There are two kinds of fried clams in this world–fried clam strips and fried clams with bellies. The first kind is a flavorless dried out, stringy, piece of clam meat. The second kind is moist, tender and full of ocean flavor. For the past couple of years pork belly has been the big thing…I hope clam bellys get their turn to shine.
There are two parts to clams–the “muscle part” and the “soft everything else part.” The “soft everything else part” is what is called the belly. When you have fried clams with belly, you are eating the whole clam. Soft shelled clams or steamers are the clams that are most often used. They are also called longneck clams or Ipswich clams. These clams spend most of their life chilling out in the mudflats of New England, filtering water for tasty bits of food. Anyhow, the belly is where all the magic happens for the clam, and where all the flavor is. When you just get the strips, you miss all this goodness.
I grew up in Massachusetts, but in the Western part which has as much in common with Albany as it does Boston. When I was growing up fried clams meant fried clam strips. Luckily Carolyn grew up on the other end of the state and got to spend a lot of time in Rockport, MA where fried clams always means belly included. One of the best places for fried clams is Ipswich, MA. You should have guessed this since soft shells are also known as Ipswich Clams.
After a day in Rockport we went to the Clambox in Ipswich and ordered two large Fried Clams with Belly boxes. Four people manage to devour this order in a record 12 minutes. While we probably could have gotten away with a smaller order, no one walked away from the table unhappy. The clams were perfectly fried, with a moist and tender interior and a crisp and crunchy crust. The meaty part was not at all over cooked and the belly tasted like the ocean. The clams were not from Ipswich; it seems like they are having a little Red Tide problem. Instead, they were from Maine and were just as good. Since you keep clams live until they are cooked, it is not problem to bring them a couple of extra miles.
Fried clams with bellies are tougher to find outside of New England. Luckily for us, and all of the other residents of DC, Hank’s Oyster Bar has a mean plate of fried Ipswich Clams with Bellies. While the ambiance might be a bit more yuppie and a little less New Englandy, it is some tasty eating and I dare say almost as good.