On Saturday 18 June, fifteen courageous crawlers traveled in nine hours to thirteen clam shacks to eat a baker’s dozen of local treats of clam and fried goodness throughout the Ocean State for the Third Annual Lil Rhody Clam Cake Crawl.
We came. We ate. We clamquored.
The genesis of our Crawl dates back about three and a half ago years ago when Joe M 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.
Admittedly, my family historically has been George’s of Galilee people. We eschew Champlin’s, as few members of my family (more specifically, my mom’s side of the family) have never had a good 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 Block Island Ferry in college, I crossed the street before Champlin’s when wandering around the port. Call me a clammist!
Thus, in August 2014, The Clamarati (myself, Joe M, and Carol CM) and Lil Rhody Clam Cake Crawl were born. Over the course of one day, we ventured along the coasts of the Ocean State, tasting and judging clam cakes at 12 clam shacks on a variety of criteria. We were aware of those who have taken on similar endeavors for foodie magazines and travel features, though never back to back in one day. Posts to Facebook gained rave reviews and a lot of inquiries, part out of curiosity about our rally, part out of queasiness of the eating endeavor, part out of Rhode Island pride.
In 2015, we put out the call to friends to join us for the Second Annual Lil Rhody Clam Cake Crawl in August, seeking those like-minded people who like to eat, like clam cakes and/or fried seafood (vegans and those with shellfish allergies need not apply), 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. Mostly the latter. And we had six friends gladly join us for parts of the Crawl in Warwick and the East Bay.
Over the years, I have gained the reputation among friends as the “Clam Cake Queen” based on my knowledge of the shacks, personal tasting experience, and frank reviews of clam shacks around Lil Rhody (where’s my sash and tiara?). I now field calls and messages from friends and family for recommendations on where (and where not) to go for a good clam cake and chowdah.
CALL TO CRAWL
When announced that the Crawl would take place in late June, quite a few friends immediately raised their hands and volunteered to join our cause. Usually, a few people say they want to join us and then bail on us for a variety of reasons (prior commitments, need to wash one’s hair all day, general lethargy, fear of commitment).
We warned potential participants that the our very movable feast is nothing to be taken lightly. Throughout the course of the day, one is challenged both mentally and physically, experiencing a full spectrum of emotions (and not always induced by the mass consumption of clam cakes).
Ten people committed immediately to the Crawl, a collective “We’re going!” (and not in that “I’m Facebook going but not really” manner). Friends from Boston and Easthampton, MA threw their palates in the ring, as did a co-worker of my URI college roommate, both of whom live in Albany, NY. A few friends offered to join us just for the ride.
This is now a *thing*.
Earlier in the week, Joe M and I met prior to the Crawl to review our itinerary and work out logistics at The Clubhouse (aka Wild Colonial Tavern). Our destinations require us to visit shacks – restaurants whereby one orders from a window or counter, and could sit at a picnic table or linger around outside. Places we could get in and get out in 15 minutes or so. No sit-down restaurants are allowed. We ain’t got no time to dilly dally. We took off a few shacks from last year’s Crawl and added a few new ones that we researched via Yelp, Trip Advisor, and the Google.
Would Aunt Carrie’s retain her two-time title as Queen of the Lil Rhody Clam Cake? Would shacks in the East Bay rise up and take the rei(g)n? How does our return to Aquidneck Island play into the grand scheme of things? Would our neighbor lady Taylor Swift take a break from canoodling with new boy toy Tom Hiddleston on the rocks in Watch Hill to join us for a few clam beignets? Will there be any reversals of fortune among our Crawlers, eyes being bigger than their stomachs or the inevitable car sickness?
On the morning of Saturday 18 June, our intrepid Crawlers gathered right at 10am at Maison Bessette in Elmhurst for introductions, a briefing on the Crawl and expectations (one of them being the consumption of clam cakes), and a review of our planned route. Our itinerary remained under wraps til Joe M and I shared it with the Crawlers, and implored the team not to divulge our list as we carried on (lest to have any interlopers swoop in on our action nor to alert clam shacks to present us with their “best” to offer).
“If we’re not sweating grease by 5pm, we’ve failed!” – Don H
This year’s Clam Cake Crawl Starting Line-Up:
- The Clamarati: Renee B (aka RSB) & Joe M
- Second Timer: Sir Russell
- First Timers: Dee R, Don H, Jason C, Joey S, Kathy C, Katie P, Marshall S, Matt H, Matt K, Rick E
- Ride Along-ers: Deb C & Maureen C
We matched drivers with riders and were on our way, all points SOUTH!
