There are clam shacks and there are clam shacks. Champlin's is more of a clam duplex, hot meals upstairs and fish market below. If you have friends visiting from the coast of Maine, where they take this sort of place seriously, bring them down and show them how things should be done.
Some clam shacks have succumbed to temptation and turned into full-service, linen napkin dockside restaurants. But at Champlin's there is still no fawning maître d' with a Woonsocket-French accent or waitstaff tricked out in yellow sou'westers. You stand in line and order at the window. Perhaps you eat while watching fishing boats chug past the deck, returning to dock, as we did.
CHAMPLIN'S SEAFOOD |401.783.3152 | 256 GREAT ISLAND RD, NARRAGANSETT| DAILY, 11 AM-9 PM | MAJOR CREDIT CARDS | FULL BAR | SIDEWALK-LEVEL ACCESSIBLE
There's a little horseshoe bar dispensing beers and cocktails next to the pickup counter. While you're waiting, you can peruse photographs of the aftermath of the 1938 hurricane and newspaper accounts about it.
Freshness is the name of the game with seafood, and the names of the boats who provide their catch are listed on life rings around the building outside. The wide variety of seafood they choose from is indicated in the market downstairs, with its lobster tanks and orderly rows of mollusks, where you can buy everything from octopus salad to swordfish chunks.
In line we look over the two panels of specials to make sure we didn't miss anything interesting. Lobsters are pricey right now, with twin pound-and-a-quarters at $32.99, extras extra. Bargains are the crab cake and fried soft shell crab dinners ($9.49 and $11.49), imported from Maryland. Dinners come with coleslaw and your choice of french fries or red potatoes.
At the top of the regular menu is, of course, fish and chips ($12.99; child size, $10.99), using flounder or yellowtail and a dry batter, as with all the fried food, so that the coating isn't thick and greasy. Other dinners that attracted my attention on the everyday listing included charbroiled swordfish ($13.99), tuna steak ($13.99), coconut shrimp ($10.99), and the seafood platter ($24.99). For some reason, that platter comes with fries but not slaw, just as the clambake ($27.99) comes only with red potatoes. Mysterious are the ways of the Galilee seafood cook, probably still cranky and mischievous from life on a boat.
They offer linguini with red or white clam sauce ($10.99), unusual for shack food, but a thoughtful accommodation to local tastes.
When our number came up, I retrieved two steaming trays, thankful I wasn't instead hauling in a net. First things first. The stuffies ($4.99 for two) were tasty and sufficiently inhabited by clam bits; no need to colorize the breading with bell pepper. The clam chowder comes only in Styrofoam takeout containers, from a half-pint to a quart ($3.79-$10.99). We had the clear rather than the white or red, which is the only way to go for the fullest flavor, rich with clam broth here and plenty of the critters with the little potato cubes.
We were told that the main ingredient in the conch fritters ($5.99 for seven) was local, which was better than they could claim when we last had them in Key West. We could hardly pass them up. They were golf ball-size, as opposed to the larger clam cakes ($4.29 for six), but were jam-packed with chunks of the chewy snail in every little bite. They also contained little green flecks of jalapeno, which sparked them up nicely.
I was into spicy — taste buds bored, maybe. So I ordered a side of fried hot and spicy shrimp ($6.99), turning them into a dinner with sides of fries and coleslaw. No complaints about the accompaniments, and the dozen batter-fried, tail-off shrimp, the size of curled pinkies, even survived the taste competition of the hot sauce dousing and accompanying spicy aioli dip.
Johnnie's baked flounder dinner ($12.99) was the wisest choice. With heart-healthy red potatoes instead of fries, the thin fish was rolled up before baking, to keep it from overcooking. Smart. Sprinkle with paprika and minced parsley, it was melt-in-your-mouth delish.
In clam shack tradition, there are no desserts at Champlin's. They are friendly enough, however, so that enough requests for chocolate-covered fish sticks would likely put it on the menu.
Bill Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.