No matter how much kale and assorted leafy greens we eat all winter, we succumb to the siren song of the clam when the mercury rises. Nothing says summertime in New England like a plate of fried clams. The North Shore of Massachusetts is Fried Clam Central, where they serve ’em up crisp and golden, with plump, dangling bellies that are sweetly redolent of the sea.
They’re a simple pleasure — just soft-shell clams (from mud flats, which lend a richer taste), dipped in a crumb coating and deep-fried to crunchy perfection. According to the Woodman family, Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman invented the fried clam in July 1916 at the roadside stand where he sold homemade potato chips and fresh clams. Whether you take that with a grain of sea salt or not, you can’t deny that Woodman’s of Essex is a go-to joint for this delicacy. Meanwhile, in Ipswich, the Clam Box — shaped like a box of clams — claims a strong fan base, as the long lines attest.
Since everybody knows about those clam shacks, we decided to sleuth out some of the smaller names in clam-dom in our quest to sample the tastiest fried clams on the North Shore.
The picnic tables at J.T. Farnham’s overlook the salt marsh in Essex, a view that adds to the experience. Inside, it looks a bit like grandma’s cottage — lots of knotty pine and floral curtains — but even on a not-so-glorious weather day, clam fans were out in force. We quickly found out why: These briny beauties are lightly battered, with a happy marriage of crunch and creamy clam. We skipped the sides (like Aunt Nancy’s cole slaw, $1) and went for a medium box of clams (fried in vegetable oil) to share ($19.95). We fought over every last one. Clam boxes $13.95-$34.95; “boats” (with fries), $14.95. 88 Eastern Ave., 978-
“People come in here and say, ‘We know what we want,’ and I say, ‘Clams?’ Yep, it’s always clams,” said waitress Karin Weir at Park Lunch in Newburyport. “We give a nice portion,” she added. Indeed. Our plate was piled high with clams, served over a mound of steak fries and slaw. This pine-paneled roadhouse has been serving clam plates for decades (they opened in 1957). “We fry in vegetable oil, and we don’t do the real big-bellied clams — nobody likes those,” Weir said. Clam connoisseur Connor Bair-Cucchiaro, who was watching the Sox on TV as he dug into a clam plate, weighed in on the difference between the clams at Park Lunch and Farnham’s. His verdict: The fried clams at Park Lunch have a thicker coating, and more of a crunchy-fried taste, than the lighter Farnham’s. “Good for the true fried food fan,” he said. Fried clam dinner, $18.95. 181 Merrimac St., 978-465-9817, www.parklunch.com
We had high hopes for Bob Lobster. We love this little seafood shack on the Merrimac River. Like Farnham’s, it offers both indoor seating and picnic tables with views of the marsh. We’ve had some killer lobster rolls here, and we appreciate the fact that it’s owned by a local lobsterman, Bob Hartigan. While our clams (fried in soybean oil) tasted good, they were lacking in crispiness, and the batter was falling off the clams as we pulled them out of the box ($16.99). “It’s a good-quality fried clam, but not great,” according to our guest clam-taster John Ames of Long Island City, N.Y. We grabbed a couple of lobster rolls for the road. Fried clam dinner, $17.99. 49 Plum Island Turnpike, Newbury, 978-465-7100, www
We’ve passed by the Village Restaurant in Essex a million times, but got a tip that they serve some mighty fine mollusks. There are no water views, but the Village has a small patio and atrium seating for that summertime vibe. By now, we were nearly clammed out, but these were tasty specimens — big bellied, slightly greasy (fried in lard), crispy, and glistening. Between us, we polished off 10 ounces worth (plus some so-so fries and slaw, $25.99) and could have gone for a few more if we weren’t adding up the fat grams. Fried clam plates $17.99 and $25.99. Routes 22 and 133, 978-768-6400, www.wedigclams.com
The Causeway Restaurant is probably Gloucester’s worst-kept secret. This pleasantly unpretentious eatery — as yet undiscovered by tourists — was recently remodeled to accommodate its growing fan base. There’s nearly always a wait, since this is a primo spot for fresh seafood on the cheap.
You can get it grilled, baked, and “from the kettle” but a quick look around revealed that fried food reigns.
We ordered the fried native clam plate to share and noted there was no extra plate fee — it’s not that kind of place. (It is the kind of place that serves you little containers of tartar sauce from Ken’s Steak House.)
First came a bread basket, and then a crockery plate loaded with clams, battered in a mix of white flour and corn flour and fried in canola oil. “More clam strip than belly,” our taster noted, holding up a bracelet-sized portion. The side of fries was forgettable, but the slaw felt homemade, given the unwieldy hunks of cabbage in it, not the uniform shreds that come from a bag. The clams were “fine, but not wow-worthy,” our tester said, and we seconded that. We found ourselves wishing we’d ordered our wintertime Causeway fave, baked coconut rum haddock. Still, we give props to the generous portion size, definitely big enough to share. Clam plate, $21.
78 Essex Ave., 978-281-5256.
Right across the street from the Causeway was another place rumored to fry a mighty fine clam: Mile Marker One Restaurant at Cape Ann’s Marina Resort. “We cook them in soybean oil, no trans fats,” said the hostess when we called. “And they are fabulous.”
They even serve an appetizer portion for $14. Could we, maybe, belly up to just one more clam bar? Not this time, but we’ll be back. Fried clams and a water view sound pretty irresistible.