Fuddruckers – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Fuddrucker's on Yale

Fuddruckers on Yale, one of three Fuddruckers in Albuquerque

The audacious proclamation on Fuddruckers door, logo and Web site, “The world’s greatest hamburgers available” may not be quite complete. Add the words “somewhere else” and most will agree, you probably have a more accurate description of this tremendously popular restaurant chain which actually trademarked the “world’s greatest hamburgers” logo.

Founded in 1980 by Phil Romano (of Romano’s Macaroni Grill fame), Fuddruckers has expanded to more than 250 locations across the world including such purveyors of American culture as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait.  The theme at most of the fast casual franchises is 1950s and 1960s rock and roll.  The ambience is Disneyesque, both from the sense that it’s family-friendly and that it’s loud (as in blaring, ear-splitting music loud) and fun (at least for some people).  Others might describe it as tacky, gaudy and over-the-top.  Ostensibly, Fuddruckers also serves good burgers.

Duke City diners have been heavily patronizing Fuddruckers since day one, so much so that there are now three Fuddruckers restaurants in the city (as well as one in Farmington).  Not long after its millennium year launch in Albuquerque, Fuddruckers supplanted all the indigenous burger joints to win the Alibi’s best burger award.  It also won the award in 2001 and has been a win, place or show vote-in just about every year since.

A circus-like atmosphere adds to the Fuddrucker's experience

A circus-like atmosphere adds to the Fuddruckers experience

Fuddruckers purports to be the original “build your own” burger establishment.  Its 100 percent USDA fresh ground beef patties are available in one-third, one-half, two-thirds and one pound sizes.  A self-service toppings bar lets you load up your burger with your favorite condiments.  For a pittance you can also add grilled onions, American bleu cheese, Cheddar, Monterrey Jack, Pepper Jack, Swiss Cheese, Smokehouse Bacon, Guacamole and Grilled Mushrooms.  Fuddruckers will prepare your burger to your exacting specifications.  Medium rare is medium rare and well done is well done.  If you don’t agree, take it back and they’ll re-do it for you.

The menu also features eight different specialty burgers such as the Fudd 66, Fuddruckers version of New Mexico’s revered green chile cheeseburger.  Fuddruckers obviously recognizes the importance of the green chile cheeseburger to the Land of Enchantment, because this burger isn’t available across the fruited plain.  Heat-seeking diners elsewhere have to settle for other specialty burgers such as the Inferno (sauteed jalapenos, onions and pepper jack cheese) and the Southwest burger (guacamole, pepper jack cheese and smokehouse bacon).

The hamburger buns are made from scratch every day and throughout the day.  It’s a treat watching the baker hand-form and roll the buns similar to how abuelitas have been preparing tortillas for their families every day for centuries.  The produce and “fixins” are unfailingly fresh and let you be burger artiste, crafting your burger your way.

Chocolate shakes at Fuddruckers

Chocolate shakes at Fuddruckers

It stands to reason that a chain claiming to serve the world’s greatest burgers would also think very highly of its shakes, not surprisingly christened the “world’s greatest shakes” on the menu and Web site.  Fuddruckers doesn’t just serve a chocolate shake, it serves a “Crazy for Chocolate” shake.  It’s not just a strawberry shake, it’s a “very berry shake” at Fuddruckers.  There’s no plain vanilla here; it’s a “dreamy vanilla” shake.  The “crunchy cookies and cream” shake is the only one not bearing a superlative adjective.

The shakes are thick and rich, but not necessarily as flavorful as their sobriquets might imply.  The chocolate shake is a bit on the cloying side and not very chocolaty (at least in comparison to the frappes served in New England).  Perhaps its best attribute is that it’s served cold enough to give you a case of brain freeze.  The shakes are also made with real ice cream and are served in a glass goblet with a cold tin on the side.  It’s much like getting a shake and a half.

The Fudd 66 Burger (Green Chile) with blue cheese and grilled onions

The Fudd 66 Burger (Green Chile) with blue cheese and grilled onions

Remember the Fudd 66 burger (the one with the green chile).  It has the potential to be a big burger if you’re careful as to what else you add.  The Fudd 66 burger pictured above  is adorned with grilled onions and blue cheese on a half-pound beef patty.  The combination sounds like something your gastronome about town would really enjoy.

Alas, what the burger elicited was recollections of the Wendy’s commercials of the late 70s in which old women wiped their mouths daintily after every bite.  The motto of these commercials was “juicy with lots of napkins.”  The Fudd 66 burger as I adorned it was juicy to the point of being run-down-your-arms juicy.  The beef (prepared at medium) was juicy, the grilled onions were juicy and the green chile (which was plentiful) was also juicy.  Unfortunately the buns are sieve-like; they don’t prevent any of the copious run-off.

A better option would have been the Fudd 66 sans American bleu cheese and grilled onion–just as it’s offered on the menu.  Alternatively, the Black & Blue burger (smokehouse bacon, bleu cheese, Balsamic green onions) would have been a good choice.  In fact, it’s my favorite of the specialty burgers offered at Fuddruckers.

One half-pound All American burger

One half-pound All American burger

If you’re not in the mood for burgers, Fuddruckers does serve a passable quarter pound hot dog although it can be overly salted and may call to mind the naval term “salty dog.”

The fries are Texas-sized and generously salted.  If you’d rather not be so singularly focused, you can also order “frings”, a basket including both fries and onion rings.  The onion rings are thick and crunchy, but nothing special.

The great etymologist Barry Popik explains in his fabulous blog that Fuddruckers is a made-up name and that in its early days the restaurant sometimes called itself “Freddie Fuddruckers.”  He believes the name was possibly influenced by the 1970s Texas cocktail called the “Freddie Fudpucker.”  Fuddruckers is one of those tongue-twisting names for which invectives are often substituted, but this is strictly a family-friendly, G-rated restaurant most people will like.

