When Cedar Key restaurant owner-chef Eric Jungklaus first pitted his clam chowder against what he calls "the New England big boys" in a taste competition, he was "flabbergasted" to snag the grand prize.
That was 2009, and no one thought tiny Cedar Key could prevail on clam chowder's home turf, certainly not at Newport's Knorr Great Chowder Cook-Off, generally considered the Super Bowl of Chowder.
Two years later, after a third straight win in Newport, Jungklaus is the big boy. And Tony's Cedar Key Clam Chowder has been retired, as rules require for all Triple Crown winners, to the Chowder Hall of Fame at the Newport Yachting Center.
In a chowder world long dominated by place names north of the Mason-Dixon Line, this is no small feat.
But Jungklaus won't rest until his creamy Cedar Key Clam Chowder is as familiar as tomato-based Manhattan and clear broth Rhode Island clam chowders, and that perennial favorite, creamy New England Clam Chowder.
Twelve of the 18 contestants at Newport's June 4 chowder cookoff were from Rhode Island. Two were from Connecticut, and there was one each from Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida.
But patrons, who decide the winners by popular vote, didn't seem to be thinking provincially. To repeat visitors, and there were many, Tony's was an old friend, a trusted brand name.
In between serving nearly 150 gallons of chowder at the 30th anniversary cookoff, the Tony's team distributed reams of red heart Mardi Gras beads, a reminder, along with stickers and visors, to "Vote for Tony's." By day's end, the Newport waterfront venue looked more like New Orleans' Canal Street on Fat Tuesday.
"Tony's! Tony's!" chanted some as the band revved up the crowd for awards announcements.
Back home, Jungklaus promotes his chowder on a giant billboard along a rural stretch of State Road 24 leading past marshlands to Cedar Key, a mostly quiet community favored by fishermen, birders, artists and tourists looking for a weekend getaway.
His black pickup, well known about town, is emblazoned in red with "Tony's World Champion Cedar Key Clam Chowder," and he sells similarly adorned T-shirts and caps from the restaurant. He's also the president of the Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce.
"World champion" may be a stretch, but it's not all hyperbole. The cookoff has had participants from Australia, Bermuda and Ireland.
Jungklaus already ships his clam chowder to fans across the country, including Hawaii, but soon it should be available in other restaurants and, eventually, on store shelves. Then, finally, we'll know what's in it, thanks to labeling laws.
For now, while Jungklaus is working with Seawatch International to put Tony's Chowder in a 51-ounce restaurant size can, "the recipe will remain confidential," he says. Florida Food Service will carry the product for distribution, and he has hired a marketing rep in New England.
"If everything falls into place," he says, "it should be out in the fall."
Jungklaus created the chowder recipe in the small kitchen at Tony's after deciding that the restaurant (named for his brother) needed a "signature dish."
He credits seasonings, along with an extra big helping of clams and skimping on potatoes, for the chowder's success. Cedar Key is known for its clams, and Tony's Clam Chowder is known for being full of them. Jungklaus says he uses a mixture of canned and local clams, because all local would make the cost prohibitive.
Sleuths detect a distinct flavor of bacon, an obvious ingredient in several competing chowders at the Newport cookoff. No chowder there lacked cream, not even a gluten-free Martha's Vineyard entry advertised as healthy with no butter, flour, oil or cornstarch. "Broth is dead," an event organizer said frankly.
The Mooring, a landmark Newport restaurant, won first place in Creative with its Brie and crab bisque. Seafood winner Michael's Restaurant of Carolina Beach, N.C., was retired to the Hall of Fame along with Tony's after its shrimp chowder took first place the third year running.
Hall of Famers can return, even in the same category, but only with a different recipe. Jungklaus says he'll consider that. But what he'd like most is an invitation to return "for a Hall of Fame challenge." That, says Jungklaus, "would be special."
Bethe Dufresne is a former newspaper writer and editor who is now a freelance writer based in Mystic, Conn.