The men at the bar are sitting alone, drinking beer, looking deeply into their baskets of fried clams. It's 11 o' clock in the morning on a Friday and Bigelow's is full of middle-aged men, but it's just a coincidence—I've seen women in velvet sweatpants spooning thick chowder from oversized teacups, and couples quietly splitting orders of fried oysters.
Bigelow's is a busy, cash-only clam shack off Long Island's Sunrise Highway. There's a small prep kitchen in back and a row of fryers in front, surrounded by a horseshoe bar and some stools. There's no outdoor seating, not that you'd want to sit outside. The shack is sandwiched between car dealerships and chain restaurants, a couple of miles in from the bay, on a hideous road that's usually plugged with traffic.
But inside, it's a little white chapel, adorned with the glamorous paraphernalia of the sea: garlands of shiny fishing nets hold plastic sea creatures, hand-painted signs for seafood, and a kitschy captain's wheel.
Bigelow's specializes in fried seafood. The menu includes HoJo-style hard-shell clam strips, oysters, smelt, soft-shell crab, and tiny bay scallops. But like almost everyone else, I'm here for the Ipswich clams (also called clam bellies, belly clams, or steamer clams), a kind of soft-shell clam that's hardly ever from Ipswich, Massachusetts.
Straight out of the fryer basket, the hot clams are wrapped in a clean white tablecloth and twirled about, to degrease and season them evenly.
The belly, as it's nicknamed, does include the clam's actual belly (the Journal of Molluscan Studies calls it the clam's stomach), which makes up the bulk of the meat. But the belly actually refers to the whole of the soft-shell clam: a firm scallop of digestive tract plus the smaller, silkier, brain-balls-heart of the thing. This circuit is connected by terrifically strong but tender muscle, and two thin siphons.
Although the portion size at Bigelow's is consistent by weight (nine ounces, market price, comes with fries or slaw), the size and flavor of the clams can change from day to day. "The bellies are kind of on the small side right now, that okay with you?" asks the cook. Serious belly enthusiasts tend to seek out the big Ipswich clams (with the fattest stomach sacs), though I much prefer them bite-sized.
Bigelow's gets fresh soft-shell clams delivered by the gallon, every other day, from a big northeastern supplier, the Ipswich Shellfish Company. But the soft-shell clam's shell is not soft. It's a hinged eggshell, hard to the touch but easily broken. The mollusk hides itself in the bed of the coast, siphoning water to sort through for plankton. It has, seriously, nothing else to do.
After the clam's been picked from the sand or mudflat, it goes through a brief detox, in which salt water is pumped through its body. Then it's shucked—the neck, that tough grey muscle that covers the siphons, is removed—and kept in a mild brine for shipping. Finally, at Bigelow's, the bellies are rolled in a powdery cornmeal mix and dropped in 350-degree oil to order.
The fry cook blots the extra grease in a gorgeous, fine-dining send-off. Straight out of the fryer basket, the hot clams are wrapped in a clean white tablecloth and twirled about, to degrease and season them evenly. It's reminiscent of an old school hotel-restaurant trick, performed by the table to thrill the diners. Coincidentally, founder Russ Bigelow worked in New England hotels before opening Bigelow's in 1939.
A perfect belly will taste quite simply of the brine and grit of the seabed. Firm, but full of juice. It will be sweet, salty, and creamy, in a dry, crisp case. A bad belly—it happens—will be almost pulpy, with the unfortunate whiff of low tide and dog's breath.
When you bite into a belly, you might feel a grain of sand on your tongue or the shock of salty earth. This is not what's meant by terroir, but literally, you may taste where the clam is from.
I ask the cook—there are no waiters at Bigelow's—for extra tartar sauce. The clams are just fine plain but, like all deep-fried things, they're better with salt and a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce (the cooks make it with food service mayonnaise but get it right every time).
Then I ask about the bellies, whose season technically ends in the fall. They're small and sweet and different from the last time I was here, though it's hard to pin down how. This week, he explains, the supplier is sending them from Maine's muddy coastal waters, close to Canada.
"But tomorrow," the cook shrugs, "who knows?"
Bigelow's New England Fried Clams
79 S Long Beach Road
Rockville Centre, NY 11570