Fully recovered from our legendary journey of stubborn will and intestinal fortitude a year ago, on Saturday 22 August 2105, The Clamarati of Renee Bessette (aka RSB), Joe Mecca, and Carol Caulfeld Mecca headed back on the roads of Lil Rhody in search of the best clam cake.
The genesis of our Crawl dates back about two and a half ago years ago when Joe Mecca and I recorded an episode of our pubcast, Joe Mecca’s Big Mouth. In one of our ‘casts, we talked specifically about clam cakes being a uniquely Rhode Island food and that everyone has a very passionate response to the question “Who has the best clam cake?” It’s a very intimate preference, based on personal taste (some like it crunchy, some like it soft, some like big nubbins, some like tiny bits of clams versus large chunks), historical geographical comforts, and family history (read on later for RSB’s details).
In 2014, we endeavored on the first Lil Rhody Clam Cake Crawl, as recounted here:
We received an overwhelmingly positive response and support of our Crawl, and a high degree of curiosity. From the people, the most commonly asked questions:
- “You did what?” (Yes, we drove around the state eating clam cakes and rated them.)
- “Did you ever feel sick?” (No, though after five clam cakes or more in a row in Narragansett within an hour, the system felt a bit backed up)
- “Did you get chowder?” (On occasion, snagging a cup of either clear or white chowdah)
- “Why didn’t you go to [insert clam shack here]?” (Because we had to work both within the clam shacks’ hours and the most reasonable route throughout the state)
- “You should do a calamari crawl next!” (Oh, fuck no. Most of that is frozen and/or overfried. Plus, that shit is expensive.)
- “Who was the best?” (Now, that’s a question you ask when you are actually interested in our story. It was Aunt Carrie’s in Point Judith.)
- “Are you doing it again?” (OH HELL YES!!!!)
This year, we mixed up the shacks. We kept a few of the top shacks from last year and added seven new ones. The Crawl ventured south yonder to Misquamicut and Charlestown, through the Galilee / Point Judith clam corridor, up to Warwick and Oakland Beach, then winded down in the East Bay.
Would Aunt Carrie’s retain her crown as queen? Would the shacks in the East Bay upend stalwarts in South County? Will Taylor Swift join us?
Inquiring minds want to know.
We invited a few friends on this year’s Clam Cake Crawl who share one or more of the following traits: like to eat, like clam cakes and/or fried seafood, have a good sense of driving direction, enjoy Rhode Island experiences and novelties, have experience with marathons and rallies, are keen trivia enthusiasts, and/or could put up with us for several consecutive hours.
Based on this criterion, we were joined by Russell Berrigan, Mike Radz, Sarah Chapin, and Missy Shein on the second leg of the Crawl,
FIRST LEG: SOUTH COUNTY
Initial weather forecasts has scattered thunderstorms popping up throughout the day over the state. The Clamarati awoke to an overcast, hazy sky. Neither wind, nor rain, nor snow (because this is Lil Rhody and if you wait an hour, the weather can change . . . even in August) would keep us from our Crawl. Hoodies and umbrellas were packed in our bags. Departing from Casa Mecca in Riverside, headed south to Misquamicut, the skies remained gray til we reached the 95 South / Route 4 split.
As we continued on 95 South, we looked up and the skies were of a brightest blue, a few fluffy clouds punctuated the sky.
It was as if Mother Nature convened with the Clam Cake Godz and said “We shall ensure that The Clamarati have a beautiful day for their adventure.” They also agreed to scare people from going to the beach and keep all the roads, especially in South County, free of traffic. On a Saturday. In August.
In addition to touring around the state in search of the best clam cake, The Clamarati take this occasion to venture to areas of the state they we rarely frequent. Last year, it was the East Bay. This year, it was to the western section of South County.
En route to our first stop in Misquamicut, we meandered down the tree-shaded, stone fence lined roads of Chariho, through the hamlet of Bradford, and into a quaint inlet of the Rhode Island Sound in Westerly. We’re so accustomed to our Providence area / suburban surroundings that we often forget that the majority of the state is rural and relatively untouched by sprawl.
