people are not to be trusted.
I’m okay indoors at the Weathervane or Newicks or Cap’n Simeon’s, as long as there’s snow on the ground, but there’s no excuse to go inside during our brief New England summer. Excellent seasonal seafood haunts like the Ice House in New Castle and Petey’s at Rye have dining rooms, but unless the mosquitoes are biting, these rooms should be reserved for the tourists.
It is theoretically possible for a sit-down restaurant that offers a large menu to also do a good fried clam. But since it’s all in the batter, the hot oil and the clam, such spots have a tendency to overthink the product. The result is usually too few clams and too much breading and spicing. If God wanted us to eat fancy gourmet clams, why would he pack them in ugly old shells?
When it comes to crab, squid, lobster or shrimp, I offer no advice. Never touch the stuff. But trust me on the humble clam, and when the moon is full, perhaps a rarer bivalve. The best fried oyster I ever "et" was on a hamburger bun at a family-run dive in Victoria, Canada. The best fried scallop was on a hamburger bun 3,000 miles away at Digby in Nova Scotia. Both Canadian experiences were intoxicating.
Which only goes to make my point. As with any truly regional food, the people who fry clams best are people who do it often over a very long time. The Clam Box has been around since 1935, Bob’s Clam Hut since 1958. Both began as a shed, a deep-fry cooker and a bucket of fresh clams. Once you discard the shells, everything else is window dressing.
Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.
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