Crowning Rhode Island’s Best Clam Cake with the Clamarati
The annual Lil' Rhody Clam Cake Crawl is a daylong, pun-packed, clam cake critiquing expedition.
Do you think all clam cakes are created equal? Think again.
After sampling eleven versions in eight hours at clam shacks across the state for the Lil Rhody Clam Cake Crawl, I can assure you that they are all different.
I am spending an entire Saturday with a passionate group of fritter fans — the self-proclaimed clamarati — as we travel Rhode Island in a white, seven-passenger Chevy Traverse SUV rental nicknamed the Clambulance, followed by a caravan of cars, to find out which clam cakes are worth the clams at a dozen different spots from Westerly to East Providence.
The rental, unfortunately, has New York plates. Someone says the out-of-state plates are part of the clamarati’s cover, so we can retain our “clamonymity.” The crawl co-organizer, Renee Bessette, slaps a Frog and Toad-procured bumper sticker that says “I Never Leave Rhode Island” to the back window of the vehicle with tape. We’re legit now.
The reason for this crawl is to whittle the Ocean State’s plentiful clam cake options down to a yearly winner. It’s a tough job because each clam cake is so distinctive and they visit different places every year to judge the results. Some clam cakes are perfectly round scooped balls of fried dough while others are blobs with little bulges sticking out, which are lovingly called “nubbins” by the clamarati. “Those are the little protrusions, the handles that come off the clam cake,” says Clam Cake Queen Bessette, who earned the nickname from friends and family because of her love of clam cakes. You can almost always find her in a nautical-style striped shirt, and she doesn’t shy away from a bit of grit, so there’s no mistake shacks are using freshly shucked clams.
Some clam cakes have clam chunks, specks or slices, others have no clams at all, and some use fresh quahogs versus canned Canadian surf clams (which is a travesty, since we are in Rhode Island, where clams are plentiful). Some restaurants add chourico or freshly cracked black pepper, and others use housemade recipes or boxed flour mix for the dough. Some are crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside; some are greasy and soggy. Some are served piping hot; some are lukewarm. Some are small like golf balls; others are the size of your fist.
This clam cake-critiquing expedition began in 2014 with Elmhurst resident Bessette and her friend, Joe Mecca and his wife, Carol Caulfield Mecca, who are from Riverside. Five years ago, after a conversation that came up on Mecca’s podcast, Joe Mecca’s Big Mouth, the trio set out on their first crawl. Over the years, they’ve picked up more than a dozen semi-regular friends and family members who join them on their annual adventure that’s documented on their Lil Rhody Clam Cake Crawl Facebook page and Bessette’s blog, Only in Lil Rhody.
For the fifth annual crawl, we gather at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning in late June at Bessette’s home. We go over the ground rules for the scorecards we will all fill out after visiting each spot, and learn we can revise our ratings as we move along. The coastal route has already been planned for efficiency on Google maps. The areas we will judge include crispness, tenderosity, flavor, nubbins, clam-to-cake ratio, clambiance and dining experience (service). When it comes to clambiance, we will evaluate the overall clam shack feel — for example, is the spot on the water? Or in a strip mall parking lot where the closest thing resembling a beach is a seagull dumpster diving for stale fries?
“If you think about clam shacks in your mind, does this meet the criteria? There are some places that try to overdo it in terms of their decor,” says Caulfield Mecca. “You might want to think about the person-to-buoy ratio.”
At the conclusion, all of the participants’ scores will be totaled to determine the winner, which will be revealed a few days later at “the clubhouse,” a.k.a. the Wild Colonial Tavern in Providence where many members of the group first met.
11 a.m.: A group of six travels in the SUV with the Meccas’ chihuahua, Sabina. She is quickly renamed “Clambina.” The jokes begin. “Yo quiero clam cake!” says crawl veteran Joey Spears, mimicking a classic Taco Bell commercial. Two other cars complete the clam cake caravan. In one car — with a license vanity plate that reads “QUAHG” — is the founder of Quahog.org, Christopher Martin, and his girlfriend, Kim Calcagno. The other car is driven by seafood aficionado David Stone. Martin and Stone wrote the book Rhode Island Clam Shacks together, which was published last year, so they were “clampelled” to join the brigade again this year.
We depart with Joe Mecca behind the wheel of the SUV, making our way to the first stop in Westerly. We prepare our minds and stomachs for what’s ahead; it’s the clam before the storm.
Noon: An hour later, we arrive at Shore Dinner Hall on Westerly’s Post Road, which is nowhere near the shore. The place is a nostalgic throwback to Rocky Point with nautical decor including a giant octopus on the roof and a wooden pirate ship in the back for kids to climb on. You could say they’ve gone ocean-themed overboard. Mecca buys the first round of a dozen clam cakes. Each of the crawl participants is in charge of buying a round, so we can all try one clam cake from every spot. My sustaining strategy is to eat the whole thing if I like it, but only a bite or two if it doesn’t measure up.
