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Long Island Clam Chowder: Secret Blend Slowly Catching On
The mouthwatering aroma of fresh, steaming Manhattan and New England clam chowder surrounds patrons saddling up to the quaint, bustling counter at The Chowder Bar in Bay Shore, where the motto aptly proclaims: “Once you’ve nibbled and we’ll have you hooked!”
But one soup increasingly being ordered by chowderheads here is not even on the menu: Long Island Clam Chowder, a pinkish mix of half-New England white and half-Manhattan red—a trend servers here note continues rising like the tide since they first heard the request about five years ago.
“They call it a Half-and-Half,” one Chowder Bar waitress says while serving up yet another pair of blended bowls. “It’s starting to catch on more now in the last couple of years.”
Part geographic pun—LI itself being tucked between New York City and the upper Northeast—part culinary experiment in the vein of the Cronut (a croissant-donut hybrid), LI clam chowder is just one of countless coastal regional varieties from Florida to Chicago. Some such soups can be found locally, like the clear-ish Rhode Island-style clam chowder at Buoy One Seafood Restaurant, which has locations in Huntington, Riverhead and Westhampton.
LI clam chowder is still on the fringes, a creamy-tomato-y incantation that has yet to arrive in the mainstream world of soup. Ordering it at a Nassau County clam bar can inspire looks of disbelief and disgust from behind the counter. And despite the often deep-fried innovations rolled out from food truck kitchens at fairs, it could not be found on any menus at the Long Island Maritime Museum Seafood Festival last month.
“I’m a big fan of mixing foods,” says Lynda Nenninger, co-owner of The Chowder Bar for a quarter century, who likens the blend to an Arnold Palmer, made of half iced-tea and lemonade. “If you have one good soup and another good soup, how can it be bad if you mix it together?”
When combined, the two form a sort of cream of tomato from the sea. Potatoes join their fellow floating vegetables in harmony, swimming alongside chopped clams reunited after separation at the two soups’ birth. Spoonfuls have hooked adventurous eaters and convinced doubters.
The Chowder Bar, tucked between other waterside eateries and boatyards on Maple Avenue, proves an ideal testing ground for the soup’s popularity. Manhattanites shuttling to and from the nearby Fire Island ferry terminals stick with either New England, the eatery’s most popular, or their city folks’ hometown favorite, which is a close second. Only locals know to order the mixed clammy brew.
Farther east on LI, the local variations multiply. Schafer’s of Port Jefferson, an upscale casual newcomer to the popular downtown, has Long Island Clam & Corn Chowder—a blend of LI’s most famous vegetable chowder combined with its favorite shellfish in a yellowish broth. SALT Waterfront Bar and Grill has cooked up eponymous Shelter Island Clam Chowder, which also won last year’s Greenport Maritime Festival chowder contest.
Asked what separates Shelter Island Clam Chowder from the pack, Executive Chef Darren Boyle says: “The waters that the clams are coming in… These clams are huge. We actually save the juice they come in.” He also uses local corn and potatoes—a tastier cross between Yukon and Idaho potatoes that bring a distinctive flavor—and apple and cherrywood-smoked bacon made on Shelter Island.
LI chowder is on the menu at White Cap Fish Market, a hidden gem of a seafood restaurant and wholesaler overlooking the Islip canals off Montauk Highway, and Poppei’s Clam Bar, the local chain of four seafood eateries that calls the blend “A Popei’s original.”
Popei’s, not to be confused with the Louisiana fast-food fried chicken chain, claims to have invented LI clam chowder, dishing it out in bowls large enough that the two remain separate, resembling a liquid white and red target.
“We’ve had it since Day One on our menu,” says Joe Reale, owner of Popei’s Clam Bar, which his mother and uncle—nicknamed Popeye after the cartoon character—opened in its first location in Bethpage 30 years ago before expanding to Sayville, Coram and Deer Park. “People love it.”
Reale says LI chowder is just as popular as the Manhattan and New England chowders and some people order catered “soup parties” to have chowder—including the LI variety—served by the gallon at their homes by ladle-wielding Popei’s staffers.
“Some people prefer to mix it, some people like to eat around the red and save the New England in the middle,” he says. “It’s like there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.”
The Bethpage location, which was launched after his family set up shop at a neighborhood farmer’s market, may be the farthest west into Nassau that LI clam chowder can be found, although it also appears on the menu at Embassy Diner in Bethpage.
While mixing two chowders is relatively simple, Popei’s and The Chowder Bar each arrive at the destination from different roads. Popei’s prefers its chowder made with clams from the North Shore. The Chowder Bar relies on baymen plying the nearby Great South Bay to stock their soup.
Both restaurants use only fresh ingredients, nothing jarred or canned. And each continued serving up plenty of all variations throughout the summer, no matter how much the Island sizzled in the heat. It could be that there’s one extra special ingredient that keeps chowder lovers coming back for more.
“We make it with lots of love,” says The Chowder Bar’s Nenninger, with a smile.