Best clam chowder in SF/Bay Area?
May 21, 2011 11:22 AM   Subscribe

Where can one procure the absolute best clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl in San Francisco (or the SF Bay Area)?

Okay, we all know that one of the things to do as a tourist in San Francisco is to go to Fisherman's Wharf and get clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Generally, it's hard to go wrong, and I've generally been happy with what I've found.

Recently, my fiancée has decided that in preparation for our honeymoon, she wants to expand her usual vegetarian ways to include seafood. She is a huge fan of sourdough bread, and one of the things she has missed the most since becoming vegetarian has been clam chowder in a bread bowl.

So, AskMefites, can you help us find the absolute best clam chowder in the area (preferably with a sourdough bread bowl, but having sourdough bread available is probably sufficient)? We live in the San Jose area, and are heading up to SF tomorrow for some wedding shopping, so locations in SF proper would be preferred, but if you know a place elsewhere in the Bay Area, that's fine as well.

Thanks for your help!
posted by stufflebean to Food & Drink (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Almost 3 hours and no answers to a SF food question? Maybe the Rapture actually happened after all!

Anyway, since nobody else has stepped up, I'll say I've been quite happy with the clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl at Boudin Bakery Café. (I've had clam chowder elsewhere and this was the best, but I'm not a chowder expert.) There are several Boudins around town but I've always gone to the one at Fisherman's Wharf, which I suspect is part of the appeal: cold, wind, fog, salt air, and screeching seagulls are the perfect setting for a steaming hot bowl of chowder. Which is to say that I don't recommend looking for a fancy place with tablecloths and wine glasses - you want a picnic bench on a windy dock and a paper napkin for this kind of grub.
posted by Quietgal at 2:16 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think the problem is, in San Francisco best clam chowder and bread bowl are mutually exclusive things. One of the best clam chowders around is Hog Island's, but there's no flour in it and it is not like a typical New England clam chowder (which is as it should be if you are a Marin based seafood farm). Bar Crudo's seafood is also very good, but again, it is not New England clam chowder (and now looking at their menu it appears they only have seafood chowder at the moment). I've heard from a Boston friend that the clam chowder from Woodhouse is traditional and fairly good, but it is not served in a bread bowl. If you're looking for thick, potato-y chowder, you should probably go there. I don't know what sort of bread they have on hand though. I do remember that on the Peninsula, the Fish Market in Palo Alto serves a chunky New England clam chowder with fat slices of sourdough. If you don't find a satisfactory combination in the City, you might try there.

Boudin makes good sourdough bread and is famous for chowder in a bread bowl, but the New England style clam chowder is pre-fab (and you can buy cans of it online). It's got a clam or two, but as you know, it is tourist food and not meant to be amazing. Many other places just sell Campbell's clam chowder, especially the cheaper places on the Wharf. It's really not a San Francisco dish, yet sort of weirdly has become one thanks to all the people that visit Fisherman's Wharf and eat soup in a bread bowl. The traditional thing to do with clams in San Francisco is to put them in cioppino.

I agree with Quietgal that a huge part of the appeal is being on the Wharf with the salt air. (Or at the Ballpark.) For heaven's sake, don't go eat at Boudin's in the Inner Richmond. If you're going to bread-bowl it, do it outside for maximum effect.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:02 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm afraid I don't have a positive recommendation, but I wanted to anti-recommend Boudin loud and hard. My husband and I got a craving for chowder in a bread bowl and went there and were so, so disappointed. It would have been tastier if we'd gotten a loaf from Arizmendi and a can of chowder from Trader Joe's, I swear.
posted by Lexica at 4:17 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just have to say that the best clam chowder I've ever had in my life was at the Coast Cafe in Bolinas. Not in a sourdough bowl, not in SF proper. (Sorry.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:27 PM on May 22, 2011

Response by poster: Well, despite Lexica's misgivings, we decided to go do the Fisherman's Wharf route and hit up Boudin, since I had been there in the past and had not had an objectionable experience.

The nice thing about Boudin is that their bread is excellent, and my fiancée and I both love some good sourdough. At some point, I think we will try some of the other recommendations in the replies here, specifically the Fish Market and the Coast Cafe, since they sounded particularly noteworthy, and at least now we've scratched the bread bowl itch.

Thanks, everyone, especially oneirodynia, whose in-depth response earned a best answer.
posted by stufflebean at 6:08 PM on May 22, 2011

Just wanted to throw in another rec for Fish Market. I live in Berkeley and occasionally drive 45 minutes to the nearest Fish Market just for the clam chowder.
posted by rhiannonstone at 11:31 AM on May 23, 2011

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