Fried clams are to New England what barbecue is to the South. Like barbecue, the best clams come from small roadside shacks run in pragmatic mom-and-pop style. Flinty Northerners, like their porcine-loving counterparts, can be fanatically loyal to their favorite spots. To eat at any place but Macray’s was considered familial treason when I was growing up — it was Macray’s or nothing, until it was shuttered and we were set adrift.
So wrote David Leite several years ago in a tribute to the food of his youth in a New York Times article that, to a Texan, at least went a long way towards explaining why a basket of fried seafood should hold such sway over people. We like our fried shrimp and fried oysters here, but not to the fanatical extent that New Englanders—and especially Mainers—like their fried clams.
3310 S. Shepherd Dr.
Buddy Charity, who owns Maine-ly Sandwiches, knows this fanaticism first-hand. He's a bit of a fanatic himself, carefully introducing the iconic dish onto the menu at the Montrose location of his popular sandwich shop. The original location, off the North Freeway near Greenspoint, doesn't have a fryer that's suited to the task. But here in Montrose, where the shop is nearly four times the size, Charity recently installed two brand-new fryers and went about perfecting a fried clam recipe he knew would be picked apart by his fellow New Englanders.
A couple of short weeks into his fried clam experiment, however, Charity hasn't received any complaints. At least, not about the tender clam bellies in their crunchy batter. The scattered few complaints have been only about the cost. "The bellies are almost as expensive as the lobster," says Charity. "Have you ever been clam-digging? It's hard work."
All things considered, however, I can't find fault with Charity's pricing: a small basket of clam bellies (the more expensive and more sought-after version, which are whole soft-shell clams) is $11.99 and comes with freshly made coleslaw and a pile of hot crinkle-cut fries. The large basket is overflowing with bellies and is $15.99. If you just want clam strips—sliced up hard-shell clams—Maine-ly has those too: $9.99 for a small basket and $12.99 for a large. And if you just want a straight-up pint of clam bellies—no fries, no slaw, just pure unadulterated clams—you can get that too, for $13.99 (a smaller version is available for $9.99).
I've had fried clams before, but none that ever evoked the sort of intense feelings David Leite writes about. Baskets of fried clams past were a bit tough and chewy, and left me longing for the soft, pillowy texture of fried oysters or sweet burst of fried shrimp instead. Maine-ly Sandwiches served me a basket of fried clams this weekend that brought me into the light: plump, fat, and briny but also seawater sweet. Despite the batter, the fried clams were remarkably light. A couple of dashes of Cajun Chef hot sauce livened them up even more, and my large basket was decimated before long.
The only other complaints Charity says he gets these days are customers' half-joking demands for a third or fourth or fifth Maine-ly Sandwiches to open elsewhere in town. "'When are you going to open in Pearland? We need you in The Woodlands,'" Charity laughs. He wishes he could open more, but Maine-ly is a mom-and-pop business—quite literally, as his wife and kids all help run the two locations—and where else could the best fried clams in town come from if not a mom-and-pop shop?
There is some comfort for those eager for Maine-ly Sandwiches and its lobster rolls, fried clams, and chowder to head into their part of town, however. Charity's brand-new food truck is almost ready to roll out. When completed, the 18-foot truck will offer Maine-ly's full menu for catering gigs and other events. And yes, it will even have fried clams on board. I like to think David Leite would approve.