As a very pale, heat-sensitive young’un from the Midwest, most of my summers were not spent poolside with the rest of my family. Instead they were spent self-sequestered in a tiny bathroom with an A/C vent. There, seated on the cold porcelain throne, I would pore over Currier and Ives picture books, longing to spend my days ice skating in fur mufflers, throwing snowballs, sipping hot cocoa and feasting on chowders. Most of those Maine dreams have come true, save for the chowder.
This winter’s frigid temps (and Omicron numbers) had me geared up to report (via takeout and in the comfort of my own living room) on the “Foodiest City’s” best chowder. But shortly into the quest, I found myself wondering: Why don’t we have better chowder around here?
I don’t want to call out the truly despicable chowder-slingers by name, so I will only mention that the two worst came from just over the bridge in SoPo. The first on my list, a “haddock chowder” ($18/qt.) from a slick new seafood retail shop and eatery, completely lacked any seasoning — i.e., no herbs, no pepper, no pork product, and no salt. It left me seriously wondering if it was even sampled before serving.
The next contender, from a more pedestrian seafood restaurant and market, had my family and I confused as to what we were eating, and made me restart my sobriety counter. This seafood chowder ($19/qt.) was a disintegrated, taupe-colored mess of ingredients topped off with a pour of bottom-shelf sherry that could knock out a sailor. It looked, smelled and tasted like the consequences of a bad night out on the waterfront.
Crossing back over to the bridge provided a plethora of options, and I began with the one and only “award winning chowder house” in Portland, Gilbert’s. High hopes, but here we found a mushy, brown, almost sweet clam chowder ($6.95/cup). Perhaps it sat in a warming kettle too long and caramelized while breaking down. No ribbons from me.
A poll on social media led me to a reputable “soup only” joint in Portland’s Public Market House, Kamasouptra. Their clam chowder ($6.95/12 oz.) had a decent amount of shellfish flavor and a nice, velvety consistency, but it felt manufactured and kind of unloved. That said, compared with previous tastings, we found it enjoyable, especially scooped up with the accompanying hard roll.
Onward to Becky’s Diner, on Commercial Street, where Paul LePage infamously kicked off Chris Christie’s presidential campaign back in 2015. I figuratively held my nose and tried the clam chowder ($7/cup), and to my liberal white-lady chagrin, it was just fine. It had large chunks of potatoes, a thick and creamy texture, and decent clamminess. The only drawback was an artificial maple flavor that possibly came from the bacon used in the preparation.
Onward to Susan’s Fish-n-Chips, on outer Forest Ave., where I was unnerved by the coughing fit of the unmasked woman taking our order. Hacking aside, their seafood chowder ($6.95/cup) was good! Packed with lobster, scallops, haddock and nice bites of potato, it was well seasoned and hit the spot on this particularly windy and cold day.
Now for the two that I would actually order again. In second place we have The Porthole, which served a smashing clam chowder ($7/cup). With its soft cubes of potatoes, crunchy nuggets of celery (finally!), a good amount of chopped clams, herbs and seasoning, this is the way a Maine chowder should be.
And the gold goes to … Eventide Oyster Co., on Middle Street. Their version is not your thick, traditional, “spoon-supporting” type, but rather an umami-packed, brothy concoction with whole belly clams, brunoise-cut potatoes, nori, chive oil and homemade saltines. This chowder is why Eventide bring all the boys (and out-of-staters) to the yard — it’s better than yours. At $13/10 oz., they do have to charge, but it’s worth every cent. Seriously delicious.