Fried clams are a PEI summer staple. Not just on PEI, in fact, but all around the Maritimes. There are a couple of legendary clam spots in the small town of Cap Pelé, New Brunswick. My family always went to Camille’s (could have been because my father’s name was also Camille, but I think it was mostly because of how good the food was), and some people are loyal to Fred’s. Cap Pelé is a common stopping place on the highway that takes you through New Brunswick to Quebec.
We had no reason to go to Cap Pelé on this past vacation, but there are lots of good fried clams on the Island too. Unfortunately, I can’t eat them anymore – no one has come up with a gluten-free version that I saw. But J decided to do the work for both of us and have a sort of fried clams taste-off around the Island.
You generally find fried clams at small, roadside restaurants where you order at the counter. I’m pretty sure they sell them at almost every dairy bar on PEI (and there are many – perhaps a subject for another post). They’re also popular at pubs or other restaurants with table service that focus on seafood.
There’s also a fried-clam debate among some people, and right within our marriage. There are two basic versions of fried clams: “whole” and “strips”. Either the whole clam is fried, or just the rubbery part that attaches to the clam shell. Clam strips are often frozen and thus served year-round, but in my experience whole clams are fresh and in-season.
From everything I've heard, most people prefer whole clams, which are more expensive. That's the category I fall into. I love the textural variety of eating a whole fried clam: the crunchy batter, the chewy end, then the juicy, soft burst of the clam body. Plain strips – all chew and no creaminess – just don't compare.
Others love whole clams and clam strips equally, and that's J's camp. (He's always had the ability to appreciate all kinds of foods, whereas I can be guilty of food snobbism.) He says the two versions are completely different, that you can barely even compare them. His exact words were, "it's like comparing fries with mashed potatoes".
I must admit that on this trip even the clam strips looked appealing. I think it was the promise of the batter.
Rick’s Fish ’N’ Chips, St. Peter’s
The drive from Charlottetown to the small town of Souris by way of St. Peter's is one I've taken likely more than a hundred times. My father's family is from Souris and we spent time there every summer of my childhood. One of the most beautiful views along the highway is St. Peter's Bay. You come upon it gradually, the blue water glinting in the sun out of the left-hand window of your car. When you turn the corner at the stop sign, you're in town, and you get a great look at the bay as you drive over the small bridge. It's usually dotted with buoys holding the mussel traps on the bottom.
If you keep going straight you'll end up at Greenwich Beach, part of the PEI National Park. Turn right to continue on to Souris, and if you're craving fresh seafood or ice cream, stop at Rick's.
Rick's is pretty well-known across the Island, but we rarely ate there as kids. I do recall one time when we stopped with my Dad and ordered pizza, of all things. I don't think it was very good. I loved the homey feel of the place, but the fried clams were mediocre. The batter was their downfall. It was a traditional fish and chips batter, and much too thick, so J said the flavour of the clam got lost in all the breading.
Basin Head Beach, Red Point
While spending time with family in Souris, J and I visited one of my favourite spots on earth. Basin Head Beach is popular across the Island, because of the “run”, a river flowing from inland to the sea, with a wharf and a bridge to jump off. As a child I spent many happy hours jumping off and letting the current float me out to the sea. The white-sand beach at Basin Head is also beautiful and endless, typical for the Eastern end of the Island. When I was growing up my family rented a cottage every summer one beach over from Basin Head, where the tourists were less plentiful but the surroundings every bit as beautiful.
J and I were at Basin Head Saturday morning at about 10:30 am. It was deserted, except for the teenage lifeguards on the wharf waiting for kids to show up. The softly lapping water reflected the grey sky, awash with heavy clouds. It was not ideal beach weather, but I’m so glad we went anyway. Just walking along the beach soothed every part of me. The water there is so clear the underwater ridges of sand carved by the surf are visible from the shore. We were determined to go swimming, even when it started to spit rain.
The water was numbingly cold, but diving under felt like going back to the womb. Swimming in salt water is a sensation I’ve known nearly my entire life, but it had been three years since I'd last felt it. The clarity of the water, the way the waves bob at your chest, the slight buoyancy -- there's nothing like it.
A snack of fried clams was just what J wanted after we dried off as best we could and made our way back up the beach. The snack bar offered nothing for me, but J thoroughly enjoyed his clam strips, temptingly presented on top of a lettuce leaf with homemade tartar sauce and a slice of lemon. The batter was dark golden, crunchy, and crumbly, almost like fried chicken. J declared them excellent clam strips, and he was even converted by the tartar sauce, which he has never enjoyed before.
Brits Fish and Chips, Charlottetown
Brits is a chain restaurant with a location in Edmonton too, but I’ve never been to either. The Charlottetown restaurant moved into an old spot downtown on University Avenue that had several previous tenants. I remember going to the same space in high school when it used to be Checker’s Diner and drinking thick chocolate milkshakes.
The reason for our visit to Brits this time was because I found out they have gluten-free fish and chips, fried in a separate GF fryer. This is all too rare, and since I was trying to eat as much fish as possible on our trip, I had to give it a try.
My haddock was delicious, though the batter was nothing fantastic. It definitely didn’t have the delicious golden crunchiness that makes regular fish and chips so good. It was stiff and plasticky and the flavour was missing – I suspect it was made principally with white rice flour and cornstarch.
It can be tough to get your hopes up about special GF foods like this, because often the reality is not the way you imagine. Fish and chips is something I've loved my whole life, but it would be hard for a restaurant to recapture the wheat-filled taste the way I remember it.
J, of course, chose the clam strips, which came with fries (often called a clam platter). He enjoyed the clams, but we both found the fries kind of soggy. He said the strips did not measure up to Basin Head's version.
The Frosty Treat Dairy Bar, Kensington
Our fried clam tour really made its way across the Island. Kensington is in the Western end of PEI, near Summerside, the second-largest city. Frosty Treat is definitely the most well-known spot in town. Its somewhat inane slogan, “Don’t drive by, drive in” has become sort of a joke among our friends.
Again, it’s right on the highway, and it’s the perfect stop for a snack or an ice-cream cone between Summerside and Charlottetown. We've stopped here many times on the way home from concerts at the Indian River Music Festival nearby. On warm summer nights the deck is always alive with people.
Frosty Treat is atypical of most PEI dairy bars, being a larger and flashier affair. Their menu is printed in bright colours, rather than black sliding letters on a white board, and they offer non-traditional treats like deep-fried Mars bars.
J’s favourite dairy bar treat is always a soft-serve combination (chocolate and vanilla) chocolate dip cone with nuts (which he now enjoys much more since he can take lactaid before eating it). This time he went for the fried clams too. The whole clams are served with crinkle-cut fries, and these turned out to be J’s favourite whole clams of the trip. He ate them in the car on the way back to town, and they smelled incredible. The breading was not quite as crunchy as the Basin Head clams, but crispy and thin, just the right amount.
With that, our fried clam tour came to an end. The clam strip winner was the Basin Head canteen, and Frosty Treat took home the whole clam trophy. Though I didn’t get to eat any this time around, I hope I have enough taste memories to rely on for the rest of my life.