I’ve avoided the whole “Clam Chowder” thing the entire 20 years I have lived on the Central Coast. My first exposure to this odd stew was the ridiculous line wrapping around Splash Cafe in Pismo Beach. One look at the demographic queued up told me I NEVER needed to experience this soup. And I love clams, and it turns out (I have learned only since trying it) the majority of them are just potato soup–and I love potato soup: practically raised on the stuff! So the other day I decided to put aside my scoffing of them all being “award winning” and “world-famous” and actually put some in my mouth. The range is vast–as vast as the differences in *must-visit* suggestions from followers concerned I am NOT going to the right places. Oh trust me I KNOW I’m starting out in some of the more-touristy spots packin’em in. That is not un-intentional.
Knowing a tiny bit about cooking and understanding *how restaurants work* has culminated in a stirring-the-pot (pun intended) dilemma I think a lot of clam chowder fans take for granted: Does it come from a can? More accurately will be of course: what percentage of the final product came from a can before modification by the chef? And I don’t care about canned clams–I mean: that TOO–but specifically am talking about the white, soupy, mass, base originating in a can. Making soup is a lot more work than people think–especially creamy textured stuff. I think soup-cans are one of the coastal-dining industry’s deep dark secrets and even though chefs will tell me almost ANYTHING off-record, I guarantee 100% of them would swear on their mother’s grave straight to my face til breath gave out their chowder was from scratch. And I’m not judging or docking for starting off that way. Hey: if you can open a #10 and turn it into something amazing with your own secret recipe my hat is off to you as it will be cheaper and faster and more consistent. But it’s a fun guessing game. It will be interesting when I publish this list to see how “wrong” I am.
Splash Cafe … “Award winning we make our clam chowder fresh every day” Cardboard cup with oyster crackers. Ridiculously hot serving temp. Very clearly probably more of a butter base than a cream base. This is not sticky stuff at all. In fact, it slides off the spoon, leaving a perfectly clean spoon. There’s definitely a shit ton of butter, a SHIT-TON of butter. Literally all you can taste is butter. Very finely reduced potatoes and very finely chopped orange bits of clam and a tiny bit of grit. It’s so buttery. Oh my god, this is like literally licking a stick of margarine. Celery. A few larger chunks of potato and some vague brown bits I really can’t quite put my finger on. This is the only chowder I threw out after tasting. You literally can NOT eat this shit.
Cost: $5.95/7.95/9.95 c/b/bb
My Score: 1/12
Can? Probably not but who cares.
Rose’s Landing Bar & Grill … “Award winning & Gluten free” Quite an off-set in appearance and texture. I’m going to let you decide what color it is; sprig of parsley; oyster crackers on side. Almost porridge-like with heavy potato *feel* though none visible with vague bacon nuance. Thick with un-resolved thickener and thick with grey bits of meat which could be partly mushrooms.
Cost: $6.95/10.95/13.95 c/b/bb
My Score: 2/12
Can? I have a hard time believing something this oddly-textured would come from professional, quality-controlled food-service but also have a difficult time believing ANYTHING from this resty is not from Sysco so am going to say either: STRAIGHT out of a can: I mean, literally someone didn’t even stir it -or- a ‘solera’ system of something home-made.
Blue Sky Bistro … “Local’s Favorite” Much larger cubes of potato with numerous large broken bay leaves throughout. Slightly off-white, paprika and croutons. “Award Winning” and who knows if the recipe has changed with the new Roger Sharp house-cleaning. I would have to talk to a regular partaker from the previous regime. Meat a random grouping of large grey chunks with good flavor. Bits of carrot. A bit gelatinous.
Cost: $5.95/9/12.95 c/b/bb
My Score: 3/12
Can? I’m gonna go with: Lightly-modified can.
Harbor Hut … A bit gelatinous on serving and a barely white kind of not too amber. Medium, medium clam throughout. Lots of celery. No potato–rather: tiny tiny potato. It tastes sour. There’s something sour in it like lemon juice or something. Very strange unlike anything else I’ve had. Lots of orange chunks. This is the most unusual chowder I’ve had from Morro Bay, just the piquantness of it. Is that cheese? Parmesan cheese–maybe Romano? feta or blue or chevre? There doesn’t appear to be any cheese meltiness in sauce, but it also doesn’t break down as the temperature cools, it stays medium viscosity throughout.
Cost: $8/10 c/b
My Score: 4/12
Dutchman’s Seafood House … “New England Style” My first Clam Chowder in my LIFE. I think Paul & Co do an amazing job balancing eager-tourist-accessibility and un-snobbish palates with a little pinkie’s-out quality. Pure white, paprika on top, oyster crackers on the side. Light, creamy, elegant perfection with obvious small cubes of potatoes and good celery nuances. Visible random-sized chunks of meat feeling quite like clam in texture and vague flavor. A pretty safe, bland, warm soup with reasonable texture.
Cost: $4.95/9.50/12.95 c/b/bb
My score: 5/12
Can? I’m gonna go with: Heavily-modified can. The bechamel is just a little too perfect.
Dorn’s Original Breakers Cafe … “Award winning 70-year recipe” Almond-hued; no topping no crackers, nothing. Finely-grained texture with no obvious potato but plentiful pieces of cooked celery. The spiciest version to date with definite poivre-blanc. Meat everywhere throughout the thin but sticky liquid ranging from large grey chunks to various-sized bright-orange bits–some of them containing definite sand. I AM NOT COMPLAINING! And trust me: we are not talking *poorly-prepared batch of steamed clams* amounts of sand, we’re talking *just* a teensy-weensy bit of sediment at the core of a couple pieces of meat. I mean: IT’S CLAM. This is the real deal.