Fuddruckers
4855 Pan American Freeway
Albuquerque, NM
344-7449

LATEST VISIT: 26 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 11
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Blue Onion Burger

Fuddruckers on Urbanspoon

Steve’s House of Pizza – Bedford, Massachusetts

Steve's House of Pizza, home of the very best tuna sub in the universe

Steve's House of Pizza, home of the very best tuna sub in the universe

Memories
Pressed between the pages of my mind
Memories
Sweetened through the ages just like wine
Quiet thoughts come floating down and settle softly to the ground
Like golden autumn leaves around my feet
I touch them and they burst apart with sweet memories
- The Lettermen, 1969

Memory–our ability to recall information, personal experiences and processes–isn’t always reliable or necessarily as sweet as The Lettermen might have you believe.  Memory has, in fact, been shown to be very fallible.  Studies have concluded that memories are often constructed after the fact and that they’re often based as much, if not more, on our emotional state at the time as they are the actual experience being committed to memory.

While stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base, I had so many tuna grinders (what New Englanders call subs) from Steve’s House of Pizza in nearby Bedford, Massachusetts, that my great friend Paul Venne told me I’d soon grow gills.  While my friends and colleagues were bingeing on Big Macs and wolfing down Whoppers, weekly (at least) visits to Steve’s sustained me.

Leaving Massachusetts I pined for those grinders for more than twenty-years.  Could a simple grinder really have been as good as my taste buds remembered it to be?  In 1999, I had the great fortune to re-visit Steve’s and confirmed the tuna grinders were as good as my memories told me they were.  Best of all, I shared Steve’s wonderful tuna grinders with my Kim who was nearly equally captivated by the amazing things the Greek proprietors could do in transforming simple tuna to the realm of sublime.

The ovens which have been preparing perfect sandwiches for generations

The ovens which have been preparing perfect sandwiches for generations

Upon returning to Albuquerque, we called Steve’s crew and asked for the recipe for those superb subs.  My tale of woe and of love unrequited by any tuna sub other than Steve’s must have impressed them because I didn’t have to beg, plead, cajole or even bribe them for the recipe.

Alas, there is a triumvirate of things Steve’s couldn’t give us–the heavy duty, high volume, fast recovery Blodgett pizza oven in which the grinder rolls are heated; the cloud-like grinder rolls unique to the East Coast and most importantly, the tuna which tantalized my taste buds for two years.  As such, we were unable to duplicate the magic though we have made better tuna grinders than we used to.

Even though Steve’s House of Pizza has had three different owners since the restaurant opened just a few years before I landed in Massachusetts in 1977, it has also had amazing continuity.  The recipes were handed down with every change of ownership and are still in use today.  The current owner (pictured above), like the original owner, is Greek and has the same gregarious nature.  He was thrilled when I recounted my experiences at Steve’s some thirty years previous and even happier when the tuna grinder he personally prepared for me met my expectations and then some.

The best tuna sub in the universe and beyond

The best tuna sub in the universe and beyond

So what makes this the best tuna grinder in the world, at least in my estimation?  It’s not only the aforementioned Blodgett oven or the fact that it toasts each grinder roll to absolute perfection so that the outside crust is just discernibly hard and the inside is delicate and light.  It’s not only the oil packed tuna adorned only with salt and pepper and with just enough mayo to bind it all.  It’s not only the shredded lettuce and white onion embellishment that dressed every grinder I ever had.  It’s a combination of the above and more.

Tuna is a rich and meaty fish with a nice amount of fat for flavor.  It is very high in protein as well as in Vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids.  It’s no wonder flocks of seagulls follow the tuna boats as they came near shore in Gloucester, one of my favorite haunts for fresh seafood.

Though the name on the marquee is Steve’s House of Pizza, a high volume of the walk-in or call-in traffic is for excellent grinders.  Steve’s introduced me to pastrami, another of my life’s passions.  It introduced me to scrambled egg grinders (available with pepper, ham, and pepperoni) which are available for lunch and dinner, too.  More than any other restaurant in Massachusetts, Steve’s allayed my longing for green chile…though I often fantasize about having one of those tuna grinders with New Mexico’s favorite fruit.

A cheese pizza from Steve's House of Pizza

A cheese pizza from Steve's House of Pizza

Having grown up in the remote mountains of Northern New Mexico,  I was essentially a culinary virgin.  Until my years in Massachusetts, the only only pizza I had ever eaten outside of Pizza Hut was out of the box, a wafer thin Chef Boyardee product with a cardboard-like crust. Is it any wonder Pizza Hut was my baseline for good pizza?

Steve’s House of Pizza also introduced me to very good pizza Greek style.  Greek style means a drizzle of olive oil across the top.  Add pepperoni and its grease might make the pizza a bit, shall we say…moist.  Steve’s serves a thin crust pizza with a generous portion of cheese and a sweet-savory tomato sauce with a nice application of garlic.  The crust is crunchy around the edges and doesn’t fold over in the style of New York pizza.  Alas, I didn’t sample it during either of our two September, 2009 visits, but Kim did and she liked it, though she kept reaching over for bites of my tuna sub.

Those visits in 2009 validated that memories can indeed be sweet, accurate and absolutely delicious.

Steve’s House of Pizza
30 Shawsheen Avenue, Suite 11
Bedford, Massachusetts
(781) 275-2419
1st VISIT: 22 September 2009
LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tuna Sub, Pastrami Sub, Italian Sub, Pizza

Mario’s Italian Restaurant – Lexington, Massachusetts

Mario's Italian Restaurant in Lexington, Massachusetts

Mario's Italian Restaurant in Lexington, Massachusetts

“People think Chef Boyardee is a great man. I think he’s nothing but a pasta hater.
What true lover of pasta could turn it into mush and shove it in a can? That’s not pasta. That’s just plain wrong.”
~ Author Unknown

Chef Boyardee and I go way back.  As mentioned (hopefully not ad-nauseam) on this blog, my arcadian upbringing in Northern New Mexico did not include a lot of Italian food–or at least the real stuff.  The first pizza my brothers and sisters ever had was way back in the dinosaur days before there was a Pizza Hut around every corner and a Tombstone pizza in every freezer.  It was courtesy of Chef Boyardee and it came in a box with pizza flour mix in a hermetically sealed bag, a can of grated cheese and a can of “true Italian sauce from chef’s own recipe.”