The Seafood Haven ranks top for its Clambiance. Picnic tables, both covered and under the sun, a small, sandy volleyball court, games for kids of all ages (including the corn hole), and a dog whose house bared the warning “Do Not Feed the Dog.”
Minutes after it had opened at 11am, Joe ordered the first round of clam cakes, which took a bit of time to produce. From experience, the earlier in the clam shack’s day, the longer it takes for the clam cakes to be produced. The fryolator must be at a proper temperature to fry, the batter generally fresher out of the mixing bowl.
No problem. We toured the grounds, checked out The Seafood Haven’s Hall of Fame (includes Steve Carrell, Conan O’Brien, Pete Best, *and* Davy Jones), and admired the mini inlet behind the shack.
Then we tucked in and carefully analyzed the clam cakes by the following criterion, which is rated on a 1 to 5 scale:
- Crispy Exterior: Is it cripsy or limp? Do you hear the bite into the clam cake as you eat?
- Soft Interior: Is it soft or firm inside?
- Dry / Moist: Are there parts inside that are uncooked and gummy? Is it cake-like?
- Nubbins: Does it have any of those protrusions on the clam cake that can also be used as a handle as you eat?
- Clam-to-Cake Ratio: Does it have a lot of clams? Are they chunks or shavings? Do you taste clams in every bite?
- Overall Experience: Also known as Clambiance, would you go here again? Would you recommend this shack to others?
We mark our scorecards, took a final look around, and headed back on the road. One clam shack down, eleven clam shacks to go.
The Clamarati Trio agreed that this is a place we should check out later in an afternoon when it’s more hopping.
RSB Comments: Average sized. Loose nubbins. Light coloring. Nice, crisp exterior, good bite.
Not so much off the beaten path, The Hitching Post is right on Route 1 in Charlestown (if you are heading north towards Narragansett, it is before the exit for the Fantastic Umbrella Factory). It’s a simple, family-owned shack established in 1950 that claims to offer “Rhode Island’s Best Clam Fritters and Chowder.” We’ll see about that.
As it’s minutes after The Hitching Post opened, it’s a 15 minute wait for the clam cakes. We decamp to a picnic table shaded by a large tree and wait. Carol ventures to the garden, where there is another picnic area. She quickly retreats as she is attacked by mosquitos. Cars zoom by on Route 1.
After the wait, we tuck into round two. Very interesting.
RSB Comments: Clam cake has a goiter-sized nubbin. Delicate dough reminded me of a crueller. Large clam chunks 00 one was a clam foot. Pleasantly impressed.
Slightly off the beaten path (and two U-turns), Johnny Angel’s Clam Shack is located on an inlet on Charlestown Beach Road. Its patio surrounded by kayak and boat launches. A “got clams?” banner is plastered on a side of the shack. Adjacent to the ordering window, we spot a case of gallon cans of clam juice. Hmm . . . what’s up with that?
As it is early, it’s a 15 minute wait for our three clam cakes and cup of white chowdah. A teenager orders a Del’s at the window and *gasp* asks for a spoon to go with it. Shade is thrown by Carol and RSB.
We are issued our clam cakes and we get to work.
RSB Comments: Incredibly craggy clam cakes (the kind that can rip up inside of your mouth). Very round, minimal nubbins. Very pepper. Lacking clam chunks.
The Port Side has been a Galilee staple for over 60 years. Now known as Jimmy’s Port Side (I’m guessing that it was renamed as such either after a legal challenge or some sort of family dispute), this shack is directly across from the Block Island Ferry. During the mid-90s, I worked in the Block Island Ferry ticket and reservation office, and recall the Port Side being packed by beachgoers in the early evening. I had never eaten there (even for fries during my vegetarian days).
RSB Comments: Dense, more toothy. Defined nubbins. Savory, taste pepper. Lacking clams.
Champlins / Galilee (new)
Admittedly, my people are George’s of Galilee people. We eschew Champlins, as few members of my family (more specifically, my mom’s side of the family) have never had a positive dining experience there. And this goes back over fifty years. Thus, I refuse to step foot on its premises. Even when I worked at the ferry, I crossed the street before Champlins when wandering around the port. Call me a clammist!