Five cars, five different routes, the Crawlers make the way to The Seafood Haven, adjacent to the Weekapaug Breachway in Westerly. This shack is in its second year in the Crawl and we quite enjoyed its Clambiance in 2015. Plenty of picnic tables; cornhole, volleyball, and other games for visitors; a quaint little waterway leading into the breachway out back.
Though, upon our arrival, it must have been low tide, because we stumbled across these little trinkets out back.
As we score our first round, Joe M reviews the judging criteria with the Crawlers, each of which is rated on a scale of 1 to 5:
- Crispy Exterior: Is it crispy or limp? Do you hear the bite into the clam cake as you eat?
- Soft Interior: Is it soft or firm inside? Can you easily bit into it?
- 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 and/or look like bodily appendages?
- Clam-to-Cake Ratio: Does it have a lot of clams? Are they chunks or shavings? Do you taste clams in every bite?
- Clambiance: As an overall experience, would you go here again? Did the decor / environment meet your own description of clam shack? Would you recommend this shack to others?
- RSB: Very moist. Dead fish out back.
- Jason C: Not firm, too soft. Nice nubbins!
- Don H: Deceptively good. Gummy. More like funnel cake than nubbins.
- Katie P: Bisquick. Shapley nubbins. Dead Fish.
We head about a mile plus down the road to Misquamicut proper for stop #2 at Two Little Fish. Because it’s right across from the beach, parking is a bit of a shitshow. A very sunburned, surly, shirtless man yells at us to use the parking lot to the right of the restaurant and that we should tell the parking lot attendant that we’re going to the restaurant. We all eventually turn around and park, and proceed to invade Two Little Fishes.
A few of us walk inside and Joe M gets in line to place an order for the dozen plus at the exact same time a woman behind the counter announces that “Cox is down so we can only take cash right now.” Heads turn, eyes roll, the line of four people becomes three. A few of us use the bathroom.
Ten minutes later, Joe is still in line, shrunk to him and another person in front of him (we’re not sure if that person ordered). There are five people of a broad range of ages visible behind the counter, wandering about aimlessly, not even acknowledging our presence in queue.
Our patience has worn thin, so we bail.
A first in Clam Cake Crawl history, The Clamarati make the decision to LEAVE a shack due to nonexistent service, thus DISQUALIFYING them. We all are understanding about POS systems failing at restaurants. Shit happens. But there is absolutely no need to ignore your patrons especially when we are standing RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU.
We rally the troops and get back on the road. We’ve got a full day ahead of us. We gotta KEEP CALM AND CLAM ON!
Another Crawl two-timer, The Hitching Post is located right on Route 1 in Charlestown (along the northbound lane) in what we classified as the “Taylor Swift Zone” (her summer shack is in nearby Watch Hill).
While the restaurant is best described as a shack with ordering window, what makes The Hitching Post unique is its tasteful landscaping and “secret” garden, complete with arch, lobster trap adornment, and koi pond. Hmmm . . . I wonder if they host weddings?
While we wait for our clam cakes, the Crawlers explore the grounds.
- RSB: Pillowy, not too toothy. Cakey, large clams. Love the garden.
- Katie P: Attention to detail. Family friendly with little tables.
- Jason C: Well maintained garden, building sad.
- Rick E: Secret garden.
Across the street for the indubitably popular Matunuck Oyster Bar is Cap’n Jacks, a seafood restaurant that I used to visit when I was a wee lass on holiday in Lil Rhody (on summer vacations, we used to stay nearby at my mom’s best friend’s sheep farm on Route 1 in Wakefield). I hadn’t been to Cap’n Jacks in over 25 years. Since we we’re going to be in the neighborhood, why not stop by?
And we did. Across the street from the packed restaurant, Cap’n Jacks parking lot was sparsely populated. It was close to 1pm and there were a few people dining on its patio. No major traffic going in and out while we were there.
We pile into the Take-Out room and, as Dee R procures this round, the Crawlers are immediately drawn to its dessert cases. Specifically the Lobster Cupcakes, Lobster Ghost Cookies, and super-sized fruit turnovers. We combat the temptation and urge to order one of each, thinking that a sugar high and crash would be major faux pas on the Crawl.
- RSB: V crispy. Bready. Good nubbins. Not very busy.
The winner for the past two Crawls, Aunt Carrie’s is a Point Judith institution. One of the region’s originators of the “clam fritters,” Aunt Carrie’s has been serving up clam cakes and chowdah, along with other seafood goodness, for 96 years. I think they know a thing or two about clam cakes.
As the reigning Queen, we use Aunt Carrie’s clam cakes as the exemplification of the ideal clam cake. Amoebic in nature with a few nubbins, crunch-crispy exterior, soft interior with large chunks of clams. As I’ve previously described, it’s like eating a “a goddamn cloud. A fucking fried cloud with bits of clam.”
