With respect to Fenway franks, frappes, and baked beans, my home state of Massachusetts is far from America’s most prestigious culinary hub. However, it's impossible to deny the greatness of the Bay State's seafood. And of all the seafood dishes on menus everywhere from Boston to Cape Cod, none is more coveted than the lobster roll.
But that buttery masterpiece is not the region’s only praiseworthy summer sandwich. In fact, it might not even be the best seafood sandwich the state claims. That honor might just belong to the clam roll.
Clams are quintessential New England. Locals serve them drowned in creamy chowder, stuffed with spicy breadcrumbs, or steamed to dip in butter. At their most casual and most excessive -- the way they're best enjoyed beachside, as Neptune intended -- they are fried. And the very best way to eat fried clams is in a roll.
Good fried clams are plump whole bellies -- never strips -- dunked in milk and flour and fried until crispy golden brown. The perfect vehicle to squish them in is a New England-style split-top hot dog bun. It griddles beautifully, thanks to the flat cut faces on its sides. In fact, the iconic roll was actually originally made for the clam roll specifically, and that makes perfect sense: The feather-light clams need the upright structure to stay in place. The inside of the roll is smeared with lemony tartar sauce before it’s loaded with clams. And it's perfect.
A clam roll overwhelms the senses. It’s too much. It should be an undertaking to eat, impossible to tackle with grace. Take a bite and a cacophony of salty, battered crunches will commence. Sweet, briny gushes of clam juice and guts will spray with reckless abandon. A chewy, toasty bun will need tearing, vulnerably forcing you to risk spilling it all.
What makes the roll reign supreme is this bruteness. The appeal of the fried clam is no dainty, pinkies-up affair. Eating them one at a time will not do. The satisfaction of consuming an avalanche of fried clams is primitive, animalistic. They are meant to be devoured, not grazed on. The best can be found on Massachusetts’s North Shore -- the home of famed Ipswich clams -- at seafood shacks like Woodman’s of Essex, which claims to be the origin of the fried clam, and The Clam Box. On the Cape, The Clam Shack in Falmouth (recently reopened under new management) is prime for outdoor snacking by the sea and The Lobster Trap in Cataumet is great for a casual seafood dinner of clam rolls.