Cross Bay Boulevard is surely one of New York’s most spectacular thoroughfares, sweeping over hummocks and open stretches of egret-dotted Jamaica Bay, past the precariously leaning shacks of Broad Channel, finally making solid ground in . . . Miami Beach? Well, that’s what Howard Beach looks like. In its midst, the giant neon sign of Lenny’s Clam Bar shines atop a shoe box of a building. A hallway clogged with pictures of celebrity devotees—among them Andre the Giant, Judge Mills Lane, and Arnold Schwarzenegger—leads to a dining room that’s all marble and mirrors, with a menu that overreaches seafood to encompass barbecue and just about every Italian dish you’ve ever heard of.
Determined to stick with the original mandate, we resolved to order all the clam dishes on the menu, beginning with baked clams (big and tasty, well-crumbed, a half-dozen for $5.95), followed by fried clams (disappointingly bready). Then steamers caught our eye, carrying the provocative come-on “piss clams served in a bucket.” Piss clams? They arrived heaped in a lidded cauldron festively ringed with lemon wedges and sided with bowls of drawn butter and murky clam broth. We were instructed to wrestle the clams from their shells, dip them in broth to cleanse shell fragments, then dredge them in butter. We were discouraged from eating the dangling black appendage. The first bite was promising: sweet and tender. But as we chewed, an unpleasant grittiness materialized that soon began to interfere with mastication. As the flesh melted away, we found our mouths filled with sand. My companions and I polished off the garlic bread and baked ziti, both memorable, but left the rest of the clams untouched. Seeing this, the waiter shook his head and muttered, “Sandies,” whisking the bucket away. When the check arrived, he’d canceled the $16.95 charge.
Naturally, I hurried home to get the lowdown on piss clams. Native to America’s Eastern Seaboard, softshell clams (Mya arenaria) are characterized by a siphon so long that it protrudes from the shell. Due to their filter feeding methods, the digestive tract accumulates sand, which can usually be evacuated by soaking the clams in salt water overnight in the refrigerator. According to reminiscences found on the Web, small boys in Brooklyn would search the beaches for protruding black siphons, then stamp on the sand, causing liquid to gloriously shoot skyward. Piss clams!
Dressed in dark suits, the waiters at Staten Island’s FORTUNE GARDEN (1771 Hylan Boulevard, 718-979-6100) stand stiffly at attention, then deferentially show you to a table. The somber decor is reminiscent of a funeral parlor viewing room, and your fellow diners converse in hushed tones. Shaped like a seashell, the menu unfolds to reveal the older sort of Chinese American fare, heavy on Cantonese and seafood. But don’t be scared away—the disgraced General Tso’s chicken is the best you’ve ever had, while the Fuchow fried rice reflects a very refined version of that standard: rice topped with delicately gravied ham, chicken, shrimp, and fish cake.
Designed as a glam spot, but looking like a dungeon, SUBA (109 Ludlow Street, 982-5714) burst onto the scene with grandiose ambitions. Descend into the dining room and find a dim brick-lined vault, while underneath sloshes a phosphorescent lake. The food tries way too hard to be creative, demonstrated by a coffee-avocado shake that comes with one of the desserts, and a goat-cheese guacamole that should lose the cheese. The only vegetarian entrée—stuffed Spanish piquillo peppers with parsley sauce—is great, but illustrates the main drawback of the place: too many extraneous distractions on the plate and too few stuffed peppers!