07 October, 2008

On New England Clam Chowder, Redux

So, after bitching a few days ago about how it seemed impossible to find a decent New England clam chowder in any New England restaurants, I thought it was only fair to mention that I actually found one worth eating, at - of all places - Friendly's.

If you live in the Northeast, you'll be familiar with Friendly's. They got their start in Springfield MA in the 1930s as a small burger-and-ice-cream storefront joint, and expanded through the years until they were flipping burgers and dishing out their own locally-made ice cream pretty much throughout New England. Then they got bought out by Hershey's, who tried to expand the restaurants nationwide; along the way Friendly's forgot their roots and nearly went bankrupt, and now they're back to a more basic menu, shrunken in size to cover mostly the Northeast US again, and made huge improvements in their food and service over the nightmare years of the 1980s and early 90s when both sucked.

OK, Friendly's capsule history over; let's get down to this chowder. It's thick and white, of course. A little bit too thick for my purist taste, but it's not wicked stiff glue. I can taste real cream, and the soup has a very pronounced clammy flavor. No wonder - there are tons of clams in there, along with little bits of ham (acceptable in lieu of salt pork) and small cubes of creamy Eastern potatoes. Not too salty, and a good hit of freshly ground black pepper makes the chowder zippy without being peppered to annoyance. It was enjoyable enough that I almost wished I'd ordered a bowl instead of a cup, a solid three stars out of five.

As for Friendly's, well, they're starting to win me back. For a long time, I wouldn't set foot in one. The service was horrible and the food was nasty chain-restaurant slop. Over the past couple years, though, I've tried them a few times and had nothing but good experiences and very decent burgers despite their insistence on overcooking them. Many of their other menu items are acceptable as well. Now that I know their chowder is OK, we'll probably be going there more often.


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