We hit up George’s last year (it fared mid-pack). I had clam cakes at George’s the previous weekend when The Ed & Lois Experience visited. George’s clam cakes were just meh. So as a last minute decision, we swap out George’s for Champlins. Yes, RSB is expanding her horizons (as she expands her now-growing food baby).
As there is limited parking in Galilee, we split up the clam cake procurement, Carol ordered the Champlins’ clam cakes while I hit up Jimmy’s Port Side. In our chariot, Joe circled the area while we wait for our tasting samples. We texted him, scooped us up, and meander past Sand Hill Cove to Point Judith for our next stop and rally tasting at 2014 Queen of the Clam Cake, Aunt Carrie’s.
RSB Comments: More dense. Well-defined nubbins. Decent seasoning.
Aunt Carrie’s / Point Judith (#1 in 2014)
For 95 years, Aunt Carrie’s is a fourth generation Point Judith institution, home of the clam fritter. It’s one of the first clam shacks in the state, much venerated by clam cake eaters near and far, and highly rated by travel and food publications nationwide.
Admittedly, Aunt Carrie’s is the clam cake (or clam fritter) by which we measure all other clam cakes. I don’t know what they put into it (other than dough and clam chunks) or if it has a magic fryolator, but there is a certain je nais sai quoi about its clam cakes, all criterion perfectly balanced.
That being said, as we added seven new shacks to this year’s crawl, we knew that we had to be as impartial as possible, and keep an open mind and palate to all clam cakes consumed during the crawl.
We first taste clam cakes from Jimmy’s Port Side and Champlins, as we work in chronological order.
We then bite into Aunt Carrie’s clam cake.
Joe (after his first bite, bows his head): I think we should just call it a day. This is the best.
Carol is lovingly admired her clam cake, sharing a look with it that I don’t think she had ever shown to her own husband.
RSB, drinking a Narragansett Summer Ale, was in a clam cake-induced haze.
We must carrie on. More clam cakes to consume. Plus, we can’t let the rest of The Clamarati down.
RSB Comments: This is like eating a goddamn cloud. A fucking fried cloud with bits of clam. Light, yet crisp. Prominent nubbins (one of which looks like it is giving other clam cakes the finger).
Before we head north to Warwick and meet up with the rest of the gang, we take a side trip over to Camp Cronin. Carol and RSB climb steps up to the Point Judith Fishermen’s Memorial, and take in the sights of the Point Judith Lighthouse and the Rhode Island Sound. Block Island lingers in the not too far distance. All is well and at peace in our neck of the world.
Back on the road, with the forecasts of thunderstorms, few people ventured to the beach early in the day and we encountered *no* traffic on Route 1 leading up to Route 4. On a typical summer weekend, you’d be cursing out everyone your the car (and those surrounding you) as you sit in a slow, snail’s pace crawl of traffic leaving the beaches, stunted at each traffic light leading up to Route 138 (you know, the road to URI and where the Hannah Robinson Tower is). As the decided by the Godz, we easily breeze up the roads in record time and with extra time to kill before we started the second leg in Warwick.
Which meant one thing: time for a palate cleanser at another Rhode Island institution, Del’s Frozen Lemonade.
SECOND LEG: WEST BAY VS EAST BAY
The Clamarati more than doubled in size at Tommy’s, the start of the second leg of the CCC. Mike, Sarah, Russell, and Missy joined us, ready, willing, and able to taste and rate clam cakes for the next slate of shacks on the crawl.
Tommy’s is relatively new to the clam shack scene, open since 2012 (not sure how it can claim the “World Famous” tagline with three years under its belt). It’s setting is a gray wooden clapboard-style building with picnic tables, an on-a-busy-street setting that reminded us of the Rocky Point Clam Shack (prominently nestled in the parking lot of where Ann & Hope used to be on Post Road by the airport). Scorecards were disseminated to the crew and debriefed on the rating criterion. Thorough in his questions and curiosity, Mike quizzed us on the function of the Nubbin.
RSB Comments: My clam cake was assalted with noticeable [table] salt crystals on the fried exterior. The saltiness overpowered any clam or dough taste. Was impressed by the higher clam-to-cake ratio.
