The best clam chowder in New England is made in ... Cedar Key?
That's a claim that has some chops now that Tony's Seafood Restaurant in the tiny Levy County island community took first prize Saturday in the 30th annual Knorr Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, R.I.
This is the third consecutive year that Tony's and chef/owner Eric Jungklaus have walked away with the top honor.
The three-peat retires Tony's to the competition's hall of fame to give other chowder-mongers a chance. Of course, bragging rights go on forever.
"It's quite an accomplishment to go to New England and be their favorite chowder," Jungklaus said Tuesday from the road in North Carolina. He was headed back to Cedar Key, flush with the victory.
Second place in the Newport Yachting Center's event went to Stefano's Seafood Restaurant in Long Beach Island, N.J. The Ocean Breeze Cafe in Newport placed third. Awards also were given for most creative and best seafood chowders.
Tony's win tasted all the more sweet because it's mostly New Englanders — some 15,000 of them — who cram the festival to vote at the cook-off. "I had people coming up to me saying, 'I don't know why I am voting for you, but I am,' " Jungklaus said.
Tony's served about 150 gallons of chowder in two-ounce samples to the tasters.
"Our buckets were empty. They ate everything," said Jungklaus, 54, who also serves as president of the Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce. Besides passing out chowder, he said he plied the crowd with Cedar Key travel brochures.
Northern tourists to Cedar Key first suggested he enter the Newport competition several years ago, but the 1,200-mile drive plus the time away from his small operation seemed unreasonable.
Finally, he figured, "What would it hurt?" Turned out, nothing at all.
I sampled Tony's silky and chunky clam chowder not too long ago, and it is among the best I've ever eaten. The secret weapons are the volume of clams, many of them from Cedar Key, and Jungklaus' dozen years of eating New England clam chowders when he lived in the Boston area. Also, he doesn't introduce a lot of competing flavors to the melange, such as sherry, which can stand out like a boot in a crab trap.
Oh, and there's a proprietary blend of spices, too. He does reveal butter, cream and garlic, an inspiration from a French cook. No exact numbers for Tony's chowder, but that cream and butter contribute mightily to the calorie and fat gram count, which can top 650 calories with more than 40 grams of fat in some restaurant versions.
Eating great chowder is almost as fun as trying to figure out the magic formula that put it together. Jungklaus has heard lots of guesses about what makes his so tasty, from cheese to onion to bacon. The real beauty of his bounty is that the flavors are harmonious; nothing outshines anything else. Even the clams don't jump up and scream seafood.
A Florida native (Jacksonville) and a University of Central Florida graduate, Jungklaus has no culinary training. He owned a chain of retail operations and sold off some holdings, moved to Cedar Key and took over a "sad restaurant in bad shape" in 2005. His brother, Tony, helped him fix up the place at 597 Second St., and was rewarded with his name on the sign outside.
Jungklaus is working on a deal that will put the chowder in restaurants around the country. What better publicity for the island, he said, than having people eating Tony's Cedar Key Clam Chowder in Bakersfield, Boulder and even Bangor.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.