Clam Chowder in Clatsop County, Oregon
On my latest trip to Clatsop County, I decided to sample several offerings of clam chowder, which I usually avoid. The experiment was a big disappointment. Northwest-style chowder should not be thickened, yet nearly every restaurant seems to strive for a consistency somewhere between Elmer's glue and library paste. A claim that chowder is "made from scratch" is no indication of quality — that one was one of the worst.
I'll note only two exceptions. The Ship Inn in Astoria has a chowder which, while not exactly thin, is rich and creamy rather than obviously thickened. Very nice.
The second is the Bell Buoy Restaurant in Seaside. This is just a small, temporary-looking building next to the venerable Bell Buoy seafood market. I had never gone in there before despite my frequent trips to the town because it didn't look like much of a place to eat. Nevertheless, they have a fine clam chowder which is properly thin and which contains a mix of razor clams (for texture and flavor) and sea clams (for more flavor). Most chowders in the area do not contain the local razor clams, which are more expensive. You can get the BB chowder to go, in quarts if you like, and take it somewher nicer to consume.
Tip: I like cayenne in my chowder (and oyster stew) in preference to Tobasco Sauce, because I don't want to add vinegar. Most restaurants will have cayenne in the kitchen and will send some out, but it's likely to come from a large institutional jar which has been on the shelf for a few years. Almost no restaurant will have a shaker of fresh cayenne, so I now travel with my own supply in a waterproof shaker.
On my latest trip to Clatsop County, I went back to the Bell Buoy restaurant for clam chowder. This time it tasted starchy. There should be no starch added to Pacific NW chowder except that which comes with the potatoes. I think I'll take it off my list, but will still buy Bell Buoy minced razor clams for making my own, of course.
On the way home, I went to Jake's Famous Crawfish* for clam chowder. Although I'm from Oregon, somehow I had never managed to get there before. This was a fine chowder, perhaps a little thicker than is my preference, but without the sensation of having had a lot of cornstarch dumped in. I'll go back for it on my way to or from the beach and just forget about clam chowder in Clatsop County unless I happen to find myself at the Old Ship Inn in Astoria.
I know New England clam chowder is not supposed to be thickened - at least that's what one Chowhound school teacher (from Maine/New Mexico) was strongly asserted. But I have not heard of any such rule for Pacific NW chowder. How can it be served in a bread bowl if isn't thickened?
in this article from a Portland (OR) paper, PNW chowder is 'thick, stick to your rib with local seafood'.
One of these days I need to make a real old fashioned style of chowder, starting with a handful of Sailor Boy pilot bread (or Purity Hard Bread).
There isn’t a singular, quintessential chowder that defines Northwest cuisine.
Bread bowl? That's a precious foodie innovation, I think. We've had actual porcelain bowls in the PNW for a very long time. There is no need to improvise.
It seems clear from that article that thickened clam chowder is a recent introduction to the PNW, probably brought by invaders from California. A lot of places are making thick chowder by dumping cornstarch in it or by making a thick flour-based roux. Of course people can make it anyway they want, but in my opinion such methods produce bad results (note the reference in the article to "paste" -- I'm not the only one who used that analogy).
There is only one authority on PNW clam chowder whom I recognize -- James Beard. His recipes do not call for flour or starch. Beard's chowder is the singular, quintessential PNW chowder.
Beard may have grown up in Portland, but I never heard of him as defining authority on PNW cuisine. His Portland was only 60 years old, not much time for developing a distinctive cuisine. And the following 100 years hasn't done much to codify any dishes. There may be a Portland style, and some typical ingredients, but few distinctive recipes.
In Seattle, Ivar was a greater influence, at least when it comes to chowder.