As Russell orders this round from the window (a few order chowdah), the Crawlers explore the environs. Scenic vista of reeds surrounding a pond with Adirondack chairs to the left of the restaurant A picnic area across the street, adjacent to the restaurant’s ice cream shoppe. Weather’s not too hot, not too breezy.
- RSB: It’s like eating a goddamn cloud. Made of clams and fried goodness.
- Jason C: Like the chowder.
- Marshall S: Very crispy. Extra nubbins. High clam-to-cake ratio.Good beach smell. Good beach view.
After a year away, we return to Aquidneck Island and hit up Anthony’s Seafood. Popular with locals, Anthony’s is both a seafood market and restaurant separated by a retractable belt (even through the double door entrance). There are plenty of seafood cooking accessories (eg. bay leaves, Kenyon’s johnny cake corn meal) and other Newport / Rhode Island swag available in the shop. Parking is tight as the place is hoppin’, even just past 3.30pm.
- RSB: V crispy. Orange clam chunks. Burn marks.
- Katie P: Not clam shack enough.
- Jason C: Served on plate. Bland.
A Revolutionary War expert, Don H shares with us a historical tidbit about Middletown:
Here’s the story in a quahog shell: In August 1778, a large American army tried to retake the island from a British force that had garrisoned it since December 1776. The British withdrew into fortifications they’d built on high ground north of Newport. The Americans built siege lines along the rising ground above what is now Valley Road, and the two sides exchanged cannon fire for three weeks. The Americans gave up the siege and withdrew north. On 29 August, the British sallies out and tried to cut off the American retreat from the island, and a major battle occurred on the north end of the island. We stopped at one place where the siege lines were, and another where the battle took place.
Despite its name, we discover that Samantha’s, despite it lovely website, is more of a diner with a few pink picnic tables in front than actual clam shack.
Kathy C orders our round of clam cakes from a little old lady wearing a blazar inside. A few of us admire the pleather sofa in the sterile restaurant. Others make a pit stop in the bathroom (v clean) as others linger outside, waiting for rally car #4 (delayed by an invasion of skydivers on Rt. 136 by the Newport State Airport).
Joe M says it all about Samantha’s clam cakes:
- RSB: V dry and hard to eat.
At the previous stop, Katie suggests that, since we’re right around the corner, we hightail it over to the Island Park neighborhood and check out the original Flo’s Drive-In. The Clamarti agree and we venture around the corner.
Though we had been to Flo’s Clam Shack in Middletown on the first Crawl, we had no idea that the original location was still in existence! From all appearances, Flo’s looks like the quintessential clam shack: worn clapboard shingles, crushed shell / stone driveway, busy lines of visitors order and eager to tuck into greasy comestibles.
One of the bonuses of the Clam Cake Crawl is venturing to parts of Rhode Island that one has never visited, let alone knew of its existence. Island Park is one of those little gems, a small boats dot the cove, people perched on the seawall as others bask in the sun’s rays on the small beach. Schultzy’s Snack Shack next door offers burgers, seafood, ice cream, and other treats in its stone, triangle-peaked building (also an anthropomorphic packet of french fries guards the side of the building). Quite an idyllic location, now added to my “must return to” list for this summer.
- RSB: Dry, old oil. Def need to go back here.
- Marshall S: Soft but very chewy. Kind of dry.
After two rally cars detour to the other 115 Stafford Road in Fall River, the Crawlers meet up at Macray’s Seafood II in Tiverton. This is a new shack in on our Crawl and it seems to be a go-to for locals, though a bit worn down in appearance. Not sure how, though the owner had been tipped off that we are on a Crawl, judging clam cakes around the state. Hopefully this does not taint the specimens and results!
- RSB: Small clam cake.
- Jason C: Doughy.
Only in Lil Rhody: Throughout the day’s travel in our rally car, Matt H, Kathy C, Marshall S, and I talk about how Rhode Island is so small, people know (of) each other through one to two degrees of separation. On our extended drive from Flo’s to MacRay’s via Fall Reev, we discover one degree of separation between Matt H (grew up in Slatersville, though hasn’t lived in RI in 25 years) and Kathy C (Lincoln born, Cumberland bred). Though strangers before the Crawl, we discover that Matt H’s grandmother and Kathy C’s mother used to go on AARP vacations together, even up to 15 years ago! Only in Lil Rhody!
A fan favorite, especially for it’s sunset view over Nannaquacket Pond, Evelyn’s Drive-In is one of our favorite shacks on our circuit. Crushed clam shell driveway, old school Coca-Cola sign, rustic red shack, and a shaded picnic area all scream out “clam shack.” A funkily decorated VW Bug in the parking lot touts its power by biodiesel.