Once Mecca scores a bag, he heads outside to meet the group and opens the foil to “present” the clam cakes. The clamarati stands around him, cell phones in the air, snapping pics of the first clam cakes of the day. It’s like clamarazzi up in here.
Mecca holds a clam cake in the air, scrutinizing it up close to check out the nubbins. His expression is serious. Not even a hint of a smile appears on his face as he tears a crisp clam cake in half to inspect its content. Then he takes a bite. We all notice something different right away. At first, we think it might be bacon, but we later find out it’s fried bits of crisp, red-tinged sea clam on the outside of the cake. There aren’t many tender clams inside the cake itself. They are tasty, but not a top example. We mark our scorecards and move on.
12:45 p.m.: After a six-minute drive along Post Road, we revisit last year’s Clam Cake Crawl winner, Hitching Post in Charlestown. They call the clam cakes fritters here, and they are giant pillows of fried dough with quahog clams inside. Hitching Post is a stealth clam shack, far from the shore but on the way to the beach. The back area boasts a beautiful garden with shaded picnic tables. The fist-sized clam cakes are quickly devoured.
“Very tender,” says Stone.
“High tenderosity,” says Mecca, quoting a word he made up for the texture of a perfect clam cake.
“Oh yeah, it’s like a ten,” says Stone.
It is the kind of clam cake that lends itself to dunking, but we skip the chowder and persist onto the next stop: Jim’s Dock in Wakefield.
1:25 p.m.: The waterfront harbor view at Jim’s is stellar, but the clam cakes are too perfectly round with few nubbins, and the cakes themselves contain sea clams with a pinkish hue.
“These were better last year,” says Mecca, who is surprised since Jim’s did so well last time. He explains how results vary each year and that’s why they return to conduct clam cake check-ups. “They are different batch to batch and they are different within a batch. Some people can get a clam cake that’s good, some don’t,” Mecca says. “That’s why we have people scoring on a ten-point system. Everyone’s opinion will factor in, and the cream will rise to the top.”
Jim’s is not a winner this year, so we head to our next spot that boasts a nostalgic Rhode Island name, Benny’s Clam Shack in Wakefield.
2 p.m.: While there are no lawn chairs or bicycles for sale, this new, bright red clam shack in the middle of a parking lot in Wakefield sure has some good clam cakes. Mine has a clam foot sticking out of the top, so I know they aren’t cutting corners; they confirm they’re using fresh, local clams procured from Warwick’s Metro Seafood and Lobster Company.
The clamarati always include a few lesser known spots that are located along their Rhody road trip route to show people there’s more than just the familiar staples.
“Not a lot of people know [Benny’s] like everyone knows Flo’s,” says Bessette. “They know Blount. George’s. This is brand new.”
“If you only get your clam cakes from places like Iggy’s, you are not experiencing all the different levels,” says Mecca. “Everyone knows them, and they’re institutions, but there are little tiny places that are also remarkably good.”
Case in point: Benny’s.
2:40 p.m.: From there, it’s off to Narragansett for the annual “Battle of Point Judith.” For some, it’s Iggy’s versus Aunt Carrie’s; one or the other, for life. In the interest of saving time, I am dropped off to wait in line at Iggy’s while the rest of the group heads to Aunt Carrie’s. We will meet with separate bags of clam cakes from each place for a doughy face-off. The Iggy’s line moves quickly for me, and soon I have a piping hot bag to carry down the street to Aunt Carrie’s so we can sample the two examples side by side.
3:03 p.m.: We gather at the picnic tables in front of Aunt Carrie’s ice cream shop, icy Del’s lemonades in hand. We are committing a clammy crime as we smuggle Iggy’s clam cakes onto the Aunt Carrie’s premises. Using my phone, I film the “Battle of Point Judith” as if Rocky Balboa is facing off against Apollo Creed. The Iggy’s clam cakes are small and round with nubbins, and the inside boasts clam pieces with a pinkish tone, which we later learn are surf clams that are a bit sweeter than quahogs.
Bessette picks up an Aunt Carrie’s cake. “Oh my god. These are ginormous,” she says, holding an irregularly shaped, fist-sized blob of light fluffy dough with chopped soft-shell clams inside it. These clams have smaller bellies than quahog clams.
Stone hold up a perfectly round Iggy’s clam cake. “I am about to do something that’s never been done before, dip an Iggy’s clam cake in Aunt Carrie’s chowder,” he says, then scandalously plunges the fried food into the creamy white abyss.
I am too busy filming to sample the goods right away, and before I know it, there is only one Aunt Carrie’s clam cake left for me. It’s the greasy bottom-of-the-bag variety. Everyone in the group raves, “Aunt Carrie’s is back.” Clearly, it’s the winner of the “Battle of Point Judith,” but I need a do-over. You snooze, you lose.
3:38 p.m.: The next spot can be a parking challenge since it’s right on Narragansett Beach, but almost as soon as we pull up to Monahan’s Clam Shack, we nab a spot right out front. After soaking up the waterfront view, we have a double-bagged paper sack of clam cakes. A woman who later joined us on the crawl, Vermont Deb, rips them open like a strip tease.
