Romancing the clam: The great stuffie wars of RI's South County

Ah, a day at the beach. There’s no better and cheaper way to relax than getting out to the shore in the summer. An old towel, a bathing suit and 50 cents worth of sunscreen and you are on your way. All that salt air and swimming just beckons a seafood meal right around lunchtime. Then you find that a typical plate of fried clams runs about $18. And a good lobster roll? Forget about it. So what’s a tapped-out beach bum to do? Well, in Rhode Island you can turn to the Stuffie; a quahog (a huge cold water hard shell clam) stuffed with seafood stuffing and spices. A few stuffies and a beer is tasty, filling and can get you your seafood fix for about ten bucks.

A Rhode Island concoction

Stuffies are served virtually everywhere in Southern New England but are mostly considered a Rhode Island contribution. In fact the word “quahog” (pronounced ko-hog) originally came from the Narragansett and Wampanoag Indians indigenous to the Bay. Besides, Quahog, RI is the fictional setting for the popular Family Guy animated comedy. And if anyone carries a sense of authenticity and gravitas, it’s Stewie. How can you argue with that kind of research?

It’s all about balance

In order to find the best stuffie in South County, we brought in Boston’s Chef Julia Grimaldi as a guest judge. Grimaldi is a Boston University-educated personal chef and a Program Manager for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. But even more, she loves a good stuffed clam. As we worked through the various offerings at a number of popular restaurants, we found that the basic ingredients are pretty simple: chopped quahog meat, breading, and a combination of vegetables that can include celery, onion, peppers, and a variety of spices. The meat is scooped from the clam, chopped, mixed with the stuffing mixture, stuffed back in the shell and either baked or fried. They all seem to be garnished with greens, most commonly mesclun mix. While the ingredients varied only a little between restaurants, the balance of clams to stuffing, cooking technique, and attention to managing the flavor and texture profiles turned out surprisingly different experiences in the mouth. As you might guess, there was a big difference between the kitchens that make their stuffies in-house and those that get the pre-made, frozen food service offerings. Here are five of the area's better seafood restaurants we sampled.

5th Place: Champlins Seafood, Narragansett $5.99/order of 2

Located on the pier adjacent to the Block Island Ferry on Great Island Road, Champlins offers an expansive menu in a walk-up counter service setting. The second floor location offers a great view of the river, and there are options for inside and outside dining. Champlins buys their stuffies premade, and unfortunately, you can tell. They are prepared either baked or deep-fried. Either way, we found the texture to be overly soft, bready, and under-seasoned. We had to search for the clams and overall we were underwhelmed. Now, don’t write off Champlins. The place is hopping and we watched big plates of food going by our table that looked and smelled fantastic. But on this day, their stuffie did not measure up.

4th Place: Starboard Galley, Narragansett $2.25/ea.

The Starboard Galley is located just across the street from Scarborough Beach and leads with an informal atmosphere and a view of the ocean. They do a great takeout business and have a small game room with pool table and air hockey. Chef Grimaldi proved that she learned about more than just food during her career as she rallied to a stunning 7-5 victory in air hockey over our humbled writer. But back to the task at hand. The stuffies were served up hot and fast, and truth be said, they weren’t bad. Peppers, celery and onion were all present and accounted for and the clams were tender. But overall, these were a bit bland and needed lemon and Tabasco to bring out what flavor they had. If the competition was not so stiff, these would have fared much better. Still, at $2.25 each, there are no complaints here.

3rd Place: Matunuck Oyster Bar, E. Matunuck $3.95/ea.

The simplest way to put it is that everything about The Matunuck Oyster Bar is beautiful. From the breathtaking view of Potter Pond, to the artful preparation of each dish, everything is visually striking. In fact, of all the stuffies we sampled, these were the most distinctive in both appearance and in the quality of the ingredients. Starting with a house recipe, these quahogs incorporated chopped Chourico and cherry peppers. The clams were coarsely chopped, leaving big chunks of the clams in the mix. The breading was the most aggressively spiced and interesting. We wanted to love these stuffies! But for all the multi-layered flavors, the total effect didn’t realize the promise of the ingredients and apparent care applied. The individual parts didn’t seem to coalesce as a single experience. In addition, the big chunks of clams were dry and chewy, most likely from over cooking. This distraction put these stuffies squarely in the middle of the pack.

2nd Place: Red Stripe, Narragansett $2.99/ea.

Sister to the popular eatery in Waverly Square, Providence, Red Stripe has recently opened a new location on Pt. Judith Road. Hailing as an “American Brasserie,” the restaurant brings a continental flair to well-prepared, if not up-scale dining. Our first thought when sampling the stuffies here was “This is what people think of when they think of what a stuffie should be.” Like a great all-around athlete that excels at no single thing yet performs well in all areas, these stuffies were beautifully balanced. They have the optimal proportions between the tender clams and rich, buttery stuffing. The texture was enhanced by a counterpoint played between the slightly crunchy veggies and the soft, almost velvety breading. And did I mention the wonderfully rich buttery notes? Tempered with the slightest bit of lemon juice or tart Tabasco, these were a special experience.

1st Place: Captain Jack’s, Narragansett $2.99/ea.

Captain Jack’s is closing in on 40 years of service in South County. A family owned and run business, the restaurant focuses on creating seafood fare for the whole family. No exotic ingredients, cutting edge recipes or trendy gimmicks­­–just the freshest items prepared in a simple, straightforward way. In fact, even the owners and the staff have an “Aw shucks” way about them. But for all of this understatement, Captain Jack’s stuffies ruled the day. The first thing you will notice about them is the marvelous crispy crust on the top of the breading. They achieve this crunch by flash-frying the quahogs and then finishing them off in the oven. The crunchy shell conceals the mixture below which is an exercise in culinary restraint and subtle goodness. The chefs at Jack’s managed the best balance between clams and stuffing. The clam meat was minced fine, releasing ample clammy flavor, while allowing the flesh to cook to tender perfection without being dry or tough. The stuffing inside was savory and delicious, leading with spices reminiscent of Bay Seasoning, perfectly sautéed minced celery, onion, and a hint of parsley. Contributing flavors from the veggies and seasonings were recognizable individually, yet at the same time they harmonized in a single event in the mouth. Flavorful enough to eat plain, this crispy number also serves as a great platform to layer more intense flavors such as lemon juice, Tabasco, or cocktail sauce. This stuffie proves once again that a good recipe prepared with thought and care is surely greater than the sum of its parts.

Stuffies are not likely to replace baked stuffed lobster as a last meal request on death row. But if you have a hankering for fish on a budget, or if you just want a quick, cheap and delicious meal, the stuffie delivers fullness and satisfaction. And they are sold in just about every in Rhode Island seafood joint. Click on the names of the restaurants in the headings above to see their complete menus, hours and get directions. And don’t forget the sunscreen.