The clam shack is a New England institution, dotting shorelines and beach towns up and down the coast; it is an icon of sorts, a manifestation of our region's historic reverence for the sea.
Typically adorned to some degree with kitschy nautical décor, clam shacks serve up the ocean's bounty dipped, battered and fried to the delight of customer's taste buds, but to the chagrin of their cholesterol.
Perhaps most notable for this briny fare is Flo's Clam Shack, whose humble beginnings in an Island Park chicken coop in 1936 in Portsmouth were an unlikely indicator of their future success.
In addition to the original Island Park location on Park Avenue in Portsmouth, Flo's boasts a location in Middletown, just across from Easton's beach.
While clams are still the name of the game in Middletown, the view of the water from their second floor balcony is alone worth the visit.
Although its flashier, more elaborately festooned younger sister offers much more in the way of food, libation and ambiance, undoubtedly drawing more crowds and recognition, the original location in Portsmouth is "still their baby," says Lisa Miller, a mainstay at Flo's in Middletown for the last nine years. After all, it's the original spot in Portsmouth that developed their reputation for the best fried clams around and it's the same recipe used in Portsmouth that has consistently earned Flo's Clam Shack awards in Rhode Island Monthly since 1991.
When asked why she thinks the Middletown location has garnered more attention over the years, Miller explained that crowds are drawn to Flo's because of their reputation for offering great food and great atmosphere year-round, not simply in the summer.
In fact, Miller says "New Year's Day is the best day in the whole entire world. We have a band, the polar bears jump into the ocean and it's a party all day. The energy is phenomenal."
She also quips " … and where else can you come to a clam shack and get a bottle of Moet and two gourmet hot dogs for $50?" Where else, indeed?
Flo's offers a typical clam shack menu and then some, including New England, Manhattan and the elusive clear-broth, Rhode Island style clam "chowdas," as well as clam cakes, fried oysters, clam strips and, of course, the fried succulent whole belly clams for which they are renowned.
I had to try some for myself and voraciously devoured a fried clam roll. The portion was surprisingly large and included an adequate number of tender whole-bellied clams among many strips.
As I stuffed my face, Portsmouth head chef Stephen Borden chatted with me at one of the picnic benches, all the while graciously ignoring my apparent lack of table manners. Borden, a 30-year veteran of Flo's, explained to me that their clams actually come from Maine and are delivered freshly shucked twice per week.
Inquiring as to why the clams aren't local, Borden explained that Maine clams are much sweeter and "The colder the water, the better the seafood."
In stark contrast to the Middletown location, which typically caters to tourists, Flo's in Portsmouth has a steady stream of regulars who come from the surrounding areas, including Massachusetts, to get their fried fix.
Borden closes up shop in October and transfers to the Middletown location, where he and Miller serve freshly baked seafood through New Year's Day.
The two take a six-week hiatus to prepare for yet another undeniably busy season and reopen their doors in Middletown in March.
For more information or to take a peak at their menu, visit www.flosclamshack.net.