Northwest Chowder Houses

by Heather Larson | Photo © Erica Bolvin

Chowder tastes exceptionally good on a chilly, winter day. Succulent clams and Yukon Gold potatoes simmered in a rich, buttery milk-broth paired with crusty sourdough make a warm, comforting meal. Top that off with a favorite wine or brew and you have a dinner fit for a foodie.

This hearty soup wasn’t always made with seafood as Pacific Northwesterners know it today. Eighteenth century chowders contained meat or poultry, wine, spices, herbs, cider and other flavorings. Milk and potatoes weren’t available to cooks then, and crackers or ship biscuits were used as thickening agents. What is now a cold-weather classic used to be a poor-man’s food, because you used small chunks of fish or meat in lots of liquid.

In my quest to find champion chowders, I discovered that the simplest of recipes, often decades old, most often make a gastronome’s most popular list.

Mo’s Restaurants, Oregon Coast

“My great grandmother opened the business in 1946, and the clam chowder we serve today was mostly her recipe,” says Gabrielle McEntee-Wilson, who co-owns the restaurants with her brother. “We start with a bacon roux for a smoky flavor and then add clam juice, clams, flour, potatoes, whole milk, salt and pepper.”

McEntee-Wilson’s great grandmother competed with several women who worked at the first restaurant to see who could get the most compliments on the chowder they made on Fridays. Today, Mo’s Chowder is a compilation of some of those recipes.

Chowder lovers stop at Mo’s because they always get the same, consistent product. If you can’t get to Oregon this winter but yearn for a bowl, Mo’s Chowder Base is available online at moschowder.com and at retailers like Albertson’s and Fred Meyer so you can prepare your own.

You’ll find Mo’s in Oregon at Newport, Cannon Beach, Lincoln City, Otter Rock, Florence and a brand new location at the Portland International Airport.

Norma’s Seafood & Steak, Seaside OR

Frequently mentioned in national food publications, such as Bon Appétit, Norma’s clam chowder was recently named one of the “Top Ten Soups in America” by epicurious.com. The Washington Post once said Norma’s is “the place to eat when dining on the North Oregon Coast,” and The Oregonian called the restaurant “an exceptional spot for the freshest locally caught seafood.”
All this notoriety has made owner, Randy Frank, mum about the ingredients in his chowder. He does say that the spices, quality of the components and manner of assembly make his special brand of this traditional New England-style worth a stop in Seaside, Oregon. Just one taste and I was convinced this pork-free recipe is a chowder-lover’s chowder. Go to normasoceandiner.com for more information.

Duke’s Chowder House, Greater Seattle WA Area

When I started researching the best Northwest chowders, I asked my daughter what she looked for in great chowder and she said it had to be made with heavy cream and real butter. No wonder Duke’s is one of her favorite places to dine, because that’s exactly how their executive chef, Bill Ranniger, makes his award-winning, all-natural clam chowder. He has generously converted the recipe (above) for home cooks.

“The heavy cream is what gives our clam chowder its richness,” says Ranniger. “The original recipe came from Duke’s (owner Duke Moscrip) grandfather, but we’ve changed it over the years. Most recently we researched and sourced products so we’d have an all natural version.”

Duke’s clam chowder won the Seattle Chowder Cook-Off three years in a row. Then, the powers that be asked Moscrip not to enter again to give other chowder recipes a shot at the prize. Instead they made Moscrip an honorary judge.

Because Duke’s is a Chowder House, the restaurant offers other varieties besides clam. Their symphony includes Lobster Pernod with langostinos and a hint of licorice, Northwest Seafood Chowder with Penn Cove mussels, Alaskan salmon, cod and halibut, and a Dungeness crab bisque. Duke’s also serves Cajun Chicken Corn Chowder with Creole seasonings. Some of Duke’s chowders are gluten-free. Can’t decide? Order a “full fleet” to sample them all.

Duke’s Chowder Houses are located in Seattle at Alki, Lake Union and Green Lake, and in Kent, Tukwila and Tacoma, Washington. For more information and reservations, go to dukeschowderhouse.com.

Pike Place Chowder, Seattle WA

Larry Mellum, owner of this iconic brand, said his chowder won the Seattle Chowder Cook-Off after Duke’s was asked to resign. Last year Pike Place’s chowder claimed second at the Polar Seltzer Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, Rhode Island, a contest they’d been asked to sit out for ten years because they’d previously won the contest several times.

A novice might think fresh clams would make the best chowder, but Mellum says the clams harvested on this coast aren’t chowder clams so he buys canned clams. For some of his other types of chowder he gets fresh salmon and cod from Pike Place Market fish vendors.

“There is no better place in the world to be located than Pike Place Market. Everyday I can pick and choose fresh ingredients for my menu items,” says Mellum.

Besides clams, his New-England-style chowder includes concentrated clam juice, cold-pasteurized cream (Mellum says nobody else uses this product), bacon and red-skin potatoes. This restaurant also has a medley of hearty soups on its menu.

Seafood Bisque contains cod, salmon, bay shrimp and Dungeness crab with a stock of tomato, basil and cream. Smoked Salmon Chowder, made to mirror lox and bagels, contains smoked salmon, capers and cream cheese. By walking the produce stalls at Pike Place Market, Mellum and his kitchen manager, Dario Guerra, came up with a recipe for a gluten-free vegan chowder where the vegetables change according to the season and the broth is coconut milk.

You’ll find several different chowders on the menu daily. Pike Place Chowder is located in Seattle at Pike Place Market and on the 4th floor of Pacific Place Center. For more information or to order a delivery of chowder, visit pikeplacechowder.com.

Ocean Crest Resort, Moclips WA

In 1953, Ocean Crest operated four small cabins. Barbara Curtright, one of the owners, often served her famous clam chowder to resort guests, even though the resort didn’t have a restaurant. She whipped up her recipe on a Japanese hibachi located near the fire pit. Still owned by the Curtright family, the resort now rents out 45 units and has a restaurant with a spectacular view of the ocean surf below.

Just over three years ago the restaurant burned. The newly built and redesigned structure, complete with an extensive wine display, recently opened and they are serving Grandma’s chowder just like before. Today, 94-year-old Barbara Curtright Topete (Grandma) leaves the restaurant cooking to the staff.

Chef Coty MacDonald prepares a gluten-free chowder, made with Yukon Gold potatoes, clams, salt and pepper, and says the foundation speaks for itself. In 2012, Grandma’s Famous Clam Chowder took 1st place in the Professional Clam Chowder Competition, and in 2013 this recipe won 1st place in the People’s Choice Clam Chowder competition at the Razor Clam Festival in Ocean Shores, Washington.

Ocean Crest Resort is located in Moclips, Washington. For dining or room reservations, visit oceancrestresort.com.

Cardero’s Restaurant, Vancouver B.C.

Decidedly different from the creamy white chowders prevalent in most Northwest chowder houses, Manhattan chowder is a savory, tomato-based broth concoction that has its roots in Portuguese fishing communities. This style of chowder can be hearty with vegetables and clams or thinner with a flavorful broth at the forefront. Manhattan-style clam chowder at Cardero’s Restaurant in Vancouver, B.C., is a happy compromise right in the middle.

Executive Chef Jason Kleinfeld’s mantra is “fresh and simple,” one that rarely steers a kitchen in the wrong direction. His version of Manhattan chowder is basic—and that’s its magic—with tomatoes, potatoes, celery and lots of clams rounding out the flavor profile.
Cardero’s is located at Coal Harbour in Vancouver’s West End. For more information, go to vancouverdine.com/carderos.