Iggy’s / Oakland Beach (new location; Point Judith location #7 in 2014)
After last year’s Battle of Point Judith versus the Queen, we hit up Iggy’s original location in Oakland Beach. For those not familiar with Oakland Beach, I’m not going to mince words when I say that this place is a dump. It’s incredibly packed all the time, has limited parking, and has a lot of physical trash strewn across the the beach and park that never seems to make the bins posted throughout. Flying rats (aka seagulls) are always on the prowl for food waste (or the clam cake that you may be eating). Oh, and because of it’s position on Narragansett Bay, the water is more likely than not to be closed for swimming due to high bacteria levels. And on this day, there was a traveling carnival crammed into its park. Totally not my scene.
Irregardless, The Women of The Clamarati assumed our position in the always long (and poorly managed) queue to the ordering window. No word of a lie, Missy, a lifelong resident of Warwick Neck, had never actually queued at Iggy’s before (not sure if this was an experience to be checked off her Bucket List).
For this shack, we needed seven clam cakes for seven members of The Clamarati. Most shacks are accommodating when ordering non-standard quantities.
When ordering at Iggy’s, I asked for seven clam cakes.
RSB: I need seven clam cakes. Like give me a half-dozen clam cakes and thrown an extra one in. I’ll pay for the extra.
Counter Lady: No. We don’t sell them like that.
RSB (improvising on the fly, doing her maths sans calculator app): Can I get an order of six clam cakes and an order of three clam cakes?
Counter Lady: Yes.
Twenty minutes later, order number 337 is called and a bag is thrust through the window. Ten clam cakes in the bag. (What is it with Warwick clam shacks and their inability to correctly count? We ordered seven at Tommy’s and got eight.)
We assemble on two park benches, present the round and dig in, carefully protecting our tasting from the winged predators. Mike becomes increasingly enchanted by Nubbins and more so by the clam cake with Double Nubbins.
Needless to say, we wrapped up quickly, said goodbye to Missy, and sally forth on to the next location.
RSB Comments: There are large clam chunks but very few to be found in this clam cake. Very salty interior. Bready.
Blount’s Clam Shack / Warren (new location; Riverside location in 2014)
From WARwick to WARren, we migrate from West Bay to East Bay.
In southern New England, Blount’s is synonymous with chowdah, lobstah rolls, and all fried clam goodness. Last year, we visited their shack at the Looff Carousel in Riverside. This time, we made our way over to their shack in Warren.
Off Water Street on the harbor, Blount’s Clam Shack is all about the seafood shack experience. Blount’s gets big-ups from RSB (a self-admitted brand geek) for its consistent branding from the moment you enter the property til the moment you depart. From bike racks to the staffs shorts, you *know* you’re at Blount’s.
Mike and Sarah arrived at Blount’s before the rest of The Clamarati and had ordered this round. We met them at a picnic table with a clear view of the harbor, one of those buzzy-when-it’s-ready things on the table.
Let the tasting commence. Deep thoughts on ratings and a robust debate on the criterion ensues.
A Blount’s employee decked out in a Blount’s polo shirt and Nantucket red shorts with tasteful navy blue lobsters approaches the table and asks if he can be of any additional service. Instantly in love with the shorts, RSB grills him on the origin of his shorts. They are issued to all Blount’s clam shack counter / customer service staff. RSB then considered a summer gig there.
RSB Comments: Very cool atmosphere with the picnic tables and tent on the water. Nice crispy exterior, decent clam-to-cake ratio. A bit too dry.
(Note: Be it a restaurant, club, or bar, if there is a guy in the corner during the afternoon playing 70s yacht rock hits on his acoustic guitar, I’m outta there. This was the case on this afternoon. If it wasn’t for the clam cake tasting, I would have high-tailed it in the other direction. Blount’s, you may want to rethink your entertainment strategy.)
We head up and over to Amaral’s Fish & Chips, an unsuspecting diner-looking place a block or two behind Main Street. When you see a wall with the disaffected elbow-less lady smoking a cigarette painted on it, look to the right and you’ll see Amaral’s.
Unlike any of the other shacks, Amaral’s is an order at the counter, fast food style booths and tables kinda place. It’s also closed on Sundays, which took it off our 2014 crawl. Russell rustles up the order and we analyze the menu posted above the counter of the usual — and unusual — fare. Fish & Chips. Fried Clam Roll. Fried Scallop Sandwich? Blademeat? Curiosity is piqued all around.
