Clam chowder originated in New England before San Francisco even became a city but, today, the seafood dish is one that San Franciscans are proud to call their own.
This gourmet comfort food consists of simple ingredients – clam juice or broth, finely chopped clams, butter, milk or cream, diced potatoes, leeks or onions, and celery – blended into a hearty soup. Herbs like bay leaves or thyme may be added for extra flavour, and some establishments top their chowder with bits of bacon for a decadent finish.
New England clam chowder is traditionally thick and white, while the Manhattan variety has a thinner consistency and is red and tangy from its use of tomatoes.
In San Francisco, clam chowder is commonly served in a crusty “bowl” fashioned from a hollowed-out loaf of sourdough bread. Today, vendors all over the city give diners the option of enjoying their soup in a sourdough bread bowl. You can also opt for a cup or bowl of the chowder with oyster crackers on the side.
These 10 eateries are the city’s top spots for the delicious dish:
1. Famous and intimate – Swan Oyster Depot
This small, 104-year-old restaurant seats only 12 and there’s always a long line outside (the wait can take up to two hours on most days). It’s known for its clam chowder, which is said to be among the best in the country – not too thick, buttery, flavourful and filled with super-fresh clams.
2. Generously portioned and creamy – Sotto Mare Oysteria and Seafood Restaurant
This lively establishment, run by a close-knit Italian family, serves Boston-style white clam chowder with bits of bacon and a generous amount of clams. The bread is delicious, crusty and fresh. Reservations are a must if you want to get a seat; otherwise, be prepared to wait for at least an hour.
3. Contains a variety of clams – Scoma’s
Located on Fisherman’s Wharf, this classic San Francisco seafood restaurant has been around since 1965. Its New England clam chowder always hits the spot with its savoury, buttery flavour and creamy texture, and it uses different types of clams to keep the soup’s texture and flavour interesting.
4. Chunky and herby – The Ramp
This al fresco restaurant, located in Mission Bay on the waterfront, was a bait shop in the 1950s. Today, it serves a variety of seafood dishes, including classic New England chowder that comes with chunks of clams, potatoes and a lovely herb flavour.
5. Six types of chowder – Blue Mermaid Restaurant
This nautical-themed restaurant offers an extensive seafood menu, which includes six varieties of house-made seafood chowder. Choose from New England clam, crab and corn, Manhattan clam, California clam, mussel and sausage, as well as shrimp and red pepper. If you can’t decide, order the sampler trio.
6. Best sourdough bread – Boudin Bakery & Cafe
Sourdough became popular in San Francisco in the mid-1800s, when French baker Isidore Boudin immigrated to the city and shared his bread with the locals. His recipe lives on today at his eponymous bakery, and the clam chowder bread bowl is one of the best ways to experience the tangy loaf. The bread is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, while the chowder is rich and creamy with a luxurious seafood and potato flavour.
7. Traditional recipe – The Old Clam House
Opened in 1861, The Old Clam House is one of the oldest restaurants in the city, and boasts a chowder recipe that has been around for just as long. Fresh clams and clam juice are simmered with potatoes, yellow onions, spring onions, parsley, chervil, celery and thyme, before being mixed with a little butter and milk and topped with crispy bacon.
8. A blend of styles – Woodhouse Fish Co.
In addition to New England clam chowder, this restaurant offers the tomato-rich Manhattan version, and another little-known variety called Hartford chowder. A combination of the New England and Manhattan styles, it’s a velvety white soup with a few spoonfuls of the red variety swirled in. It’s the perfect choice when you can’t make up your mind.
9. Reasonably priced – Chowders
The line here is usually long but, thankfully, it moves fast. The chowder here is more affordable than those at most other spots. For about US$9 (compared with US$11 to US$13 at other places in the area), you get a huge sourdough bread bowl with white or red chowder. The soup is packed with clams and the bread is always tasty and fresh.
10. Neighbourhood favourite – Anchor Oyster Bar
This seafood restaurant has been serving fresh, sustainably sourced seafood for close to 40 years. The Castro locals come here for oysters and its Boston clam chowder, which is simple but full of flavour. Choose between a cup and a bowl and, if you want an extra kick, you can order a portion of garlic bread to dunk into the soup. Seating is limited at this small, cosy spot, so expect to wait for about an hour or so.
– TEXT BY SASHA GONZALES
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.