Rolling along traffic-choked Sunrise Highway in Rockville Centre, you don’t expect to see many eateries from the 1930s—and even though Long Beach is a mere five miles south, you certainly don’t expect a bona fide clam shack to thrive on the busy thoroughfare.
But there at 79 N. Long Beach Rd., sits Bigelow’s. A New England-style, blue-and-white fry house established in 1939, Bigelow’s isn’t a nautical-themed restaurant—it is nautical. Emphatically of the sea from the food to the décor, Bigelow’s gives eaters the sense that they are standing on the bow of a ship, corn-cob pipe protruding from a bearded face, with a fisherman’s cable-knit sweater protecting from the elements and a wisp of ocean on the lips.
The half-circle lunch counter, which faces Bigelow’s fryers, can get crowded at peak times, with customers ordering Ipswich clams, fried smelt, scallops, cod, oysters and Bigelow’s inimitable seafood bisque and clam chowders (which deserve their own article)—but no matter the bustle in the restaurant, a silent reverence presides over each eater when the food arrives. It is a truly singular fried seafood experience.
This is perhaps most evident with Bigelow’s famous Ipswich clams—fried, whole belly clams boasting a flavor depth many-fathoms deeper than that of fried clam strips—much more reminiscent of oysters in terms of flavor and texture. With Ipswich, you get two parts to the clam: There’s the thin, salty and tender muscle, and the belly, which is the intense, briny, soft part straight from the seabed, with a touch of sweetness and saltiness throughout every creamy, yet firm, bite.
Named after Ipswich, MA, but not necessarily from Ipswich, MA, these clams are the same ones used in steamer pots and are often referred to as soft-shell clams even though the shell is about as hard as any other clam shell. Bigelow’s has kept the same recipe for these beauties since the restaurant opened nearly 80 years ago. The cornmeal-based batter is never greasy, as the oil is changed daily, blanketing the delicate soft belly in a crisp coating. With a side of tartar sauce and a slight squeeze of a lemon for brightness, it is the quintessential seafood snack on Long Island.
Keeping with the old-school vibe, Bigelow’s is a cash-only business. An order of Ipswich clams at market price with fries came to $27.15 (tax included), but don’t let the price tag deter—it’s a hefty, fully satisfying dish with a flavor well worth the cost.
Bigelow’s New England Fried Clams, 79 N. Long Beach Rd., Rockville Centre; 516-678-3878; www.bigelows-rvc.com