RSB Notes: Definite fried casing to this one with an audible bite. Can taste a hint of bacon (no, Mom, I’m not going to die after eating this). Form is craggy with lots of nubbins.
Quitos / Bristol (#2 in 2014)
Following the patriotically striped Route 114 south, we amble over to Quitos on Bristol Harbor. Last year’s Clam Cake Crawl runner-up, we had a suspicion that Quitos would present a strong challenge to Aunt Carrie’s. At this point, with two shacks to go, anything is possible.
Joe orders up a half-dozen and we sit on benches along the walking path along the harbor and get to business.
At the end of our stop, Mike and Sarah sign off, having to return home to tend to their very energetic new puppy, Tuck.
RSB Comments: Delicate exterior crust. Hint of pepper. Reasonably-sized clam chunks.
Evelyn’s Drive-In / Tiverton (#3 in 2014)
Purposely, RSB organized the Clam Cake Crawl to conclude at Evelyn’s Drive-In specifically for its Clambiance. Located on Nannaquacket Pond, Evelyn’s offers one of the most amazing summer sunsets in the area (RSB has thoroughly enjoyed viewing them on its Instagram account @evelynsdrivein).
Carol and Russell order up the final round and The Clamarati venture to the covered picnic tables, quiet in contemplation of both the sunset and our accomplishment of the day.
The final clam cakes arrive, along with two cups of clear chowdah. We tuck in, savoring both the clam cake itself and the knowledge that we probably won’t have another clam cake for awhile (well, RSB might have one last one in September).
RSB Notes: Love the slightly crunchy exterior. Basic nubbins. Chewy interior. Different flavor than other clam cakes, perhaps a bit more yeasty.
Before we return to Casa Mecca to tally results and the Wild Colonial for the official announcement, we take a detour down the road to visit the former office of Kerry Callery, DDS, a close friend of Joe, Carol, and Russell who had passed away in early 2015. Kerry was an all-around good guy and talented musician who was much loved by the Rhode Island theater / performance community – and sorely missed.
Without further ado, the results as we know them to be, as tabulated by our accountants at Dewey, Cheatem & Howe, and announced at the Wild Colonial Tavern:
- 1 – Aunt Carrie’s / Point Judith
- 2 – Quitos / Bristol
- 3 – The Hitching Post / Charlestown
- 4 – Amaral’s Fish & Chips / Warren
- 5 – Tommy’s Clam Shack / Warwick
- 6 – Evelyn’s Drive-In / Tiverton
- 7 – Champlins / Galilee
- 8 – The Seafood Haven / Misquamicut
- 9 – Blount’s Clam Shack / Warren
- 10 – Johnny Angel’s Clam Shack / Charlestown
- 11 – Iggy’s / Oakland Beach
- 12 – Jimmy’s Port Side / Galilee
BY THE NUMBERS
- 12 Clam Shacks in 8-ish Hours
- 180 Driving Miles Covered from start in Riverside to end at the Wild Colonial Tavern for the annoucement of the winner and a celebratory tipple
- 7 New Shacks
- 1 New Region (Misquamicut / Charlestown)
- 2 Shacks at Alternate Locations from the 2014 CCC
- 4 U-Turns made after passing exits or turns
- 7 Members of The Clamarati
- 4 New Members of The Clamarati
- 0 Traffic Back-Ups Leaving Narragansett
As always, we would like to thank the dozens of people who liked and cheered us on via Facebook and Instagram (#clamcakecrawl) as we ventured on 2015’s epic journey in search of clam cake excellence in the Ocean State.
We are also pleased to have welcomed new members to The Clamarati and thank them for their intestinal fortitude on the second leg of the Clam Cake Crawl.
We did it so you don’t have to. You’re welcome!
Til next year, KEEP CALM AND CLAM ON!
p.s. — We encourage you to share this blog post with family and friends, though we request that any member of the print, broadcast, or online media contact Renee Bessette at firstname.lastname@example.org regarding interviews with The Clamarati and/or reposting.