Cost: $8/10 c/b
My score: 6/12
Can? As badly as I want to believe *from scratch*, I’m gonna say Yes: a light base heavily modified with frozen/fresh clams and seasoning.
Giovanni’s Fish Market & Galley “Winner of the Morro Bay Chowder Cook-off 6 years in a row” Off-white and creamy with a nice texture and medium potatoes. Half pat of butter applied on serving + a waft of paprika. No sides. Quite a bit of celery. Barely regular bits of yellow crab. Strange smell to it. It smells like heat lamp. I don’t really feel the bacon at all. Incredibly hot temperature–understandable for outdoor service–and very celeriac: almost to the point of dill. Pretty much the closest to the amber/thinnish New England style I’ve experienced in Morro Bay. Despite my eye-rolling and expectations at the amount of tourists flocking to this place, this is pretty good stuff and deserves a top-5 mention.
Cost: $4.50/6.50/10.50 c/b/bb
My Score: 7/12
Can? I’m gonna go with ‘Heavily-modified can’
The Galley Seafood Bar & Grill … “Original top-secret recipe since 1966″ Bag of oyster crackers on the side. Tiny 1/4” chunks of potato and minuscule celery bits. ALL orange or yellow meat in a vast range of sizes–and again–some of them containing just a breath of glorious grit. Otherwise pure white with a golden glistening layer of microscopic drops of oil on top. Sauce glues itself to spoon INSTANTLY. Another stupidly-good version of the *white* kind.
Cost: $10/12 c/b
My score: 8/12
Can? I’m gonna go with No on this one–based on imperfections of body which arise from stove-top labor instead of lab engineering.
A pattern is starting to emerge here. Maybe I should stop. First of all: Morro Bay likes its sticky milk white paste. A LOT. Also watch who offers a bread-bowl… jesssssayin.
The Custom House … “New England style with arctic surf clams” Paprika and dried herb sprinkles with oyster crackers on the side. Fishiest smelling to date and hottest temp at serving. Slight off-white and sticky sticky glue. Lots of stuff in it but most of it not clam–although there are some HUGE clam pieces. Celery, onions, potatoes. I think it might have crab in it? And are some of the clams smoked? A little grit! Sooooo much meat, all in a cream-thick stew.
Cost: $8/11/12 c/b/bb
My score: 9/12
Zorro’s Cafe & Cantina … “Award Winning” Off-white headed into yellow with copious bits of celery, not sticky white by any means. Side of oyster crackers. Only marked down for the size and density of potato chunks. Lots of green herbs in it. I’m not sure what the correct green herb for clam chowder is… a tiny bit of dill? but it’s not strong dill. I’m going to go with maybe tarragon or savory. Lots and lots of clam with a tiny bit of that beautiful grit. Really really good flavor and consistency, great oil integration falls off the spoon even when hot. Quite thin even when hot. Very liquid. This is beautiful stuff right here. Tough call between second-place and third here. Splitting hairs, really.
Cost: $7.49/9.99/11.99 c/b/bb
My score: 10/12
Can? Starts there. My gut is anything with a shit-ton of visible herbs in it is compensation.
Bayside Cafe … “Our own delicious recipe” Gluey and thick but temperature-dependent, off white with tons of bright orange clam–the largest portions of meat I’ve seen. Oyster crackers. Very small potatoes lots of them: really noticeable in their texture: lots of constant 1/4″ dice. Quite oniony–another individual edge I appreciate. Good flavor and good consistency. Smokey-fat. Very nice with quite a bit of grit. Easy #2 on the list. Outstanding. Pretty sure these are the droids we’re looking for.
Cost: $9/10/12.50 c/b/bb
My Score: 11/12
Hoagies Sandwiches & Grill … Rather thin amber cream which breaks down quickly with temperature. Bag of oyster crackers. Potatoes really aren’t the stand-out here: finely reduced bits taking quite a back seat to the rest of the show. Tastes like the ocean: vibrant, funky, alive and elegantly savory. Literally turns to water as it cools, but never breaks emulsion or opaqueness. Regularly-sized masses of orange, yellow and grey meat standing at attention throughout. I’m not sure what kind of goose-bumps clam chowder is supposed to give you, but this is perfection. I went to the new SLO location for their wonderful burger or Cubano, not expecting chowder but I see it on the menu and suddenly realize–DUH–they’ve been down in Pismo Beach for like, 40 years.
My Score: 12/12
Can? What, you think I’m gonna say Yes here? Grandpa still runs the BBQ in Pismo so I’d love to characterize “home-made”. I don’t care, honestly.
Rather educational little journey here. Still not sure what “CLAM CHOWDER” is supposed to taste like or the *approved* texture or color, but–with a bit of welcome coaching–I’m leaning toward the non-sticky, amber-thin grouping. Also–as I mentioned in my teaser–I’m not going to ALL of them. There’s just too many. The split-second I hit *send* on this, my inbox will be full of favorites I missed by disgruntled fans. Pier 46 has been mentioned numerous times, but I just didn’t make it up there. Also Giuseppie’s popped up occasionally. Didn’t make it there either. I only went to ONE in the whole of Pismo–probably a mistake, considering, though shockingly: of the hundreds of suggestions I received, only 2 of them were from the myriad available in Pismo Beach–BOTH of them Italian restaurants. Also not a single suggestion from Cayucos. And for the first time in seafood-recommendation history: not ONCE was Sea Chest mentioned. I think I got a pretty good cross-section.
Tune in next week when I grade all seven hot chicken joints in SLO.