Chef Boyardee pizza didn’t “make our faces light up” when we saw “America’s favorite pizza–Chef Boyardee pizza“–slide out of the oven as it did the family depicted on the commercials.  It looked like a strange, oversized tortilla slathered with tomato sauce.  If possible, it actually tasted worse than it looked.  Perhaps because of the altitude (8,000 feet), the pizza didn’t exactly have the “crunchy crust outside” and wasn’t “so tender inside” as commercials depicted it.  Rather the crust was cracker-like and the sauce akin to a thick, overly-seasoned tomato sauce.

Chef Boyardee’s culinary creations next crossed my lips in 1984 while living in Swindon, England.  Often too lazy to cook for myself during my last carefree year of bachelorhood, I indulged on a diet of breakfast cereal (Jerry Seinfeld would be proud) and Chef Boyardee canned pastas.  That is until I told Kim, then my fiancee who made me promise to “give up that crap.”   Though it took considerably more effort, I began over-compensating by preparing such dishes as paella.

Italian bread and butter at Mario's

Italian bread and butter at Mario's

But, I digress.  In 1977 I moved to Bedford, Massachusetts, a town incorporated in 1729 and about fifteen miles northwest of Boston.  A world of new and different culinary delights began the education of my virginal taste buds.  Instead of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, I was dining on lobster and fried clams.  The enticing aromas and exotic flavors of Chinese food and the malodorous emanation of fermented kimchi were practically extraterrestrial to me, but like the proverbial kid in a candy store, I tried everything.  Perhaps more surprisingly, I liked everything.

Italian food–real Italian food–was my favorite and no one in the Bedford area did it better than Mario’s Italian Restaurant in Lexington, Massachusetts.  Walking into Mario’s was like walking into heaven.  The olfactory arousing bouquet of pastas simmering in a perfect marriage of tomato sauce, garlic, basil and oregano greeted you before the door like a sumptuous siren’s call.  Mario’s was but five or six years old at the time, but a very popular dining destination for incomparable lasagna and a unique twist on baked ziti.  Many of the entrees were served in casserole dishes, something else this culinary virgin had never before experienced.

If love means never having to say you’re sorry, Mario’s meant not having to navigate the maddening cavalcades of traffic all the way to Boston’s North End for terrific Italian food.  Mario’s was a welcome respite from the rigors of the work day.  It was a relaxing milieu in which the service was exquisite and food was served hot and in family-sized portions.

Lasagna at Mario's

Lasagna at Mario's

During our 2009 vacation to the Boston area, we were determined to eat nothing but Italian food and seafood.  That meant a trip to Mario’s was an absolute must.  Despite a thirty year span between visits, our rental car hastened through traffic as if on auto-pilot and speed.  We would pay tourist tribute to the famous Lexington Minuteman statue later; nothing would deter us from Mario’s.

One step in the door and was as if nothing had changed in thirty years.  Mario’s familiar brick facade gave way to a narrow corridor which leads to the hostess station from which a friendly attendant will escort you to your table, complete with red and white checkerboard table cloth.  Perusing the menu was a futile exercise in familiarity because we knew what we were going to have.  It’s what just about everybody who visits Mario’s has.

But first, a basket of thinly sliced Italian bread with foil-wrapped butter was delivered to our table.  It’s always best to save a slice or three to use for sopping up the surplus tomato sauces for which Mario’s is known, but a slice or two with butter will abate your hunger.

A unique baked ziti at Mario's

A unique baked ziti at Mario's

The first “must have” entree is lasagna with sausage.  The lasagna is a thick, brick-sized slab of noodles and ricotta cheese topped with a meaty marinara sauce.  The sausage is actually served on the side and, like the lasagna, is drenched in the meaty marinara sauce.  It is a wonderful sausage with a discernible hint of fennel and other Italian seasonings.

There are several things that make this lasagna special.  First of all, it’s served steaming hot, but not at the expense of “rubberizing” the lasagna noodles.  The ricotta is rich, but not overly so.  The sauce has a rich, tomatoey flavor that accentuates the sweetness of tomatoes, not the acidity.  It is Italian comfort food at its best.

Commonly known as Greek Lasagna, Baked Ziti is a base layer of pasta seasoned ground beef with tomato sauce, topped with a creamy cheese Béchamel Sauce all cooked to a golden brown.  It is the most popular entree at Mario’s, but unlike ziti at other restaurants, it’s served slab-style similar to traditional lasagna.  Instead of traditional ziti pasta, it is made with lasagna noodles.  Top it with Mario’s magnificent meat sauce and you’ve got maybe the best ziti around.

Italian sausage at Mario's

Italian sausage at Mario's

Mario’s makes returning to the Bedford-Concord-Lexington area feel like coming home.  It won’t take me another thirty years to make that return trip home to the restaurant which introduced me to real Italian food.

Mario’s Italian Restaurant
1733 Massachusetts Ave
Lexington, Massachusetts
(781) 861-1182
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lasagna with Sausage, Baked Ziti

Mabel’s Lobster Claw Restaurant – Kennebunkport, Maine

Mabel's Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport, Maine

Mabel's Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport, Maine

What comes to mind when you think of lobster?  A rare treat or special event meal?   A delicacy?  Would you believe some cultures still consider lobster “the cockroach of the sea?”  There’s a scientific basis for that.  Neither fish nor mammal, lobsters are arthropods, closely related to the lowly insect.  Like the insect, lobsters belong to the invertebrate (lacking a backbone or spinal column) family.

