Greenport has nearly two dozen restaurants to keep tourists coming back summer after summer and a handful that keep locals fed year round. But only one, Salamander’s on Front, is known specifically for its famous fried chicken.
2017 marks 25 years of business in the harborfront village for Salamander’s owner Claudia Helinski. She has operated three different businesses under the Salamander’s name since 1992, with the current incarnation located at 38 Front St.
“Greenport has changed a great deal over the years,” she said, recalling a time when the streets were quieter and there were plenty of “for sale” signs in the windows.
Ms. Helinski began her North Fork career working at local restaurants like Skipper’s and the former Greenport Tea Company. But one day, it was time to go into business for herself.
Her goal for her first restaurant was to bring internationally inspired dishes to the people of the North Fork. In 1992, she opened Salamander’s Cafe at Brewer Yacht Yard on Manhanset Avenue.
After about six years in that location, she left the marina and opened Salamander’s General Store on First Street, which focused on takeout and the soon-to-be-legendary fried chicken.
“People started going crazy for it,” Ms. Helinski said, adding that she suddenly found herself selling 2,000 pounds of chicken in a week.
“It was bedlam,” she said, laughing. “It was a lot of fun.”
She remained at Salamander’s General Store for about 16 years before moving into her current space, where she has been since 2012. She said the current business, Salamander’s on Front, is a combination of its predecessors, featuring a retail store and takeout as well as a sit-down restaurant and bar.
And, yes, they still serve up the fried chicken. However, Ms. Helinski said, the chicken has found a niche as a takeout item because the dinner menu has so many other choices, including more upscale dishes like braised duck and seared sea scallops. She said her salads, like oyster salad with local spicy greens, have become very popular menu items.
What makes the chicken taste so good, however, is how it’s prepared, Ms. Helinski said. She uses hand-cut D’artagnan chicken, which is then brined, or soaked in salt and spices, for 24 hours.
The finishing touch is the special coating, which is Ms. Helsinki’s own secret recipe. The chicken is fried in two large pressure cookers that produce a grease-free product by removing condensation as it cooks.
She said it’s a long process, but worth it for the taste.
But her kitchen skills are far from limited to this summer picnic staple.
Ms. Helinski travels to Thailand every year with the mission of learning something new about food and bringing that knowledge back with her. Much of the food cooked in the store and also sold on the retail side have their roots in foreign countries.
Tupper Thomas, a part-time Greenport resident, said Salamander’s food is some of the best in the village. She loves to sit at the restaurant with her family but also loves popping in to pick up some of the cheeses the retail store offers.
“It’s just one of those places where you can get great food very comfortably and have a lot of fun at the same time,” Thomas said on a Friday afternoon as her purchase were rung up.
Ms. Helinski’s husband, Steve, said he has loved watching his wife nurture her passion.
“After all these years, she keeps coming up with stuff and keeps people going, ‘Wow, you did it again,’” Mr. Helinski said. He has been involved in all the restaurants since the beginning, and she continues to impress him.
“You could give her a stick and a rock and she’d make soup that everybody would want,” he said. “The stuff that she can do still just blows me away after all these years.”
To celebrate her 25 years of business in Greenport, Ms. Helinski said she will offer “small incremental surprises” throughout the year. For example, eager customers will soon be able to receive rewards for “checking in” on Yelp.
The best part of being in Greenport for so long, she said, is the connections they’ve made with their patrons.
“We have the most amazing customers,” she said. “It’s so much fun for me to see old friends again every year.”