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Jan 10, 2013 05:39 PM

Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf Chowder Ranking

Monday was gorgeous so Mom and I headed to Fisherman’s Wharf for a stroll and lunch. Must be at least 10 years since I last walked on this pier, I think. Nowadays the restaurants having hawkers offering up drink specials, free appetizers and samples of clam chowder. All of them were made in the overthickened, commercial style, but I’m one who rarely passes up a tasting opportunity. I tried the chowders offered and rank them from worst to best.

5) Crabby Jim’s - Ugh, overcooked and stale tasting with an unnaturally dark, carmelized hue.

4) Abalonetti’s - Bright white color with bits of bacon, almost fluffy in texture rather than dense, modest clam influence, tasting more of cream, onions and fresh potatoes, clean finish.

3) Old Fisherman’s Grotto - From the Shake family, this tastes the same as the family’s chowder served at The Fishhopper on Cannery Row. Instead of using disposable plastic serving cups, the samples are served in reusable stainless steel condiment cups. Straight forward, direct clam flavor of moderate intensity, too thick but not gluey in texture.

Tie 1) Dominico’s - Like the Grotto, also served in stainless steel. When I expressed my appreciation for not using disposables, the gentleman said, “We’re real fishermen and have to protect the seas. We try not to overuse plastics.” Brinier than others with more clam flavor and a touch of crab sweetness, mingled with thyme, other herbs and savories. Too salty unfortunately or it would have been the run away winner. More like the Monterey fishermen’s chowder I remember from childhood.

Tie 1) Isabella’s - Also owned by the Shake family. Fuller, deeper clam flavor, tender bits of clam, very buttery, plasticky mouthfeel and mucilaginous texture.

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  1. Melanie-

    Were these all cream style (New England) chowders?

    11 Replies
    1. re: ChinoWayne

      None of these chowders had any tomatoes in them. All had dairy but I'd hesitate to call them New England since they're thick enough to stand up a spoon. I don't know why the public out here demands this bastardized thickening. A couple of the stands had a sample or two already served and sitting on the counter. When you walk up, they then dump out the cooled sample from the cup and ladle in hot chowder. The cold chowder falls out of the cup looking like a rubbery hockey puck into the trash and lands with a "thud" --- nothing liquid about it.

      Next month the Santa Cruz boardwalk will have its chowder contest and public tasting.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Interesting, I'd always associated Monterey Bay and San Francisco with tomato based clam chowder which has a very different flavor profile, and to me, is a great representation of a classic dish with ingredients locally sourced and reflective of regional custom. I love the robust broth in tomato based chowder and that you can vary it with any number of herbs, etc. which will not get lost under cream and other thickeners.

        1. re: ChinoWayne

          Hmm, can't say that I'm familiar with a tomato-based clam chowder around here or in San Francisco. Clams aren't that big around here other than Pismos farther south but they have been fished out for some time.

          Cioppino brimming with Dungeness crab and local fish, yes, but red clam chowder, don't know it.

            1. re: PolarBear

              Right, Manhattan style clam chowder has tomatoes, but my point is that it is not found around here or in SF.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Yes, finding it anywhere on the west coast is hard enough, finding a good version is near impossible.

                1. re: PolarBear

                  I hope Chino Wayne can tell us where he has enjoyed red clam chowder around here. Stumps me although he seems to feel its a regional signature. I'm very curious now.

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    Maybe it's my faulty memory, but what I am remembering is buying a cup of red chowder served up out of a huge kettle on the sidewalk of Fishermans Wharf, but that was a very long time ago. So that is how I equated Manattan Chowder to the Bay Area, a distant food memory or just the illusion of an old man that craves a good, spicy bright Manhattan Chowder.

                    All of this is not to say I don't enjoy a good New England chowder, but that is hard to find in these locales.

                    1. re: ChinoWayne

                      Then I suspect that what you enjoyed was a cup of cioppino, rather than chowder. Cioppino is sometimes referred to as a soup, but more commonly as a stew. Just depends on how much seafood one could afford to load it up. Chowder would have potatoes in it, whereas cioppino does not. Cioppino often has some clams in it and uses clam juice as a base, so I could see why you remember it as clam chowder. And yes, cioppino is a local dish.

                      Here's a recipe from the Shake family:

              2. re: PolarBear

                Yes, that is what I was alluding to, PB.

      2. To update this, last week I had the clam chowder at Domenico's again. It's the top dog on the Wharf.

        Also tried the sidewalk sample from Crab Louie's Bistro - This would be just ahead of last place finisher, Crabby Jim's but not by much. It too suffered from a canned, stale, overcooked flavor.

        Isabella's has closed, apparently trashing the interior.

        1. Suprisingly my parents (both locals since birth) swear that the clam chowder at the monterey airport restaurant is the best in the area..... (My mother also loves the sand dabs there...)

          1 Reply
          1. re: Ttrockwood

            That would be Golden Tee. The clam chowder is well-made, but a little low on clams most of the time. We are fans too. I like the place and feel its underrated. More about Golden Tee here,