Today you have to pay dearly for an excellent lobster meal, but that hasn’t always been the case.  Lobsters were once so abundant that Native Peoples used them as fish bait and fertilizer.  According to early Colonists in the Plymouth, Massachusetts area, lobsters sometimes washed up on the beaches in piles two feet high.  It was hard to get gustatorily excited about something so common.  It’s conceivable that lobsters of exaggerated proportions may not only have been frightening, but tough to eat considering they supposedly grew to forty pounds or more.

As such, in Colonial New England, they were considered poverty food and were served to servants, slaves, children and prisoners.  Children bringing lobster sandwiches to school were considered the poor kids (similar to the children who came to school with tortilla sandwiches instead of white bread sandwiches when I was growing up).

Pastries on the counter at Mabel's Lobster Claw

Pastries on the counter at Mabel's Lobster Claw

Lobster was so ubiquitous that benevolent Colonial legislators in Massachusetts passed a law mandating that lobster could not be fed to prisoners more than twice a week.  It just wasn’t considered humane to subject even the most scurrilous scofflaws and criminals to what has today become a precious crustacean commodity.

Archaeologists believe mankind (and not just prisoners) has been eating not only lobster, but other crustaceans such as crab and shrimp since prehistoric times.  Deposits of shells and bones left by early hunter-gatherer civilizations near water indicate they took advantage of every conceivable food source.

Culinary evidence also confirms that lobsters were known to ancient Greeks and Romans.  They were highly esteemed by the British (especially during the Victorian age) as but not by their Colonial brethren.  It wasn’t until the 19th century that lobster enjoyed a resurgence of demand, a demand that continues today.

Corn and blueberry muffins

Corn and blueberry muffins

In the 1840s, commercial fisheries specializing in crustaceans began in Maine to much commercial success, giving rise to the popularity and fame of the Maine Lobster.  Within a decade, lobster was being shipped around the world.  The first lobster shipments reached  Chicago in 1842 just as “lobster palaces,” or restaurants serving restaurants became popular in New York.

Diamond Jim Brady, perhaps the most famous gurgitator of his time often downed six or more lobsters in addition to other courses.  This feat of copious consumption and others of similar notoriety prompted the owner of Brady’s favorite restaurant to describe him as “the best 25 customers I ever had.”

By 1885 the American lobster industry was providing 130 million pounds of lobster per year, much of it from Maine.  In terms of economic impact, lobster’s contributions to the Maine economy continues to be immeasurable.  According to the Maine Lobster Council, in 2006, more than 72 million pounds of lobster were caught off the Pine Tree state’s cold, clean waters whose rocky bottoms form the ideal habitat for lobsters.  This generated almost $300 million in ex-vessel (dock value or the price set at dock for a day’s catch) and significantly more in restaurant and export revenues.  Lobster harvesting provides a livelihood for more than 5,700 Maine residents.

Large bowl of clam chowder

Large bowl of clam chowder

Lobster is not only very good to eat, it’s very good for you, too.  It contains Vitamins A, B and B6 and is a good source of calcium, zinc, iron and iodine.  It has absolutely no saturated fat and is low in calories and cholesterol.  By many accounts, it is a healthful dining option although when we visited Mabel’s Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport, Maine, we didn’t have healthy eating on our minds, nor did we consider the history of lobster harvesting in Maine.

There’s only one reason you visit Mabel’s Lobster Claw and that’s because it’s one of the very best restaurants in Maine for lobster.  When the tide is high, you can hear the water from Mabel’s which is about a mile or so from the Bush family complex.  George and Barbara Bush, who split their time between Houston and their summer residence in Kennebunkport, are frequent visitors to Mabel’s.

You might think a restaurant frequented by a dynastic presidential family would be upscale and stuffy, but it’s hardly that.  In fact, Gourmet magazine described it as “About as formal as we like to get on the seafood trail is Mabel’s Lobster Claw, a lunchroom in Kennebunkport.  Paper place mats explaining how to eat a lobster decorate tables in snug wooden booths.”  Mabel’s occupies the bottom floor of what, save for the signage, could pass for a two-story home.  A small patio facing the street is sheathed in zipped up plastic to prevent an infestation of mosquitos trolling for tasty humans.  Knotty pine tables and wood-paneled walls (replete with autographed celebrity photographs) make this restaurant about as rustic as you can get.

Shore Dinner at Mabel's Lobster Claw: Cup of Chowder, Native Steamed Clams, 2 pound lobster with two sides

Shore Dinner at Mabel's Lobster Claw: Cup of Chowder, Native Steamed Clams, 2 pound lobster with two sides

The menu is as informal as the ambience–at least informal for Maine where dilapidated seafood shacks lacking any amenities are mentioned in the same reverential tone as four-star restaurants.  One of the staples of those seafood shacks is the lobster roll, a luxurious and delicious treat Maine residents venerate with hushed tones (unless they’re arguing about where to find the best one).

In an article entitled “Sandwiches: Eating from Hand to Mouth,” Time magazine explained that “In an expanse of land as large and varied as the U.S., it is no surprise that there are many regional sandwich specialties.”  The article singled out Mabel’s Lobster Claw for its lobster roll, which it described as “heaped with fresh chunks of briny lobster lightly bound with mayonnaise (celery is considered by most a heretical addition), it is usually made on hamburger or hot dog rolls, the latter being the vehicle at the Lobster Claw Restaurant (known locally as Mabel’s) in Kennebunkport, Maine.”  As determined as we were to try Mabel’s rendition, other temptations won us over.

As at many New England Yankee cooking or seafood restaurants, our dining experience began with a plateful of breads–sweet cornbread muffins and blueberry muffins with a big and bold blueberry flavor.  Both are perfect counterpoints to the pats of butter with which they are served.  The blueberry muffins accentuate the fruitiness and natural sugars of the berry and are especially good.

