Posted by: acooksca | 09/28/2012

Pismo Beach and Clam Chowder

Driving on Pismo State Beach

Pismo State Beach, along the central coast in San Luis Obispo County, is the only state beach on which you are allowed to drive a car. Five and a half miles of state beach is open for vehicle travel while off road vehicles skitter around on the Oceano Dunes SVRA (state vehicular recreation area) 3 miles south of the main beach. These dunes are reported to be among the oldest in California at 10,000 years and perhaps that is why the sand on the beach is powdery fine and packs solid enough to support your car or to hide the indigenous long-shelled Pismo Clam.

During the 1950’s the town of Pismo Beach adopted the title “Clam Capital of the World”. Clamming once drew thousands of clammers to the beach during low tides and is still legal. In one of the later episodes of the T.V. show “Dragnet 1967”, Frank Gannon retires to Pismo Beach and in explaining his plan to Joe Friday, he states his reason, “The clams, man. The clams.”

Several times a year we land our airplane at Oceano airport, just 2 blocks off the sand, and take the 3-mile walk up the beach to the town of Pismo Beach. We pass swimmers and dog walkers enjoying the mild weather and gentle surf. Fishermen sit on the tailgates of their pick-up trucks, keeping watch on their lines. Once we stopped to talk to 4 vacationing Germans, delighted with their rented van, portable bar-b-que, substantial local steaks and a chance to over-night on a California beach. We come across empty  elongated shells of Pismo Beach clams. But few people seem to be clamming… probably because they are all standing in a line that snakes down the block from Splash Café in the town of Pismo Beach.

Erin and Bob, part of the Tasting Team

Splash Café claims that the recipe for their award-winning clam chowder has been requested by both Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines. Between their two cafes, the one near the pier of Pismo Beach and another in San Luis Obispo, they serve 30,000 gallons of house made chowder a year. A few weeks ago we assembled a chowder tasting team and met at Splash Café. The menu offers fish sandwiches, seafood and fries platters, bowls of steamers and a list of chowder options including the favorite: a sourdough bread bowl filled with white clam chowder topped with crab and shrimp meat.

This chowder has the smooth texture of cream with less of the flour that makes most New England style clam chowders heavy and pasty. The crab and shrimp topping adds a fresh seafood taste and texture. The top of the bread bowl is griddled with butter and disappears quickly. The consensus was this is darn good white clam chowder, although Bob did say he thought it needed more flavor.

Even though I knew this was a commercial clam chowder house and that Pismo Clams are protected by a strict clamming season now-a-days, I was hoping the famous clams would end up on my plate, which they didn’t. My next plan is to find out about the clamming season and go dig some of my own.

Splash Café has generously provided five clam chowder recipes on their website. They also ship fresh frozen chowder:

Although the Pismo Clams are no longer so easily found, the town of Pismo Beach throws a clam festival each October and this year’s festival, on Oct. 19-21, 2012, will be their 60th. For clam festival information visit:



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