I didn’t think I was that familiar with fritters, but it turns out I am. Fritters is a name applied to a wide variety of fried foods, usually consisting of a portion of batter or breading which has been filled with bits of meat, seafood, fruit, vegetables or other ingredients. So essentially it’s fried batter with stuff in there. While I was thinking of how to celebrate a fritter, I remembered one of Rhode Island’s most beloved foods: the clam cake. And yes indeed, a clam cake is a fritter.
Before meeting my wife, a Rhode Island native, I had never heard of a clam cake. Sounds kind of gross really. I pictured a birthday-type cake covered with raw clams. Yum. But on one of my visits to her hometown to spend time with the whole Mellow family, we took a ride on the kayaks and made our way across the mighty Sakonnet River to a place in Tiverton called Evelyn’s. It’s right on Nanaquaket Pond which comes off the river. They have a dock there, so if you are coming by boat, you can just pull right in or if you are coming by kayak, you can just paddle ashore and walk up the embankment. It takes about an hour to get there if you are paddling at a nice leisurely pace. It’s also the perfect place to stop for a little break.
When we went ashore and up to the ordering window, Lola ordered clam cakes and clam chowder for us. I’m a fan of clam chowder, so that was exciting, but clam cakes would be something new. When they were ready, we took them to a picnic table overlooking the pond and had our feast. When you first see a clam cake, you are in awe. They are golden brown lumps of perfectly fried goodness. They look like little donuts (which essentially they are, just savory). Even for someone who is not a huge fan of seafood, you’re tempted because they look so good. When you tear them open, you glance at this glorious, steaming warm bread with little flecks of clams mixed in. Lola was quick to teach me the Rhodey way to eat a clam cake. You dunk it in the clam chowder. I probably would have come to that conclusion eventually, but it really completes the experience. The chowder at Evelyn’s is pretty tasty too, which helps. To my surprise, clam cakes were (are) delicious. It’s really just bread – the taste of clams is there, but it’s overwhelmingly soft, delicious bread with a crispy shell.
Evelyn’s was always a Mellow favorite but then a few years ago it was featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive Ins and Dives, and it’s popularity skyrocketed. Did you know that Guy’s wife is from North Providence? That’s what brings him to our little state so often, and why he knew about Evelyn’s. He gets it, and he knew how to eat a clam cake too. In any case, it’s a great local spot. However, it’s a summer spot and it shuts down for the winter. I knew that having a clam cake today would be the best way to celebrate National Fritters Day, but all the great clam cake spots are closed for the winter. We have an equally famous spot called Flo’s Clam Shack right around the corner from us that serves world class clam cakes but they too were shuttered for the winter. Their neighbors at Shultzie’s Drive In was also closed too. What’s a man with a hankerin’ for clam cakes in December supposed to do?
Have you ever passed a restaurant about 1,000 times and never really stopped to see what they are about? There’s a restaurant on East Main Road called Samantha’s Seafood that’s open year round and I drive right by it every time I head out of town. It used to be a place called Chase Deli which actually had some great sandwiches, but I had not been back since they changed to Samantha’s. We’re just not seafood people, so it wasn’t at the top of the list. Until today that is. When I thought about places where I could possibly get a clam cake, I suddenly remembered Samantha’s Seafood. They specialize in fired seafood, so I was curious if they sold clam cakes. After perusing ether website, I realized they did indeed serve them and I had found my spot for clam cakes and it was less than a mile away from our house.
Inside Samantha’s is a lot like it used to be when it was Chase’s Deli, although brighter and a bit more updated. Plenty of tables and a nice comfortable counter if I wanted to eat there. They have a pretty extensive menu and it’s not just seafood – their burgers come highly recommended. I was there at about 2 pm which is never a bustling time for any restaurant, so the place was empty except for the two workers who greeted me pleasantly. I placed my order for half a dozen cakes and a bowl of chowder to go and they went back into the kitchen and started cooking. It was ready in no time and I was on my way home.
When I got home, Lola had just gotten home from a walk and was able to join me. It was plenty enough food to split too. The cakes were still nice and hot which made it more enjoyable. We dipped ours in the clam chowder as required by RI law and had a little feast at our kitchen table.
Maybe it was because I was really hungry, but these were among the best clam cakes I’ve ever tasted. They were fresh and fluffy with the right amount of crispiness from the frying. They weren’t too clammy either (meaning having a lot of clams). They had just enough, plus there was no grit to them as you sometimes get with clam cakes (or clams in general). Maybe a purist would want more clams but for me, they were perfect and Lola agreed. The chowder was nice and thick too which is perfect for dunking. We’re pretty critical about clam chowder and this one held up nicely. All in all it was a really pleasant surprise.
Well consider Fritter Day celebrated as we rode our way into Flavortown and enjoyed a Rhode Island classic. Even though today’s clam cakes were delicious, you can’t think about clam cakes without thinking about summer and that’s what I missed about today. There’s something about waiting for your order with the sun beaming down on you, hearing the hectic call of hungry seagulls waiting, hearing the crunch of car tires on crushed shells in the driveway and seeing a glimmering sea before you that is the real clam cake experience. They are just better that way. Still, they are a tasty local treat and I can appreciate them for being part of the RI culture. They hit the spot today but I still can’t wait until we have them again when the weather is right. Somebody clean off the boats and get them ready – we are going for a ride.
Next Up: National Rhubarb Vodka Day