Fried Clams with a baked potato and tartar sauce

Fried Clams with a baked potato and tartar sauce

Mabel’s clam chowder is some of the best we had during our 2009 visit to Maine.  It is rich, creamy and served steaming hot.  It’s also a fairly simple clam chowder highlighting the succulent clams, diced potatoes, onions and chopped green peppers.  As with many of the wonderful clam chowders in New England, an occasional gritty bite isn’t uncommon, but I’m more wary of the authenticity of clam chowder without an occasional sandy sensation.  By no means am I decrying the preparation of this chowder which we devoured lustfully.  Rather I’m expressing an observation we made of much of the clam chowder we experienced in New England.

Gourmet magazine called the magnificent seafood platter known as shore dinner “that top-of-the-line Down East banquet” and proclaimed Mabel’s as a “good place to go” for this fantastic feast.  The name shore dinner is derived from the maritime tradition of fishing all day then putting to shore to assemble dinner with the days catch.  Fortunately, many Maine restaurants will take care of both the fishing part and the preparation, too.

At Mabel’s, shore dinner is comprised of a pound-and-a-half to two-pound (the optimum size for flavor) lobster atop a pile of steamers accompanied by hot, drawn butter and the broth in which the steamers were prepared.  The waitstaff will explain that after extricating the clam from its shell, you should dip it into its broth to remove any gritty residue.  The steamers are superb!  These long-necked, soft-shelled clams have somewhat of a sinewy texture, but their flavor is deep and delicious.  There’s no mistaking the fact that these briny beauties are fresh and have a taste like the ocean.  The lobster is perfect–sweet, succulent and absolutely delicious.  Best of all, a shore dinner at Mabel’s won’t break your bankroll.

Chocolate Cake topped with ice cream and chocolate fudge

Chocolate Cake topped with ice cream and chocolate fudge

When available, it’s nearly impossible for me to ever pass up native fried clams, one of nature’s most fabulous foods–an iconic food that is to New England what green chile is to New Mexico.  Having consumed boatfuls of these lightly coated and deep-fried full-bellied gems from the cold coastal waters of New England, I’d consider moving to Maine were it not for those brutal winters.  Mabel’s fried clams exemplify the best qualities of this pearlescent, shapeless mollusk.  Each and every piece is to be cherished, savored slowly, forget the tartar sauce or lemon.  The light crust gives way easily to the distinctively delicious fried clam flavor, a flavor that will titillate your tongue and make you wonder how anything could be that good.

If you have room, Mabel’s has several desserts under glass as if enshrined for being as good as they are.  Gourmet magazine indicates “If fudge cake is available it can’t be ignored.”  That’s excellent advice, but it doesn’t go far enough.  Make sure that cake is topped with cold ice cream and warm, melting chocolate sauce.  If you visited Mabel’s solely for this dessert, it would be worth the visit.

Mabel’s Lobster Claw Restaurant is worthy of all the accolades and praise it has earned through the years, but any review would be remiss without a mention of the wait staff, a sassy bunch with a repertoire of wise-cracks and jokes.  They’re as friendly and attentive as possible, but their light levity adds a different dimension to dining at such an esteemed establishment.

Mabel’s Lobster Claw Restaurant
124 Ocean Avenue
Kennebunkport, Maine
967-2562
LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Shore Dinner, Fried Clams, Clam Chowder, Chocolate Cake

The Clam Shack – Kennebunkport, Maine

The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine

The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine

The late George Plimpton was a pioneering journalist who garnered much of his acclaim from competing in professional sporting events then recording the experience from an amateur’s standpoint.  From pitching against the National League prior to an All-Star baseball game to quarterbacking the Detroit Lions in an intrasquad scrimmage, Plimpton momentarily lived the dream of every would-be professional athlete.

Today, it seems every network and cable channel has a competing reality show in which an unabashed combatant or group of contestants undertake unsavory jobs–such as bullfighter or oil driller–for which they are wholly unqualified.  The Discovery channel even has a show in which a poor sap “exposes the grimy underbelly of America’s dirtiest jobs.”  Participants in these reality shows run the gamut–from risking life and limb to almost certain humiliation.

It came as no surprise when the Food Network announced its 2009 launch of its own job related reality show.  On “Will Work for Food” host Adam Gertler travels across the fruited plain trying out different jobs in the food industry for a day.  The show calls for him to do literally learn every job in the world of food.  The good-natured Gertler has had jobs in which he’s had to create an edible chocolate bra, hunted for truffles, filled orders on roller skates and turned food into gore at Hollywood’s Cinema Makeup School.

Barbara Bush sings the praises of the Clam Shack

Barbara Bush sings the praises of the Clam Shack

Of all the jobs Gertler has had, the one for which I’d most have liked to switch places with him is learning all the steps in making a lobster roll at the world famous The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine.  The first step in the process was loading up bait on a lobster boat, a rigorous task that had him on the boat by the inhumane hour of 5AM.  Gertner learned how to haul traps, sell the day’s bounty to local businesses then how to cook the lobster, shell its meat, weigh portions and prepare the final product.

Gertner’s verdict, “this lobster roll is the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth” pretty much echoes the sentiment of many of The Clam Shack’s patrons, lines of which snake down the street, waiting for up to an hour for the freshest seafood they can find.  Fittingly The Clam Shack was selected by Epicurious.com as one of the top ten seafood shacks in America.  For nearly three decades, foodies have detoured many miles to dine at this famous institution.  Others, like me, will spend a couple of days in the area so we can have our fill of its bounty more than once.

The Clam Shack is the archetypal clam shack.  It is situated literally on the foot of what everyone calls “the bridge” which divides the village of Kennebunk from the famous vacation destination of Kennebunkport.  With barely more room than a taco truck, The Clam Shack has no amenities of which to speak.  Neither rainnor sleet, nor the heat of day will keep hungry patrons from their place in line. After their orders are filled,  they will either lean against the bridge rail to consume their meal or take a seat on one of the makeshift wooden benches out back by the water.  Signage warns diners to “Beware of Seagulls.  They like our food as much as you do.”  True enough, the scavenging aquatic birds lustily eye your seafood bounty from overhead.

