Over 40 Years, Boulevard Clams Keeps Authenticity But Scales Up Menu

By Maria Scandale | Jul 24, 2019
Photo by: Lexi Schnell

Surf City, NJ — Boulevard Clams is an award-winning favorite that every year is still being discovered by new patrons, as it is cozily tucked behind a sidewalk hedge at 2006 Long Beach Blvd. in Surf City. The restaurant and seafood market is 40 seasons old this year.

That’s something to celebrate. So is making a reviewers’ list of “the 51 New Jersey Restaurants You Need to Eat at Before You Die.”

One distinction is the most popular dish on the menu, the one they say nobody else on LBI has: whole belly fried Ipswich soft-shell clams, New England style.

Clams made a name for Mike Sulish’s seafood market when it started out in 1979, at one third the size of the current building. Clams put his kids through college. But a dedicated family work ethic grew the establishment to add take-out meals and a dining section. Quality and flavor lure patrons back again and again.

Boulevard Clams is an experience because the classic wall décor turns back time with old-school scenic murals and baymen’s antique tools. Yet its menu ranges up to specials that satisfy the discerning clientele who walk in.

The dichotomy has combined to attract other awards, ranging from “N.J.’s 50 Best Hole-in-the-Wall Restaurants” to a list of 50 great foods/dishes to represent the entire state.

“Simple” and “fresh” spell out the authentic basics, but so much more has been developed over the years. As son Neil Sulish stated, “When we go to the market, we’re saying, ‘What is the best fish available? Bring it.’ Our clientele is pretty foodie-type-oriented; they’re connoisseurs.

“When they like the lobster roll or something, this person didn’t just have lobster roll in Point Pleasant; they may have had a lobster roll at the place where it was invented in Maine. When they come in saying our food’s holding up, that’s real good.”

The menu is online at boulevardclams.net, plus July’s specials are: Thai Shrimp Appetizer – shrimp tossed with cilantro and garlic hot sauce; Lobster Mac and Cheese – tail and claw lobster meat tossed with Asiago and smoked cheddar, house-made; Crab Tortellini Primavera – jumbo lump crab-cheese filled tortellini and spring vegetables; and Scallop Sandwich – fried Barnegat Light sea scallops with a summer slaw and creamy cocktail sauce.

There’s a story behind two favorite items: the crab cakes and the lobster roll. The recipes are a result of one vacation’s off-season research in New England. It wasn’t just a spree to search out the best – back home, they had to figure out the techniques to combine the favorites and make them their own.

Lobster roll perfection included the taste, the texture, the temperature to heat without toughening.

“The crab cakes became an obsession for Dad; we tried so many things,” Neil remembers.

“They were a long time coming,” dad Mike agreed. “Before we were ready to put them out on the market, it was three years.”

“I remember seeing you in the back with trays of them, and they were just never taken out front,” Neil said to his mom, Gerry Sulish. “It was just ‘next batch.’”

Those who get to know the Sulish family owners – and that’s just about any return customer – will see a stellar work ethic combined with friendly greetings to patrons.

When Mike came out from accepting a supply delivery to sit down for a few minutes, we asked him what made success over four decades.

“Hard work, a lot of hours, and a strong family” he immediately credited for the “accomplishment” of 40 years.

“We’ve got great customers, a lot of repeat business; we almost know them all by name, and they know us by name.”

Gerry, retired from schoolteaching as is her husband, has devoted decades of summer days both behind the scenes and out front. Daughter Alexia worked with them all through high school and college, and now has her own family and career. Neil started sorting clams at age 11 and knows the business, but dad still has a firm handle on the helm to ensure consistency, which he said is “extremely important.”

“He built this place, put me through college and my sister through college, picking up rocks, throwing them into a basket,” Neil complimented.

“Hard clams,” as his mother clarified “rocks” to the reporter.

“We know what we do good and we’re trying to change with the times, but we can’t beat the formula that they both figured out,” Neil added. “You’ve got to go with what works, just like any business.”

There are nods to changing times with healthful choices. Gluten-free crab cakes are in the case, and fried entrees are cholesterol-free and low in saturated fats due to a blend of corn and canola oil known as “Supreme Fry-On.” The case has many more items that can be taken home ready to heat, as well as desserts such as cheesecake, ready to eat.

Product cost increases can be a challenge when dealing with lobster and Ipswich clams.

Said Gerry Sulish, “The whole-bellies and the lobster go up and up in price, and we keep saying, nobody’s going to buy them, and we can’t make any money on them because it goes up every week.”

Her husband continued, “The prices of bellies went up over the last two weeks, over $40 for a gallon.”

“The price went up an additional $40,” Neil emphasized.

The reason is that “when it rains up there, they close the harvesting areas,” Mike explained. “Supply and demand; when there’s no product, the price goes up.”

“We tried last year backing off and not having them,” Gerry added, “but the people wanted to have them bad enough that they’d pay. Some people advertise that they have the whole belly here, but they take hard shell clams, which are completely different texture and taste.”

The fish in the Boulevard Clams showcase and on the menu are sourced both locally and from farther waters. The cod in mid-July was from New Bedford; halibut from Nova Scotia; swordfish, tuna and fluke, local, to name a few.

When Mike started as a clammer himself, the clams were sold out of soda or milk crates. In recent years, Boulevard Clams became a New Jersey certified clam dealer. Now the Sulishes say they are the only one left on the Island, because today most shellfish comes through clam farming, or aquaculture, where the farmer handles the certification before the product gets to the stores or restaurants.

The government certification program requires all wholesale shellfish dealers to handle, process and ship shellfish under sanitary conditions and maintain records verifying that the shellfish were obtained from approved areas. By law, each bushel of shellfish must have a tag indicating that it was harvested from approved waters and harvested by dealers certified by the state Department of Health.

The future of the family business is not as clear to state as the history. We asked Mike and Gerry if they could assure us they’re not ready to quit yet. The answer was a surprising “we’re getting ready,” from Gerry, and “we’re thinking about it,” from Mike. “I want to go to Alaska,” Mike said with a smile, “and you have to go in the summertime.”

“So, is this going to be yours?” we asked Neil. “We’ll see what happens,” he said.

“We’re not a huge corporate place with a $5 million pocketbook to use,” Neil described. “I mean everything here was built, literally. Like the tables, they’re taken home in the wintertime, and he takes them apart in the basement to fix them or try and put new tops on them. There’s nothing like ‘Hey, let’s look at the internet and buy this.’ We don’t do that, you know?

“It’s hard work, and you don’t realize that if you add up all the hours that he’s here, and everybody works, you’d be sickened by the amount of hours.” Then he added, “But it’s not just put your head down and do it. We laugh and have fun.”

And that’s what the customers see.

To preview the menu, which includes value buckets for family or friends, go to boulevardclams.net. The phone number is easy to remember: 609-494-9494.

— Maria Scandale


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