Nothing says summertime in New England like a heaping plate of fried clams. We're talking the whole-belly variety -- none of this clam-strip business. That's for amateurs.
Those juicy, crispy clams are best when they're spritzed with a bit of lemon and piled on top of French fries. Don't forget the tangy tartar sauce and cole slaw!
Greater Lowell has plenty of restaurants -- including some surprising, hidden gems -- with quality fried clams that make you feel like the beach is only a bite away.
Captain John's Restaurant & Lounge
333 Westford St., Lowell
Fried clam plate with french fries, cole slaw and tartar sauce: $18.95 plus tax
Side dish: $14.
Don't let the gruff exterior of Captain John's scare you away, because you'll be running from some seriously great food.
When Sun readers told us this hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Cupples Square had the best seafood in the city, we knew we had to try it. Not only did it have some of the freshest local clams -- delivered six days a week, according to co-owner Nick Kozombolis -- but this hidden gem beats most other places on price.
"We have people that live in this area that don't even go to the beach to get it anymore," Kozombolis said. "They come here, then go to the beach for other stuff."
The portion size is astounding -- come with a big appetite, or bring a friend to share. I received a towering plate of clams and fries with an overflowing cup of freshly made cole slaw and lots of tartar sauce. The lightly breaded clams -- prepared with only milk and milled flour before golden-fried in clean canola oil -- were simple, fresh and delectable, with a light crunch.
Captain John's uses Boston Fish Market in Gloucester for all of its seafood, all of which comes from the Massachusetts coast, according to co-owner Maria Kozombolis-LeMay. She said the clams they use are dug out of the sand, not mud. Clams found in mud require a thorough washing that also tends to strip them of their flavor, while those found in the sand need only a quick rinse that keeps that sweet goodness intact, she said.
Get the clam plate or splurge on a fried seafood platter so you can try Captain John's other offerings -- the succulent scallops alone make it worth the few extra dollars.
The restaurant is cash-only, so make sure you hit the ATM first.
Jimmy's Pizza Too
480 Chelmsford St., Lowell
Fried clam plate with french fries or onion rings, cole slaw and tartar sauce: $22.50 plus tax
Side dish: $21.50
This unassuming pizza joint -- another Lowell gem -- was among our favorites for quality, freshness and value.
All of the native clams are hand-harvested in Ipswich and the surrounding coast, and delivered by Leavitt Shellfish Co., three times a week, according to Jimmy's Pizza Too owner Bill Theofilopoulos.
He uses a simple egg wash with evaporated milk and a cornmeal and flour mix to lightly batter the clams, which are then fried to golden perfection in clean oil and seasoned with sea salt. Changing the oil often is key, he said.
"I like to spend a little extra money to make the customer happy and make sure the clams are tasty," Theofilopoulos said.
The scrumptiously crispy, chewy clams have medium-size bellies that melt in your mouth. You can't go wrong with the fries or the onion rings. The tartar sauce isn't made in-house, but the mayo-heavy cole slaw is.
Kimball Farm Seafood and Grill Shack
400 Littleton Road, Westford
Fried clam plate with French fries and cole slaw: $27.95 plus tax
Side orders: $20.95 half pint, $28.95 pint
Everyone knows Kimball Farm for the ice cream, but its Seafood and Grill Shack will give you another reason (as if you needed one!) to head on over almost to the Littleton line.
This local favorite does just about everything right, so it's no surprise the fried clams are delicious. They're crispy, crunchy and hit the spot. They're good on their own, with a bit of lemon or tangy tartar sauce.
You can get them alone, or on a plate with fries and cole slaw. It's all very simply done, with little fanfare but great flavor. It's easy to forget you're not on the coast but in landlocked Westford.
The best part: After you fill up at the Grill Shack, you can grab some of the best locally made ice cream around. It might be best to go burn a few calories first playing mini-golf, hitting the driving range or partaking in the many other activities this jewel has to offer. But ice cream is a must.
Livingstone's Seafood & Deli
265 Boston Road, Billerica
Fried clam plate with french fries or onion rings, cole slaw and tartar sauce: $23.99 plus tax
Side dishes: $14.99 small, $18.99 medium or $24.99 large
At Livingstone's, it's easy to see why this casual seafood joint is another local favorite.
Owner Fred Livingstone said his clams are special -- he specifically picks the ones with smaller bellies for their big flavor.
"They're smaller and they're sweeter," he said.
The clams come from a number of places, ranging from Ipswich up to Canada -- the location doesn't matter so long as they fit his criteria.