Lobster Roll from the Clam Shack

Lobster Roll from the Clam Shack

The Clam Shack’s most famous patrons don’t have to wait in line.  About two miles away from The Clam Shack, situated on an imposing rocky promontory, is the Bush family compound.  When the Bush family has a craving for lobster rolls or seafood, they call ahead then dispatch the secret service to pick their order.  Under Presidents Bush #41 and #43, Kennebunkport held several international summits, hosting a stream of world leaders and regaling such dignitaries as Russian President Vladimir Putin with fried clams and lobster rolls from the Clam Shack.

An “I Love Me” wall includes a framed letter from former first lady Barbara Bush as well as the July, 2007 edition of Everyday with Rachael Ray in which the Food Network’s kitchen diva raves about the Clam Shack’s lobster roll.  A USA Today feature entitled “The Fifty Great Plates of America” is also posted which reads, “The lobster roll is a simply perfect creation.  One of the best versions comes from The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine (open Mothers’ Day through Columbus Day).”

In 2007, Roadfood’s Michael Stern wrote “Lobster rolls at the Clam Shack are the best.  Truly, the best.  None better.  Number one. King of all lobster rolls.”  By 2009, The Clam Shack’s lobster roll had dropped just a bit in Stern’s estimation–to number two, the difference between the top two being the roll in which the lobster is packed.

A pint of clams from the Clam Shack

A pint of clams from the Clam Shack

Instead of the more tradition split top roll, the Clam Shack’s lobster is nestled into a grilled hamburger type bun–and what lovely, luscious lobster it is.  An entire pound of perfectly pink lobster, as many as ten chunks of hand-shredded claw and tail meat are stuffed into the roll then drizzled with shimmering melted butter (or dolloped with mayonnaise if that’s your preference).  There is so much utter deliciousness in this sandwich that you’ll literally close your eyes and savor it as you might ambrosia, the food of the gods.

Of course the name on the marquee is “Clam Shack” so it stands to reason that fried clams would be a specialty of this famous roadside stand.  They are.  Fresh and delicious clams fried to a golden hue and served in a traditional clam box are almost beyond good, beyond delicious.  They are–at the risk of alienating my friend Bob Sherwood who hates the word–almost sublime.  Save for a light batter, fried clams are unadulterated and simple, the essence of purity from the sea.  A squeeze of lemon, some cocktail sauce.  Forget it!  Like green chile, fried clams should never be tampered with.

For a true New England dessert experience, many Clam Shack visitors will have a whoopie pie, a snack cake constructed by sandwiching a very sweet, creamy frosting between two round mounds of chocolate cake.  Food historians indicate this sweet treat got its name because Amish farmers finding these treats in their lunch would shout “Whoopie!”  Frankly, after consuming fried clams and lobster rolls, the whoopie pie might elicit a reaction more like “whatever.”

Whoopie Pie From The Clam Shack

Whoopie Pie From The Clam Shack

Highfalutin, well-heeled Kennebunkport loves the dowdy little roadside stand at the Kennebunk River bridge.  You will, too!

The Clam Shack
2 Western Avenue (Route 9)
Kennebunkport, Maine
207-967-3321
LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pint of Whole Bellied Clams, Lobster Roll, Whoopie Pie

Maine Diner – Wells, Maine

The Maine Diner 0n scenic Route 1, Wells, Maine

The Maine Diner 0n scenic Route 1, Wells, Maine

How do you know when a restaurant has really made it?  Is it when that restaurant is recognized by national publications as one of the very best diners in the country?  Or when celebrities go out of their way to dine at its tables?  Is it when more than five-million people have been warmly welcomed at its doors?  When neither rain, nor sleet nor the most stern and frigid of Maine winters can dissuade visitors?

The Maine Diner has achieved all of this and so much more.  Richly deserving of all the accolades bestowed upon it, the telltale sign that it’s made it–at least from a pop culture perspective–is when it’s recognized as the restaurant after which Flo’s Offshore Diner is patterned.  If you’ve never heard of Flo’s Offshore Diner, it might be because the Albuquerque Journal isn’t one of the 700 newspapers across America in which Non Sequitur is syndicated.

Non Sequitur is simply one of the most creative and honored comic strips in syndication today, winner of four National Cartoonists Society divisional awards, the most prestigious accolade in cartooning.  It is creator Wiley Miller’s vehicle for sharing his wry observations about the absurdities of everyday life.  There are no sacred cows in this comic strip which tackles cultural and societal issues such as politics, celebrities, male-female relationships, society’s obsession with weight and more.

Greeting diners from the street

Greeting diners from the street

His visits to Maine so impressed Miller that he created a series of characters that capture the essence of the citizenry of Maine, people who are genuine, down-to-earth and good-natured.  Offshore Flo’s is set in Whatchacallit, Maine, a coastal town which also has a Clam Hut run by (New Mexicans will love this name) Brenda Santa Fe.

The fact that the Maine Diner was the inspiration for Flo’s Offshore Diner was entirely lost on me until a twenty-something explained it to me while we were in line for dinner at what may be the most popular and best known of all the famous restaurants on Maine’s Route 1.  To him, it didn’t matter that the Maine Diner was perhaps the most honored restaurant in the book 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late, a celebration of the best dishes that are unique to this country.

Authored by Michael and Jane Stern who have been focusing on quirky All-American food haunts since 1977, the book describe in delicious detail, the best dishes proffered at roadside stands, cafes, street carts throughout the fruited plain.  The Sterns also rank what they consider the “best of the best” among the foods described.  Prominent among New England restaurants was the Maine Diner which achieved acclaim in several categories: America’s second best clam chowder, Indian pudding and “lobster blow-out” and third best lobster roll.

Cornbread

Cornbread

Long lines of hungry patrons waiting to eat at the Maine Diner are a norm, but if you think getting there early is a good strategy for getting a seat, think back on the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry visited his elderly parents at the retirement community of Del Boca Vista.  Come four to six p.m., every retiree would descend upon the restaurant for the early bird special, their Wizard tip calculators on hand to compute the fifteen percent gratuity to the penny.

