Before I moved to South Florida, I never had Conch Chowder. In fact, I didn't even know what a conch was.Up North, Clam Chowder is the big thing; arguments about New England vs Manhattan are as vociferous as those about Yankees vs Red Sox. Down here they do Conch Chowder. I had always ASS-sumed that Conch was clam-like; but it's really a large Snail. You never hear about anyone making snail chowder. So why is Conch Chowder all the rage in South Florida?
White Conch Meat
The difference is that conch, particularly Bahamian Conch, is white. Snails look like big slugs; who wants slug soup? Even if you cut them up; they're black. Nobody wants black stuff floating in their soup.jump-->
To some extent, making soups and fritters out of conch is simply about creating something unique from something with a local origin. Clams down here aren't nearly as good as the clams available locally up north. The problem is that Conch isn't nearly as good as top notch clams; and apparently it's pretty difficult to cook. Because I've had a lot of really bad Conch Chowders.
The first bowl of Conch Chowder I had was Tony Sindaco's Bahamian version at Sea in Lauderdale by the Sea and it was so good I felt compelled to seek out others. I'm not a big soup guy, and I just never thought of ordering conch chowder before. As it turns out, it may have been like having Carmen Electra as your first girlfriend; because you're never going to be very satisfied with anything else. But just knowing good it can be can give you a bit of perspective in evaluating others. Setting the bar high is fair; although ultimately the litmus test is simply Good vs Not Good. You either like it or you don't.
There are a number of places in Fort Lauderdale that use their conch chowder as a draw, one of them is Ernie's BBQ, which calls their version "World Famous". I suppose if your world is Broward County. But Ernie's chowder is at best pedestrian; an "OK for a bar" soup, but nothing I'd seek out
Ernie's BBQ Conch Chowder
A local newspaper known for giving awards for dishes that they've never even tried gave an "award" to the Rustic Inn Crabhouse for their conch chowder.> I found it so bad that I couldn't even eat it.
Rustic Inn Islamorada Conch Chowder
It looks pretty good, but there was something in it that I thought was nasty. I even went up to Boca to Legal Seafoods, figuring that their Conch Chowder might be as good as their signature Clam Chowder. But it was a loser too. The second best conch chowder I had was surprisingly at the Fort Lauderdale Ale House. It's not a regular menu item, unfortunately.
Ale House Conch Chowder
The only other conch chowder that I found worthy of honorable mention was at the Aruba Beach Club, a place that I don't think of when I'm thinking of going somewhere for food. It wasn't very spicy; their version with fresh parsley was more refreshing than biting, but it was a pretty good bowl of soup.
Aruba Beach Cafe Conch Chowder
I started out hoping to do an article which could help people find some really good chowders. But in the end, the results were disappointing. Choosing the best was perhaps the easiest choice I've had to make; there's really no competition at all.
Tony Sindaco's Conch Chowder (Sea)
Sindaco's Conch Chowder is tomato-based with a hint of sherry; this stuff is really good. Currently, conch chowder is only on Sea's menu sometimes. Conch is expensive, and a low-margin soup doesn't fit his consumer-friendly fixed price menu. Tony is considering adding it as a daily option for $2 extra. Personally, I think it's well worth it.