A dock juts out adjacent from the picnic tables, with a pontoon at the end. I’m not the only one who’s thinking about commandeering the vessel for a joy ride around the pond.
- RSB: Very good interior. Not too dense or soft.
- Jason C: Juicy clams.
- Marshall S: Very moist. Bits of clam pieces. Quintessential clam shack.
After traversing the Mount Hope Bridge, we wind our way up Rt. 114, past Roger Williams University, Blithewold Mansion, and Walker Cove to two-time Clam Cake Crawl second placer Quito’s. Each year, we’re always impressed by its delicate crispiness
Overlooking Bristol Harbor, Quito’s offers both sit-down table service (indoor dining room and covered patio). As one of our rally cars is delayed by [insert any reason here], we convene to the rocks along the waterfront for a quick snap of the group and a rest. Clam Cake Crawlin’ is hard work. Fellow Whiskey-Oh and East Bay resident Elaine B meets us at Quito’s and joins us for a few stops on the Crawl.
- RSB: So lovely. Juicy. Large clam chunks.
- Marshall S: Perfect crispiness. Lots of big clam chunks.
- Elaine B: Excellent mouth feel
“This is like where The Ramones go to get their clam cakes.” – Sir Russell
Tucked away on a side street, adjacent to two auto repair shops, is Amaral’s Fish and Chips, a Warren institution famous for its fried scallop roll. This our second Crawl visit to Amaral’s, coming in at #4 last year. In fact, the owner caught wind of last year’s blog post, thanked us for the high rating, and extended the invite to try their famous fried scallop roll. Tempting, though we have a very specific mission today.
As Jason C orders our penultimate round, we realize that there’s little room for the Crawlers to take a seat in its booth n table dining room, so we do comes natural — loiter in the alley.
- RSB: Clam not cooked. Too much chorizo flavor.
- Marshall S: Very crispy. Very soft. Minimal clambiance – auto parts store.
Due to evening commitments, a few of our Crawlers departed after Amaral’s, leaving nine of us to stick it out for the last shack. Le sigh.
On this evening, Crescent Park hosted a classic car show adjacent to the historic Looff Carousel. Amusement park aficionados, Jason C and Rick E venture over to the carousel to check out the ride (sadly closed by the time we arrived at 7pm). As the rest of us pile onto a park bench, Marshall S orders the last batch. Both Matts order chowdah.
- RSB: (Too fried to comment)
- Marshall S: Good nubbins. The most clams-to-cake.
Without further ado, the results as we know them to be, as tabulated by our accountants at Dewey, Cheatem & Howe, and announced at Maison Bessette:
#1 – Quito’s
#2 – Aunt Carrie’s
#3 – Evelyn’s Drive-In
#4 – The Hitching Post
#5 – Cap’n Jack’s
#6 – Blount’s Clam Shack
#7 – Flo’s Island Park
#8 – Anthony’s Seafood
#9 – Amaral’s Fish & Chips
#10 – The Seafood Haven
#11 – MacRay’s Seafood II
#12 – Samantha’s Seafood
DISQUALIFIED – Two Little Fish
Two-time runner up Quito’s took the top spot away from Aunt Carrie’s! Quelle surprise!
Rick E says it all about Quito’s clam cakes:
BY THE NUMBERS
- 12 Clam Shacks in 8-ish Hours
- 140 Driving Miles Covered in a full loop around Lil Rhody from start and finish at Maison Bessette in Elmhurst
- 6 New Shacks
- 1 Shack Disqualified, a Clam Cake Crawl first
- Crawled 4 out of 5 RI Counties (Washington, Newport, Bristol, Providence)
- 4 Bridges Traversed (Verrazano-Jamestown, Claiborne Pell Newport, Mt. Hope, I-Way)
- 4 U-Turns made after passing exits or turns
- 15 Crawlers over the entire day
- 2 Riders-Along
- 10 New Crawlers
- 4 Crawlers traveled from out of state (Marshall S, Matt H, Jason C, Rick E)
- Marshall S traveled the furthest (from Albany, NY)
- 0 Traffic Back-Ups Leaving Narragansett or Entering Newport
As always, we would like to thank our fans who liked and cheered us on via Facebook and Instagram (#clamcakecrawl3) as we ventured on this year’s epic rally in search of clam cake excellence in the Ocean State.
On behalf of The Clamarati, I would like to thank our Clam Cake Crawlers — especially those joining us for the first time — for their strong constitutions, thoughtful analyses, and general goodwill! And special thanks to Matt H, Deb C, Joey S, and Don H for safely transporting the Crawlers around the Ocean State.
And remember, we did this so you don’t have to. You’re welcome!
In clam cake we trust.
Til next year,
— The Notorious RSB
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 email@example.com regarding interviews with The Clamarati and/or reposting.