Wells not being a retirement community, most of the geriatric set are visiting tourists like us.  That makes it only appropriate that the restaurant’s five millionth customers were locals who were welcomed by the governor of Maine.  Governor John Baldacci echoed some of the sentiment that made the Maine Diner the restaurant after which a famous cartoon restaurant is patterned, saying “The Maine Diner is a good representation of the spirit of Maine.”

Launched in 1983, the Maine Diner looks much like any other roadside diner on a bustling well-traveled scenic route.  A blue and white awning and battleship gray ramp and porch are the main waiting area for long queues.  A long counter complete with stools, formica counters, and friendly waitresses who treat you like a regular may typify the look and feel of the classic roadside diner.  Don’t let that fool you.  This is a special place!

Seafood Chowder (lobster, scallops, clams)

Seafood Chowder (lobster, scallops, clams)

The Maine Diner is a favorite of people from all walks of life as well as media types and some celebrity glitterati.  CBS sports anchor Jim Nantz even has a plate named for him–the award-winning seafood chowder with the diner’s famous lobster roll.  One of the priciest menu items, the “Phantom” Platter is named for Boston’s famous restaurant critic, the Phantom Gourmet.  Comprised of some of the Gourmet’s favorite items, this platter includes a cup of seafood chowder, an eight-ounce sirloin steak, two baked stuffed shrimp, five ounces of baked scallops and homemade onion rings.

Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, the Maine Diner has an amazing menu, combining all the traditional diner comfort food favorites with seafood dishes, the specialties of Maine’s cold coastal waters.  Even the salad section is replete with the bounties of the sea: lobster salad, crabmeat salad, homemade marinated shrimp salad, tuna salad and shrimp salad.  The only menu section in which you won’t find seafood is the dessert section, but that’s a good thing.

As with many Boston restaurants, the first thing on your table is cornbread.  The deep South has nothing on New England when it comes to cornbread although we didn’t see any cracklin’ cornbread (which includes pork cracklings) at any restaurant in Massachusetts or Maine.  The cornbread at the Maine Diner is excellent.  It is sweet and delicious.  Best of all, it doesn’t crumble when you cut it in half to slather on the butter.

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

Though it’s the Maine Diner’s clam chowder that was mentioned in the 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late tome, perhaps a better soup is the seafood chowder, the starring attraction of which is Maine lobster.  This shimmering soup also includes steamed clams, shrimp, scallops and baby clams as well as potatoes, salt pork, butter, light cream, milk and more.

The seafood chowder is of a golden hue and has a rich, creamy and buttery flavor.  The blue ribbons earned by this seafood chowder are proudly displayed behind the counter.   Frankly it is better than any of the clam chowders we had during our September, 2009 eating tour of New England.  It’s the type of soup you want served to you in a brimming bowl, not a little cup.

Now, the clam chowder at the Maine Diner is outstanding in its own right, but given my druthers, I’d have to go with that seafood chowder.  It’s hard to consider one of the best clam chowders in New England a “Miss Congeniality,” but it really is.  We might otherwise have considered the clam chowder the best we had during our week-long visit to New England.

The Maine Diner's world-famous Lobster Pie

The Maine Diner's world-famous Lobster Pie

The entree for which the Maine Diner is best known is the lobster pie, made from a secret recipe the family has passed along.  Tender, jumbo-sized chunks of fresh, buttery lobster meat are mixed together with a delicious Ritz cracker based stuffing then baked to perfection in a casserole dish.  What helps bind the ingredients in this scrumptious award-winning dish is tomalley, the soft, green substance found in the body cavity of lobsters.  Though completely edible and thoroughly delicious, it has somewhat of a “yuck” quality to it that turns off queasy eaters.

500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late calls the Maine Diner’s lobster pie a “novel opportunity to indulge” in lobster.  After having partaken of divinely inspired lobster pie, it may now be our favorite way.  It isn’t quite as rich as Lobster Thermidor (a creamy cheese mixture of cooked lobster meat, brandy or sherry and egg yolks stuffed into a lobster shell), but it’s got that French dish beat.  It’s the Maine Diner’s specialty.

Another specialty is the aforementioned Jim Nantz plate–the award-winning seafood chowder with the diner’s famous lobster roll served with a pickle and your choice of potato salad, coleslaw or potato chips.  The lobster roll, served on a lightly toasted, ephemerally soft and delicate split top roll is absolutely delicious.  It’s stuffed with oversized chunks of meat from the lobster’s tail, claws and knuckles.  A small cup of warm, drawn butter is served with the lobster roll in the even you want to pick off pieces of lobster and dip it into the butter.

Lobster roll with coleslaw

Lobster roll with coleslaw

The Maine Diner actually offers two ways to have your lobster roll: hot or cold.  Served cold, it includes a thin sheen of mayonnaise, but only enough to bind together the lobster pieces that threaten to spill out from the bun with every bite. Served warm makes the lobster the perfect vehicle for the warm drawn butter.  That’s my preference and recommendation.

The dessert menu is nearly as splendiferous as the rest of the menu.  Accolades galore are bestowed upon the blueberry pie made, of course, with Maine blueberries which, perhaps due to their diminutive size, pack more berry flavor than larger blueberries.  The apple crisp is also reputed to be quite wonderful, but there are two desserts that qualify as “must try.”

One is the Indian Pudding, a New England dessert tradition for generations.  Indian pudding is made with cornmeal, molasses, light cream, butter, brown sugar and more.  It’s topped with vanilla ice cream and is served warm.  Sounds simple, but the flavor is deep and delicious, though Indian pudding can be a bit of an acquired taste.

