Why the Clam Roll Is the Best New England Seafood Sandwich
If you thought the lobster roll was the best New England seafood sandwich, think again.
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 In fact, the iconic roll was actually originally made for the clam roll specifically, and that makes perfect sense: The feather-light clams need the upright structure to stay in place.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 is prime for outdoor snacking by the sea and The Lobster Trap in Cataumet is great for a casual seafood dinner of clam rolls.
Still, despite its greatness, the clam roll lives in the lobster roll’s shadow. This is, against all odds, probably for the best. Some things are better left unnoticed to outsiders. Because certain varieties of clams are difficult to ship fresh, soft-shell whole-belly clams are scarce outside the Northeast. They are one of the region’s few actually good foods that still belong to it. So while the lobster roll soared to national fame in the 2000s, gracing the tables of haughty restaurants from Manhattan to Los Angeles, the clam roll stayed in its place and remained a humble yet special summer treat worth traveling for.
The clam roll has not totally evaded the country’s culinary scene, though. Every so often one can be found, bellies-and-all, in nearby metropolises beyond New England (ahem, New York). Delicious as it might be, something about eating fried clams off of a ceramic plate in the West Village feels beside the point. The details won’t be just so. The roll will be a regular old side-split one, the clams will be too fried or not enough, and don’t hold your breath hoping for generous portions—due to shipping costs, there will almost always be fewer, even at an elevated price point. For the real deal, a traditional roll overflowing with clams, you still need head northeast.
Because of this, the clam roll hasn’t altered its identity in reaction to any big city or Instagram-fueled food trends. Shamelessly bad for you, the closest thing to a superfood you’ll find in the vicinity of a clam roll is a pile of crunchy onion rings in a red checkered paper basket. On the rare occasion, there might be a couple shreds of lettuce. The clam roll has everything you guiltily-crave and nothing that you don’t: fatty, battered gushing clams; caloric, greasy mayonnaise; and buttered-up fluffy carbs.
Nor’easters suck, and it shows in the fabric of local culture—Massachusettsans and their New England kin wait all winter long to make the most of life. And once the sun's out, they take their summers very seriously. The clam roll is a lasting testament to that. It demands to be eaten on a hot picnic bench or by the beach, without a care in the world beyond the inevitable juice-stained shirt.