Livingstone said he has a three-step process to prepare them, but he wouldn't share his secrets. The clams were light and crispy with a satisfying crunch, served with hot fries, fresh tartar sauce and cole slaw.
Livingstone likes his cole slaw tangy, not sweet, but the dressing for that is a secret recipe, too.
Like the other places we went to, Livingstone changes his oil a lot.
"That's the secret to having good fried food," he said.
34 Central Square, Chelmsford
Fried clam plate with two sides: $25.99 plus tax
Fishbones offers a more upscale take on the summer classic. It has slightly smaller portions than the other restaurants, but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in flavor.
These extremely fresh-tasting Ipswich whole-belly clams have a flavorful batter, expertly seasoned with a slight bit of spice to give a nice, subtle undertone. They're easy to devour with just a dash of lemon juice, but you'll be happy you tried it with the tartar sauce.
Most people will choose fries and cole slaw for the two sides, but at the point I rolled into Chelmsford Center, I was tired of those traditional clam accompaniments. Luckily, Fishbones had several sides to choose from, including mashed potatoes, sweet-potato fries, seasonal greens and vegetables.
I happily went with the summer risotto -- a cheesy blend with sun-dried tomatoes, peppers, onions, peas and corn -- and the refreshing cucumber tomato salad. They were a welcome respite from all of the heavy, fried sides I'd had in this experiment.
1278 Gorham St., Lowell
Fried clam plate with two sides, tartar sauce, bread and butter: $22.99 plus tax
If you're looking for a quiet place for a good casual sit-down meal, Good Thymes is it.
According to owner Jim Boutin, the clams are locally sourced from Maine to Rhode Island and delivered to the restaurant three times a week. They're prepared simply, dipped in a wash and a mix of cornmeal and flour, fried and seasoned with only salt and pepper.
"You let the clam speak for itself," Boutin said.
The clams were a little greasy but good on flavor, with bellies so plump that they explode in your mouth. The portion size was about as expected for the price.
Good Thymes offers many home-style choices for sides. I tried the sweet-potato fries and the summery broccoli slaw, but you can also get stuffing, mashed potatoes, other vegetables, and, of course, the traditional french fries and cole slaw.
Places worth the drive
The ClamBox, Ipswich
Many will make the pilgrimage to Ipswich each year to visit this mecca of great seafood and retro style. It'll be a wait, but the food is worth it. This place gets so busy it has to change its oil midday to keep putting out the quality fried clams it's known for. Get a native clam plate with two sides, a mini-plate with one side, or small and large boxes of clams, all for market price.
The place where it all began -- more than 100 years ago, Lawrence "Chubby" Woodman invented the fried clam, according to restaurant lore. This is another popular, heavily traveled location that's worth the wait. It also has a mostly gluten-free menu, so even those with Celiac disease or other gluten sensitivities can partake in the fried seafood without worry. A plate of "Chubby's Original" fried clams with fries and onion rings is $28.99, or go for three different sizes of family-style boxes: $21.59 for a half pint, $29.99 for a pint or $52.99 for a quart. That's a lot of clams!
Essex Seafood, Essex
Want to avoid the crowds at the larger, tourist-filled clam joints? Essex Seafood offers a quieter locale for quality seafood. Window ordering, no table service. Get a clam boat with fries or onion rings for $23.95, or three different sizes of side orders: $22.95 small, $24.95 medium, or $45.95 large.
J.T. Farnham's, Essex
Great place to get food with a beautiful view of the Essex River. Get a clam boat with fries for $17, or choose from three sizes of boxes or a plate with two sides, at market price.
Brown's Lobster Pound, Seabrook, N.H.
This was a well-recommended location by our readers, but unfortunately, a weekend fire damaged the kitchen at the landmark restaurant, and it's unclear when it may be able to reopen. We hope to see it back in full force as soon as possible.
Markey's Lobster Pool, Seabrook, N.H.
Across the street from Brown's, Markey's is better known for its fresh lobster and raw bar but also caters to those seeking fried seafood. Try a fried clam plate or choose from three different sizes of boxes, at market price.
The Clam Shack, Kennebunkport, Maine
This cute little shack on the boardwalk over the Kennebunk River serves up excellent seafood and nostalgia in beautiful Maine. Grab a clam lunchbox with french fries and cole slaw for $30.95, or three different sizes of boxes: $20.95 for a half pint, $30.95 for a pint or $45.95 for a quart.
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