Grape Nuts Pudding

Grape Nuts Pudding

Another special dessert is the Grapenut Custard Pudding, a light, frothy and only mildly sweet pudding with a bottom crust fashioned from Grapenuts cereal.  On the pudding the Grapenuts lose their characteristic crunchiness and are perhaps a bit on the soggy side, but that distinctive taste is ever so prevalent.

There are more elegant and expensive restaurants up and down the Maine coast, so the Maine Diner certainly qualifies as a value restaurant.  That doesn’t mean it takes a backseat to any restaurant in terms of quality and deliciousness.  It is simply one of the best diners in which we’ve ever dined, a true Maine classic now part of pop culture.

MAINE DINER
2265 Post Road (Route One)
Wells, Maine
(207) 646-4441
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 23 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 25
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Lobster Roll, Lobster Pie, Seafood Chowder, Clam Chowder, Apple Crisp A La Mode, Grape Nuts Pudding

Woodman’s of Essex – Essex, Massachusetts

Woodmans01

Woodman's of Essex, inventor of the fried clam

If you can imagine what New Mexico would be like without green chile or the South without barbecue, you can understand what New England would be without fried clams.  Like our beloved green chile, fried clams are an iconic food, so much so that they are almost synonymous with states like Maine and Massachusetts in which they are harvested and sold.  It’s almost a wonder the license plate mottos in at least one of those two states isn’t “The Fried Clam State.”

As with our cherished chile, fried clams have a distinctive, unforgettable flavor that not everybody “gets.”  Similar to chile, those who love fried clams are usually ensnared at first bite by this distinctly delicious delicacy.  Like green chile, they are positively addictive and have a flavor that once enjoyed imprints itself indelibly upon your taste buds and your memories.

There is some dispute as to the progenitor of fried clams.  They were on the menu at Boston’s hallowed Parker House in 1865 though there is no indication if they were deep-fried or batter-dipped.  The Parker House is already credited with having invented Boston Cream Pie and Parker House Rolls, so posterity doesn’t seem to mind that someone else is ascribed with having “invented” fried clams.

Woodman's of Essex, a marshland oasis in Massachusetts

Woodman's of Essex, a marshland oasis in Massachusetts

That would be Woodman’s of Essex, a Yankee tradition since 1914.  History relates that July 3, 1916 was a very slow business day for the little roadside stand in Essex, Massachusetts owned by Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman.  A local fisherman enjoying homemade potato chips at the stand noticed a bucket of clams nearby and jokingly suggested that they be fried up.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Chubby and his wife Bessie shucked some clams out of the shell, experimented with different batters and had some locals taste-test their new offering.  The unanimous verdict was “delicious.”  The following day, during the Fourth of July parade, Chubby and Bessie presented the “first” fried clams to the local citizenry.  What started off as a serendipitous suggestion changed the Yankee appetite.

About ten years thereafter, the owner of an eponymous restaurant chain named Howard Johnson visited Essex to learn how to fry clams directly from Chubby.  Howard Johnson’s and its familiar orange roof was a familiar sight along the highways and byways of America throughout much of the twentieth century.  “HoJo’s” conceptualized signature menu items such as 28 ice cream flavors, cultivating an image that it was a very special, homey place.  One of its most popular offerings was fried clams.  A centralized commissary and the processing and pre-portioning of foods gave Howard Johnson’s the advantage of consistency–an inland Howard Johnson’s served fried clams that tasted exactly the same as those served at Cape Cod.

A feast of fried clams, onion rings and French fries

A feast of fried clams, onion rings and French fries

In 1979, I moved back to New Mexico after two years in Massachusetts where I made frequent trips to Woodman’s of Essex and other shrines to sumptuous seafood.  Like chipmunk cheeks stuffed with nuts and acorns, mine were often filled with fried clams which I loved intensely.

Alas, my first visit to Howard Johnson’s on Eubank proved a very disappointing venture of unrequited love.  Instead of the plump, sweet and miraculously delicious whole bellied clams I had fallen in love with, HoJo’s served “clam strips,” what my favorite clam shacks in New England might have discarded entirely.  According to a New York Times article in 2005, the clam strips served at Howard Johnson’s were “made from the tongues of enormous sea clams whose bodies were used as the base for the restaurant’s famous clam chowder.”  It’s no wonder I didn’t like them.

Rather than subject myself to clam strips which might tarnish my memories, I committed to eating only the real thing.  Fried clams, however, are not easy to find in the West.  In fact, only in Las Vegas, Nevada have I been able to find fried clams that approximated those from New England.  Still, it’s difficult to get excited about fried clams in a faux nautical ambience when it’s over the century mark outside.

Fried lobster claws at Woodman's of Essex

Fried lobster claws at Woodman's of Essex

Not much has changed at Woodman’s of Essex since my last visit in 1979 although the advent of the communication age has made it a world renown destination which Zagat calls “a cult classic–right up there with baseball and apple pie.”  The list of publications which have honored the restaurant would fill a book.  We were more concerned with filling our bellies and the Holy Grail for fried clams excels at this.

The “Chubby’s Original” fried clams are blondish whole-bellied beauties served with onion rings and French fries.  The clams are big, shapeless entanglements which you might have to separate.  The texture of the crust is just light enough to provide a discernible crunch that leads to a velvety interior where the real flavor of fried clams lies.  There is nothing like fried clams!  Nothing!  Woodman’s are among the very best.

The Woodman’s menu features far more than fried clams–like the hard-to-find fried lobster tails.  The light batter allows the flavor of lobster to shine.  As with conventional boiled lobster, the fried lobster tails are served with warm butter, perfect for dipping the sweet, meaty king of seafood.  Tartar sauce is served on the side, but anything other than butter is considered a desecration.

The derivation of the term “happy as a clam” might be attributed to the fact that open clams give the appearance of smiling.   Woodman’s of Essex and its fabulous fried clams have been making diners as happy as a clam for nearly a century.

Woodman’s of Essex
121 Main Street
Essex, Massachusetts
978-768-6057
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 23 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET:  Fried Clams, Fried Lobster Claws, Chocolate Frappe

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