By Laura Fishman
City on a Hill Press Editor

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“Chow down!”

The phrase was echoed throughout the various chowder booths on Saturday, Feb. 21, as part of the 28th annual Clam Chowder Cook-Off.

The cook-off has evolved into a popular tradition that has raised over $800,000 for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. With 78 cooking teams and 10,000 chowder samplers this year, the festival gave people across the spectrum an opportunity to unite over the soup America loves best.

After 28 years of the cook-off, it’s still striking that there are endless variations to the basic clam chowder recipe. Professionals come back year after year to serve their creations, perfecting their soup each time.

Every year there are amateur cooking teams that haven’t yet mastered the art of clam chowder cooking, but are in the competition just for the laughs and good times.

What it all boils down to is the quality of the chowder.

Some of the soup samples tasted amazing, some were terrible, and others were so complex that they could barely be classified as chowder.

One thing that’s certain is that there are plenty of places in the area that serve good clam chowder. If you’re still confused about where to get a decent bowl, the search is over. Here is a list of the City on a Hill Press chowder awards that we feel are the most deserving, despite what the critics may think.

<b>Blackboard Catering

Best Boston Chowder</b>

What makes this chowder so special is the creamy texture that just can’t be beat. The catering company emerged three years ago in downtown Santa Cruz, offering gourmet food with community-based economies in mind. While co-founder Andy Hawley wouldn’t give away his secrets on how to make the best clam chowder, he believes their success comes from the fresh ingredients, all of which are obtained naturally at a local level.

<b>Redwood Sluggers

Best Manhattan Chowder</b>

The team of four chefs from UC Santa Cruz Dining Services put together an edible masterpiece with their Manhattan-style chowder. Head chef David Steinmann called the chowder his “red clam soup,” and his creation became victorious with a third-place win in the cook-off’s professional clam chowder division. The traditional blend of fresh clams and tomatoes proved to be well-liked by the crowd, giving off a light, creamy flavor. Steinmann’s red clam soup will be served in the UCSC dining halls within the next few weeks, due to popular demand.

<b>Fog Mountain Café

Most Unique</b>

It may be worth the drive to Sacramento just to get a bowl of Boston-style chowder from the Fog Mountain Café, because there’s guaranteed to be no other chowder like it. Located in the heart of downtown Sacramento, the restaurant’s head chef and owner Eric Harnish uses pork sausage, bacon, and chipotle sauce as key ingredients in the mix.

“I like to think outside the box,” said Harnish, who has been coming to the Santa Cruz Clam Chowder Cook-Off for the past five years. The event has become a family tradition for him, and he plans to come back next year to provide new tastes for the town.

<b>Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing

Most Flavorful</b>

This West Side brewing company offers a great-tasting chowder like no other. The secret ingredient: Beer! The distinguished taste came from the clams, which were soaked in beer before being brewed with a pleasant blend of potatoes in the mix of things. Each year the chowder cooks follow a theme; this year the chefs dressed as angels and devils, brewing the sizzling Manhattan red chowder as devils and the fluffy Boston chowder as angels.

<b>Gold County Clam Jumpers

The Individuals’ Award</b>

After winning third place in the 2008 Clam Chowder Cook-Off individual division for his Boston clam chowder, Luis Hurtado and his wife came back to Santa Cruz this year from Ione, Calif. to bring back their soup, which many loved. While no awards were given to the couple this year, Hurtado’s soup was well still very well-received. The traditional Boston clam chowder recipe was cooked with carrots, celery, potatoes, and a variety of herbs, creating a well-balanced taste and texture.

<b>Good Samaritan Hospital

The Corporate/Media Award</b>

The spirited men dressed in camouflage military uniforms cooked up a storm with their unique creations of both Boston and Manhattan-style clam chowders. Both chowders carried a warm savor and an assortment of unknown spices, a recipe which head chef Ray Ramirez refused to share. The cooking booth seemed the most popular throughout the day, with a line wrapped around the corner to get a sample. The corporate group took home the People’s Choice award and the Most Original Team award this year.

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For a list of the official winners, visit <a href="www.beachboardwalk.com/clamchowder" target="_blank">www.beachboardwalk.com/clamchowder</a>.

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