Sunday, July 24, 2011

Essex Seafood

I've just had a perfect day. It's summer in New England... a phenomenon that lasts long enough to make us forget about horrendous experiences like shoveling out cars, breaking down commuter rail trains, or not seeing a sidewalk for months at a time. With the optimal weather, one is pretty darn obligated to head to the nearest beach. And for us, that would be Crane Beach in Ipswich. 
So after a day of swimming, beach combing, throwing around a frisbee, and generally soaking in some vitamin D (you should see the epic burn on my bigger half's back!), we were famished. And just as one is obligated to head to the beach on a beautiful day, I firmly believe that after the sun and fun, one must replenish and relax at a favorite clam shack. For us, our favorite go to is one of many heavy hitters, but perhaps the least likely to be overrun with tourists and out of towners utterly confounded by the existence of a fried clam belly. This is the clam shack located off of 133 known as Essex Seafood.
While its location is not quite as nice as the on the marsh views had by Woodmans or J.T. Farnham's, there is outdoor seating, and any line tends to move quickly. You'll be able to order all of the clam shack greatest hits at the window from one of the friendly teenagers working there over the summer. There are lobster rolls, fried clams, clam rolls, steamers, chowder, baked scallops, fried scallops, calamari, native shrimp... you get the picture. After ordering, they'll give you a number, and you'll begin the waiting game... seconds seem like days as you anticipate the delicious seafood to come. But grab a beer, and head outside. Oh that's right, another reason why this place is awesome: BYOB, baby. 'Ganny in hand, life is so good.
After a few minutes of clutching our number, good ol' #79 was called, and we retreated inside to grab our tray of goodies. There are really three items that are a "must order", and one for us that gets an honorable mention. Today is a summary of those items at Essex Seafood.
1) The chowder. New England prides itself on its chowder. People are passionate about it. I find that in Boston, chowders are pretty darn thick, bordering on gloopy. As you head further north to Maine, the actual chowder broth is much thinner, and quite a bit more buttery. Down on the South Coast, MA and in Rhodie, things get a little kooky with clear chowder... and then there's that business of the red, which I don't think I can even classify as a chowder. At any rate, Essex Seafood has an excellent chowder. The broth is rich, and slightly thicker than the Maine variety of chowder, but will still slide silkily off of your spoon after being dipped into the soup. As with all chowders, there is a bounty of tender, never overcooked, chopped clam throughout the soup. There are tender potatoes that have soaked in the briny broth, but never too many potatoes. The ratio should be more clam to potato, and if you find the situation is otherwise, I'd be slightly suspicious that somebody was cheaping out on the clams. So, a single spoonful is a combination of a little potato for body, delicious fresh clam, and silky, sweet, creamy broth.  It's impeccable, and you should try it, because I know damn well, I'm not putting the proper poetry to Essex Seafood's chowder.
2) The lobster roll. I love lobster rolls. And for something so simple that should be very hard to screw up, there are a hell of a lot of people really jeopardizing the sweet meat of one of life's greatest luxuries. Lately, I've been seeing "BLT Lobster Roll" on menus across the country. I just read that some fool in California was adding avocado and friggin' jalapeno to a lobster roll. WTF?! Jalapenos? Really? REALLY?! Travesty, says I! Alright, I digress, so a proper lobster roll for purists is three elements: plump, cooked to perfection lobster meat (not just tail; must include knuckle, claw, legs, and body meat to show the resourcefulness of a seafood shack), a buttered and grilled split-top hot dog roll, and mayo. Salt and pepper, a little paprika for the top, a tiny bit of chopped celery, and maybe one leaf of iceberg lettuce to separate the lobster/mayo from the roll are acceptable things to add to the lobster roll, but none are really necessary if you've done everything correctly. And as you may have guessed, Essex Seafood offers a proper lobster roll: lobster meat, mayo, buttered and grilled New England hot dog bun. Every bite is sweet and meaty, lightly dressed with mayo, and complemented by the buttery roll. It's light and delicate, and yet delivered in the same vehicle as that of a Fenway frank. If Sophia Loren was eating a philly cheese steak the two might burst into flames only to leave behind a single lobster roll. Not sure why that makes sense, but it totally does. 
3) Fried clams. Ipswich clams are indeed a delicacy. Local clams are enjoyed here year round, and when stocks are low, the price goes up. But it's always worth it. They're small and sweet, enjoyed as steamers, or deep fried. At Essex Seafood, you can get your clams deep fried in lard, creating an extra crispy, light coating, that's perfect in bringing out the sweet succulence of each bite of clam. I'm kind of torn between whether I enjoy them more here, or at the Clam Box, but I've never been disappointed with a side of fried clams at this particular restaurant. They have tartar sauce too...but I'm not sure if it's necessary. I can just pop these one after another, enjoying the briny explosion of the belly with the crisp, light coating. Fried clams were meant to be enjoyed with the belly, never just as clam strips, which are often chewy and without the major payoff that comes from the little bites served in a little paper boat at various places on the North Shore. Remember, Ipswich clams, deep fried, whole belly, not strips. Shaken, not stirred... Bond, James Bond. Ipswich clams. Full circle. 
4) Clam cakes. Now, we order the clam cakes mainly because these are something that we grew up with down in Rhodie or in Fall River, MA. The clam cakes here are as close as you're going to get to the ones that we knew in childhood at Rocky Point, but not nearly as authentic as the real deal, deep fried orbs that you can get at Flo's in Portsmouth. (See entry Road Trip to Rhodie.) But they are still delicious. Light and fluffy on the inside with bits of clam, and minced onion (not normally added to my knowledge, but not taking away from the deliciousness of a clam cake), and the outer surface has been fried to a crisp golden brown. These are a little oily, and odd in that one order contains three clam cakes, when you usually order by the half dozen or dozen down on the South Coast. But, again, they are still delicious. Something that gets your fingertips a little oily, and each bite contains a little clam and a certain bready fritter savoriness. I think that anyone could enjoy these, and those that don't are probably harboring deep dark secrets that no clam cake will cure. 
So that's the rundown. Seafood shacks on the North Shore run deep with local pride. And honestly they're all good. But if you want one that still hasn't been on TV and touched by the bleach blond spikes of Guy Fieri, then you may want to head straight over to Essex Seafood. Sit outside, take down a memory of what it means to experience summer in New England, sip your 'Ganny like a good boy, and live the dream. Happy clammin'.

Essex Seafood
143 Eastern Avenue (Rt. 133)
Essex MA, 01929

No comments:

Post a Comment