By Janet K. Keeler
Seekers come from far and wide to Cedar Key for a taste of the best clam chowder in New England. Yes, you read that correctly. If you’re puzzled, read on.
There’s no doubt where it is because the accolades for Tony’s are plastered on the walls, inside and out, of the restaurant at D and Second streets. The old Hale Building, circa 1880, houses a real estate office, too.
Drive another block and you’re at the Gulf of Mexico. That’s a far cry from the waters of the New England coast, where clam chowder – the creamy kind – is worshipped in equal measure with the Patriots and Red Sox.
How can this be? How can the land of mullet and key lime pie be the home of such a lauded clam chowder?
The short answer is that Tony’s and chef/owner Eric Jungklaus grabbed first place in the 28th annual Knorr Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, R.I. in 2009. They repeated in 2010. Tony’s took the competition again in 2011. And then Tony’s and Eric were retired. A three-peat lands a chowder guru in the hall of fame and out of the regular competition. After all, another chowder-monger needs a fighting chance. The long answer is that Eric poured years of experience and a lot of work into his culinary and business triumph.
There is an ocean-full of chowder competitions across the country, most of the winners determined by a panel of judges. At the Great Chowder Cook-Off, the winner is decided by a vote of festival-goers, about 15,000 of them.
That first year, Eric and Company prepared 150 gallons of chowder and passed it out in 2-ounce servings. They were out of chowder and exhausted afterward but exhilarated when they were crowned champions. By year three, the Cedar Key crew got more sophisticated, handing out beads and hiring a plane to fly over the festival pulling a fluttering banner reading “Peace, Love and Tony’s Chowder.”
Since that time, Eric has developed a canned version for restaurants and a condensed product that is stocked in Publix grocery stores and some other places. Of course, there’s always mail order.
But sitting in the small dining room of Tony’s is an altogether different experience. The seafood is tremendous, especially the fried oysters and steamed clams, farmed-raised in Cedar Key.
The clams in the famous chowder are not from Cedar Key but are larger quahogs from up north. Eric says they are better for chowder and besides, the cost of getting enough sweet Cedar Key littlenecks into chowder would make even the most-flush tourist balk. Savor the local bounty steamed straight up or maybe with a dab of melted butter.
Clam chowder is one of those dishes that draws serious scrutiny. It’s compared to a hometown favorite and Mom’s special recipe, and sometimes it’s the object of culinary espionage. Eric and the servers at Tony’s get asked a lot for the recipe. The answer is always “no,” but that doesn’t keep the curious from trying to figure it out.
For a chowder lover, the difference between classic chowder and Tony’s is clear. The famous Cedar Key chowder is peppery, and Eric will admit to a pepper blend. Other than the spiciness, not a lot of other flavors jump out. That’s the beauty of the well-balanced chowder, and possibly why it’s loved so much.
The space at D and Second had been a restaurant for years when Eric took over in 2005. Now it’s a destination on the island. And what a beautiful island Cedar Key is.
For years, the quiet fishing village in Levy County has drawn outdoors enthusiasts, and artists to draw and paint the coastal tableau in the ever-changing light. And before that, it was a bustling seaport connected by trains to the northeast, the cars filled with gulf seafood and timber. As that business faded, tourism took over.
Today, weekenders get rooms at the historic Island Hotel, slightly older than the Hale Building. The upstairs porch is a fine place to perch with a cocktail or a book, or maybe to watch a storm whip in off the Gulf of Mexico.
Golf carts whiz through the streets, and can be rented in several places, carrying visitors to restaurants and fishing holes, or just as a way to putter around the city, population 701. That number swells during the annual art festival (April) and seafood festival (October).
On a crystal-clear day, there’s a handful of ways to work off that creamy chowder. Hiking and birding trails, kayaking excursions and biking paths are just some of the activities and attractions that beckon people outside in Cedar Key.
And then they go back inside for a cup -- what the heck make it a bowl -- of that award-winning clam chowder.
If you go…
597 Second St.
Cedar Key, Fla.
Other restaurants to check out include Annie’s Café or Kona Joe’s Island Café, both for breakfast, and Steamer’s near the gulf and the dining room at the Island Hotel.
Accommodations range from condos and cottages to the Island Hotel and the clean and simple Cedar Inn. The Beach Front Motel is just that and within walking distance to everything. Rates vary widely but can start as low as $70 a night depending on day of the week and time of year.
Explore Cedar Key’s history (you’ll never look at a whisk broom the same way again) at the Cedar Key Historical Museum, just across the street from Tony’s.
Getting close to nature is what draws thousands of visitors to Cedar Key every year. A sampler: Paddle or canoe the waters of the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge or the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. There are many places for paddlers to put their craft in the water and kayak rentals can be found in several places.
Clam Chowder Inspired by Tony’s Recipe
Duplicating Tony’s award-winning clam chowder is difficult, if not downright impossible. But still, I tried. I have been eating it and studying it for years and this is my best attempt. I know that Eric Jungklaus, Tony’s owner and the culinary brains behind the Cedar Key restaurant’s chowder will get a sly smile at my attempt. He’ll know exactly where I’ve got wrong. – Janet K. Keeler
3 tablespoons butter
½ sweet onion, minced as small as possible (see note)
2 thin celery stalks, with leafy tops, minced as small as possible (see note)
1 large garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon coarse salt
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups 3/4-inch diced Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled
2 bottles (8 ounces each) clam juice
1 can (10 ounces) whole baby clams
1 can (6.5 ounces) chopped clams
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon hot paprika
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Pinch dried chili flakes
2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons cream cheese
¼ cup sour cream
Italian, flat-leaf parsley, minced, garnish (optional)
Oyster crackers (optional)
In a large stockpot, melt butter over medium-high heat. Sauté minced onion and celery until soft, about five minutes. (Do not brown.) Add garlic and salt and cook for another minute. Sprinkle flour over all and cook for another couple minutes, until vegetables are well coated. (Do not brown).
Add potatoes and clam juice. Drain clams and add liquid to mixture. Set aside clams. Stir to incorporate and cook on medium heat until potatoes are soft, about 10 minutes. Chowder should start to thicken.
Stir in black pepper, paprika, cayenne pepper and chili flakes. Incorporate well and turn down heat to medium. Slowly add heavy cream, cream cheese and sour cream. Use the back of a spoon to break up cream cheese. Heat through but do not boil or simmer; stir frequently.
Check seasonings and add more salt, if needed. Serve immediately with parsley garnish and oyster crackers if you’d like.
Note: I use a chopper to get the onion and celery in the smallest pieces possible. Tony’s clam chowder is all about flavor… and not a lot of chunky pieces.
Serves 4. Or, you can go to Tony’s.
Photos by Scott Keeler for VISIT FLORIDA
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