These large balls of fried dough are filled with chopped pieces of local quahogs, and the dough is seasoned with freshly cracked pepper. They are my favorites so far, but I am not a traditionalist. I love when clam shacks spice it up a bit. Seven spots in, I am happy as a clam, but now we have to figure out our strategy for the rest of the evening.
4 p.m.: It’s now 4 p.m. and beach traffic is an issue. We still have five more spots to visit and we only have until 8 p.m. to do it. We decide to split up the clam-critic crew and have one group cruise to Flo’s in Newport to check out the line and bring a dozen cakes to our next spot, Anthony’s Seafood in Middletown.
As we drive to Anthony’s, we get a call from the Flo’s clam scouting crew —dubbed the “Flo-ridas.” They are riding past Flo’s and there’s a line stretching onto the sidewalk and down the street. If we wait it out, we run the risk of missing several other clam shacks on our list, so we tell them to abort mission and meet us at Anthony’s.
5 p.m.: At Anthony’s, the line branches off into two sections outside the door: one for dine-in and one for takeout. It takes a while to get our to-go order here, because the restaurant is super-popular and we stood in the wrong line. Once we sample the goods, we agree that Anthony’s serves up a top example. Round and small in shape, we can tell they use fresh clams and it makes a big difference in quality and flavor. We later find out the sea clams come from Galilean Seafood in Bristol, and for the batter, they use Drum Rock fritter mix made in Warwick.
Then it’s on to Evelyn’s Drive-In in Tiverton, one of the most scenic clam shacks in all of Rhode Island.
6 p.m.: We have a bag of Evelyn’s clam cakes in front of us, spread out on a picnic table with a view of tranquil Nanaquaket Pond in the background. Crawler Betty Brais does the honor of releasing the clam cakes from the brown paper bag.
“We’re looking mighty fine. These look like sculptures,” she says, pointing to some cakes that have crispy bits of clam poking out of the sides. Evelyn’s uses a fifty-year-old recipe from the original owner, Evelyn, which includes sea clams combined with clam juice and Drum Rock fritter mix.
“They look pretty, don’t they,” says Mecca.
“Nice little nubbies,” Brais says.
Bessette holds up one with a pointy finger-like appendage on it that she says looks like it’s flipping the bird.
My clam cake also boasts a flying buttress resembling a fried clam coming out the side. The clam cakes are crisp at first bite, and tender on the inside, but they are saltier than the others. They are delicious, but nine deep into our crawl, this group isn’t clamoring to try another.
6:45 p.m.: We brave it to Quito’s in Bristol, where there is an Independence Day concert keeping traffic at a constant. We are in Bristol five days before the big July 4th celebration, so the waterfront town is packed. Unable to find a parking spot on any of the surrounding streets, we’re dropped off to order a dozen and depart. The rest of our caravan chooses to meet us at Blount Clam Shack at Crescent Park in Riverside, where we will sample the goods from both clam shacks side by side. We have a bag in hand a little after 7 p.m., and then we make a mad dash to Blount before its 8 p.m. closing time.
7:30 p.m.: Once we arrive at Blount, the rest of the crew has already placed an order. We claim the gazebo and wait nearly thirty minutes for the final clam cakes of the day to arrive.
Finally, we have two versions to compare. Quito’s clam cakes are the size of golf balls, and although they are now cold from the drive and wait, they’re still crisp and full of slices of sea clams. They are small but mighty, with the highest clam-to-cake ratio thus far. Blount offers dark clam cakes that were cooked in what looks like last-batch-of-the-day oil, but they contain a good amount of chopped quahog clams sourced from Cape Cod Shellfish Company, and they’re served with a tasty housemade sauce.
The last-batch oil is the reason we should avoid visiting a clam shack right before closing time. It’s our fault we’re late, but we did our best to avoid a clamtastrophe caused by beach traffic. We’ve consistently had terrific clam cakes at Blount in the past, so we cut them some clam shack slack this time.
8 p.m.: We take in the sunset over Narragansett Bay from Crescent Park and reflect on the eleven clam cakes we experienced today (one short of a dozen). They settle like bricks in our guts. The next few days will be filled with salads to make up for our fryolator frenzy.
The adventure was filled with Rhode Island’s beautiful coastal sights and food specialties. As I look back, I’ll remember a day of clamaraderie.
A few days later, the clamarati total the scores and reveal the winner on a video posted to the Lil Rhody Clam Cake Crawl Facebook page. “Two-time previous winner, and champion again,” says Joe Mecca. “Aunt Carrie’s in Point Judith, Narragansett, Rhode Island. Try them, they are the best this year.”
Aunt Carrie’s holds the title until the 2019 Clam Cake Crawl kicks off again this June. Will they continue to wear the crown? We’ll soon find out. It may have taken a year, but we’ve got clam cake cravings again.