Fried Clams and Seafood in the Pioneer Valley

If your vacation plans don’t call for a trip to Cape Cod or another seaside spot this summer, you may be craving a fix of fried clams or fish and chips, clam chowder, and the palate-cleansing taste of cole slaw. Western Massachusetts is a little too far from the shore to have the pristine freshness or the tourist traffic that makes for a great clam shack, but for the salt-air deprived, there are some places you can go.

WEBSTER’S FISH HOOK (391 Damon Road, Northampton, 586-3190) is perhaps the most polished of the places I tried. Starting out in a trailer in 1985, Webster’s expanded into a full restaurant in 1987. It has the prerequisite Formica tables, and there are no waitresses, but the service is quick and the seafood is fresh. You put your order in, pay and get your number. When called, you pick up your food and get condiments from the station beside the salad bar. There is Cajun mayonnaise, hot sauce, plenty of lemons and tartar sauce.

We’re talking whole clams here, by the way, not frozen clam strips, which remind me of the Howard Johnson’s version rather than real seafood. At Webster’s, the clams are prepared according to the lightly breaded school of deep-frying, and served hot. The cole slaw is homemade, finely shredded and with a good taste of mayonnaise, and the fries are dusted with flour to make them crispy.

The menu also features broiled scrod, haddock, shrimps and scallops, and various sides, including roasted potatoes. The salad bar is pretty ordinary, but if you’re needing to feel virtuous after eating all that fried food, go for it. A fried clam plate goes for $16.99 for dinner and $10.75 for lunch.

FISH TALES BAR AND GRILL (5 School St., Hatfield, 349-4100) is as much a neighborhood bar and grill as a seafood house. There is a separate bar and the menu is large enough to include pizza, subs, steak and chicken in addition to the seafood. But since that’s what I was searching for, we limited ourselves to the fish offerings.

Fish Tales gets its seafood from Schermerhorn’s in Holyoke. I’ve always liked Schermerhorn’s for lobster, but service there can be slow. Not so at Fish Tales. Not only was our server friendly and attentive, but she gave us the price when she read off the specials and when she brought our party of three our food, she served each of us the dish we had ordered. I mention this only because I have been in too many restaurants where the wait staff can’t seem to serve each diner what he or she ordered without asking.

The clam chowder is listed as homemade. It is filled with potatoes, but is pretty heavily thickened. The fried whole clams were good — fresh-tasting and pretty grease-free — and the portion was large. The cole slaw was shredded, with a good mayo taste, and was the best of all I tried.

The other dishes were somewhat mixed. The scallops and the shrimp in the scampi were cooked through without being dry or rubbery, but the sauce lacked garlic and had had a shot of wine added at the end, when it didn’t have time to cook in. The broiled haddock was a fresh piece of fish, with breading baked on top.

Judging by the clams, you won’t go wrong getting fried seafood at Fish Tales. The dinner portion was $16.99, a pretty standard price these days.

During the day, I do computer consulting, but somehow the topic of where to eat seems to come up regularly. I’ve found a number of good places as a result. Mentioning my quest for fried clams at a meeting in Ware last week elicited a chorus of “Snow’s. You’ve got to try Snow’s.” Although I’d had fried clams for lunch and dinner the day before, I stopped by after my meeting for a taste.

SNOW’S RESTAURANT is located at 136 Pleasant St. in Ware (967-7024). Pleasant Street is parallel to East Main Street/Route 9 and two minutes away. Snow’s has a bar and a dining room and a large seafood menu. Since it was 3:30 in the afternoon, I tried the clam roll with whole clams. The portion was as large as the dinner portions at some of the other places, too big to actually lift the roll and eat it. The breading was heavier and crispy, almost like a KFC-style batter, but pretty greaseless. The clams were fresh and tasty. The clam roll and a Coke came to $16.50.

I spoke a little with the owner, who said he gets deliveries daily: “I won’t tell you that everything comes in every day, but it’s all three or four days off the boat.” I like that kind of attitude. I also liked the fact that striped bass was on the specials board. Striper is the best local fish for my money and I don’t often see it on area menus.

If you are in the mood for a drive from Amherst or Northampton, Ware is not too far away and you can always take a walk through the Quabbin Reservoir to help you work up an appetite or work off lunch.

Originally published Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 19, 2009


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