The scene: Now that summer is here, the short-but-intense tourism season hits the coast of Maine, which is strewn with more clam and lobster shacks than you can count. You'll find one around every bend in the road that runs from the New Hampshire border at Kittery through Wells, Ogunquit, Kennebunkport and Portland. North of Portland, shacks are farther apart but along Maine's ample coastline they never end. Just as with barbecue in the South, everyone has a favorite and passions run hot, especially when it comes to that Maine staple — the lobster roll.
There is and will never be a consensus "best," but a strong case can be made for the Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, which was just named best lobster-roll venue in New England (which essentially means the world) by the Boston Globe's Sunday Magazine. The Clam Shack was also invited to the 2012 Lobster Roll Rumble in New York City, along with 20 famed restaurants across the country, and won that event. The simple bulletin board outside the simple shack is plastered with other awards and accolades from magazines like Gourmet and Travel + Leisure. Recipes from the Clam Shack were included in The Bush Family Cook Book. While former President George H. W. Bush is the town's most famous resident, it was his wife Barbara who proclaimed these the best fried clams in New England. And when it comes to lobster rolls, the Clam Shack does indeed have a secret, and even if you already have a beloved favorite, it's worth trying here because it's unusual.
The place itself is everything a seaside shack should be: a small building on the water with two windows, one to place orders and one to pick them up on cardboard trays when your number is called. That's pretty much all there is to it, except that it has an absolutely perfect location at the water's edge in Kennebunkport, walking distance to the shops of Main Street and most of the town's lodging. There are several outdoor picnic tables in front, and less well known is covered bench seating on a pier overlooking the inlet behind the shack. Because there are no tables, few patrons choose the pier, but if you are willing to eat on your lap, or the one low crate the size and height of a lobster trap, the pier is more pleasant and private than the roadside picnic tables. The Clam Shack sits next to a sister seafood market, which sells lobster, clams and fish to prepare at home. You can also get steamed lobsters to order in the market, something the clam shack oddly does not sell, since its focus is twofold: lobster rolls and fried seafood – especially clams.
Reason to visit: Lobster roll, fried whole belly clams
The food: A Maine lobster roll is basically meat from a fresh whole lobster removed from the shell and put in a New England-style hot dog bun (meaning exposed rather than crusty exterior sides) with very few variables. Most places toast the bun, and many add mayo, either as a topping or mixed with the meat, while some offer butter instead. A fair number add chopped celery, but this can raise eyebrows, and any other sort of "filler" is seen as diminishing the lobster meat. Even a lettuce leaf can be an affront to purists. A few add a sprinkle of paprika, some add salt or pepper, and you might find some "gourmet" rolls flavoring the melted butter with herbs or spices (tarragon is popular). But generally cold bread, lettuce, more than a little chopped celery, any other noticeable filler, or rubbery lobster meat are all no-nos that should immediately raise suspicions.
The Clam Shack does offer one unorthodox twist, serving their hefty roll, containing all the meat from a freshly shelled one-pound Maine lobster, on a round bun rather than a hot dog roll. The result is more of a lobster burger, the only options being mayo, butter or both. And it is delicious, chunky and hearty – you can see the entire claws and halves of the tail, sliced lengthwise, on the bun – these are some big chunks of fresh lobster. I've tried many lobster rolls across New England, and these are as good as any I've tasted. So if you're ready for a round lobster roll packed with meat and flavor, head to the Clam Shack – that's what almost everyone in line is here for. At over $16 it's a pricey sandwich, but when you consider that it contains an entire lobster, with all the work done for you, and removed lobster meat retails for over $20 per pound in Maine, it's actually a good deal.
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But the place is called the Clam Shack and they serve a lot more, including burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, chicken sandwiches, steamers (steamed local clams), clam chowder (New England-style of course), lobster bisque and fried seafood, shrimp, scallops, haddock, and the namesake clams. Fried shellfish options are all available as either a roll (on a traditional hot dog roll, while the haddock comes on a bun), or as lunch plates, without the bread but adding fries and cole slaw. They are also available a la carte by the half-pint, pint and quart.
Fried, whole fresh belly clams are the other specialty of the house, besides lobster rolls, and are excellent. (Photo: Larry Olmsted for USA TODAY)
Like most good shacks, they offer the choice between clam strips and whole or belly clams at about twice the price. Clam strips are similar to the frozen clams served at most places nationwide and the kind you might find in a school cafeteria. Shockingly, many people think these thin, straight, breaded strips are fried clams. Real fresh whole clams are something different altogether, something rarely found far from the coast except in top-notch seafood restaurants, and are much better — tasty enough to make a convert out of a non-clam lover. Fried clam strips taste of breading, while fried belly clams taste of the sea, and the Clam Shack does an exceptional job with theirs, keeping the breading and oil from overtaking the briny clam flavor.
In a similar vein, the handmade onion rings were quite good, but the bland crinkle-cut fries are worth a pass. The fried Maine shrimp were fresh but the heavier breading sort of overwhelmed their mild sweet flavor. A less usual offering on the menu here is the clam-cake burger. Clam cakes are usually served on their own (like crab cakes) and are a mix of clams and filler or batter-fried into sort of a clam fritter. Here it is served patty-shaped on a hamburger roll, but the clam flavor is largely absent and it tastes like some undefined fried thing. The lobster bisque had good flavor, but was so thin I would have trouble calling it bisque in the first place.
I would definitely go out of my way to visit the Clam Shack again, but I'd have the lobster roll and/or the fried whole belly clams, and maybe some onion rings. Sticking to the house specialties is the delicious way to go here. The Clam Shack is open for lunch and dinner seasonally from spring to fall; closed in winter; serves no alcohol; and, accepts only cash.
What regulars say: "I've been in town for two days and I ate lobster rolls here both days," said Michigan radio personality Michael Patrick Shiels, who travels to Kennebunkport every June.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes – lobster rolls are one of America's greatest foods and this is among the very best places to try one.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 2 Western Avenue, Kennebunkport; 207-967-2560; http://www.theclamshack.net/