In Search of Lobster Rolls

11/15/2014

Winter 2014

The lobster roll is nothing short of a fantastic delicacy, one of the ultimate combinations of simplicity and decadence. Three of the country’s best in a single day is something most seafood lovers only dream of.

It’s time for me to stop dreaming. I’m heading from Boston to the upper reaches of Maine, and buns spilling over with fresh lobster meat will be my bellwether. 

The best advice I can give for this or any lobster roll tour: Come hungry, and bring cash. When people call the places that purvey the country’s best lobster rolls “shacks,” they’re not trying to be cute – most aren’t the kind of places that take plastic.

 

BELLE ISLE SEAFOOD

Winthrop, Massachusetts

I climb into my 2004 WRX at Boston’s Liberty Hotel – a masterfully converted prison that even the most discerning travelers wouldn’t mind doing 25-to-life in – scoot past Logan Airport, and dock at Belle Isle Seafood in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Two years ago, it moved from its tiny original East Boston location across the bridge. Three years ago, perhaps in an even more transformative moment, it was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” 

The tourist rush is on, but Belle Isle hasn’t changed its style a bit. That’s a good thing: Consider its split-top roll shoved full of an entire half-pound of meat, then topped with just enough mayo and a stray leaf or two of lettuce for a little crunch. The bun is overmatched by all the meat; some chunks of claw spill out onto my plate. They’re not there for long.

The beast also comes with fries or onion rings, but, given my singular mission for the day, I pass on the sides. As I look out over the water toward downtown Boston and the iconic, funky Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, I’m already looking forward to next time I make the trip here. That’s when the pricier – but surely worth it – tail-only half-pounder will have to be my move.

MAINE DINER

Wells, Maine

While the lobster roll may have been blessedly dreamt up in Milford, Connecticut, today my crustacean quest is taking me north, to the land where basically every single person has a decorative lobster something-or-other in their house: Maine. 

Depending on who you ask in Maine, the state’s shores are responsible for 75% to 1,000,000% of the lobster caught in the U.S. I cross the border into lobsterland, passing Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Kittery and York Harbor, Maine, as I zip up I-95, the water never far away to the east. Destination: Wells, home of Maine Diner. 

Maine Diner has been serving everything lobster for more than 30 years. There’s a Lobster Melt, an open-faced beast with chunks covered with cheese. There’s Lobster Pie, a buttery baked wonder topped with a crackery crunch. There’s a Lobster Club, which is something I’d love to be both a member and the president of. 

But we’re here for the roll. Simple is the best word to use here. You can get it hot; but don’t. There’s no mayo on my cold roll, because sometimes a pound of lobster – though I feel like they might be lowballing that – and a perfect bun are all you need. That said ... if you ask nicely you can get a hit of butter on the side. Apparently I ask nicely.

YOUNG’S LOBSTER POUND

Belfast, Maine

One more left on the list. After hitting two of New England’s premier lobster pushers, it’s time to head to a spot that’s at least slightly more quiet and unknown. I previously spent a week in Belfast, Maine, a dreadfully adorable seaside town that’s home to a weekend farmers market, one of the quainter bookstores I’ve ever been to, at least 35 ice cream shops, and Jon Fishman, the drummer from Phish. 

While it’s a little slower than some other routes, U.S. 1 will take you all the way there; and as I push up the coast, I take the time to roll idly through a bevy of picturesque seaside towns, such as Rockland and Camden, which seem trapped happily in time and possibly are pulled straight from movies. Happy tourists dot the streets, and lobsters are everywhere – on the signs in the windows, in woodcuts on the front of people’s houses, and in traps down by the waterfront. 

Belfast itself is no different. I drive across the bridge from downtown, and I’m there: Young’s Lobster Pound. Young’s is a full-scale “lobstah” operation, with hundreds of them live in tanks throughout a massive, hangarlike space right on the water. Since it’s my last stop, I get a roll (on a hamburger bun) plus a whole pound-and-a-quarter lobster – at some point today, I’ve gotta do the dirty work of tearing one of them apart, right?

WARM-WEATHER TREASURES

Not all lobster shacks are open year-round. Some of the most revered serve mainly walk-up customers. Don’t expect to eat there in winter. But if you’re there in summer, don’t miss them.

Photo: Daryl Getman

The Clam Shack in Kennebunk is a tiny little white waterside hut with a healthy line of hungry eaters. I hop in and wonder if any of the Bush famiy – who summered next door in Kennebunkport – waited in line themselves, or sent sunglassed Secret Service guys to fetch their lobster rolls.

When I finally get mine, I’m pleasantly surprised. Instead of the classic split-top hot dog bun, this one’s on a burger bun. And while some places are purists from either topping camp – drawn butter or mayo – The Clam Shack lets you choose not only either, but BOTH. I do. I am very happy.

An hour and a half of digestion time away in Wiscasset, I find an establishment that makes The Clam Shack look like The Clam Palace: Red’s Eats.

No bigger than a minivan, the long line of customers around this tiny shack causes monstrous rubbernecking delays along the adjacent highway. I end up parking across town and walking, visions of lobster growing grander with every step.

Red’s introduces me to yet another dressing alternative: This lobster comes cold and clean. I can barely see the bun under the abundance of meat – more than a whole lobster’s worth. No wonder everyone around me is uncontrollably smiling.

TRY AGAIN TOMORROW(?)

As I sit out back at Young’s drinking a beer that one of my table neighbors – who brought two coolers and a tablecloth – was nice enough to offer me, I reflect a bit on what I’ve accomplished today: driven from Boston to Belfast, propelled by the promise of delicious arthropods just pulled from the sea. Then I remember the best part: Tomorrow I have to drive back exactly the same way. 

FROM BOSTON TO BELFAST AND BEYOND: 7 FUN STOPS BETWEEN THE PLATES

Man cannot live by lobster roll alone. While skipping from one fantastic lobster roll to another along the Northeastern coast, take time to savor these side dishes of art, history, shopping, and awe-inspiring natural beauty.

Walk the Deer

Winthop, Massachusetts

After polishing off your lobster roll at Belle Isle Seafood, drive 10 minutes south to join the hikers, bikers, and nature-lovers at Deer Island Park. Stroll along the 2.6-mile pathway that encircles the 60-acre island to enjoy glorious views of the harbor and Boston’s skyline. Along the way, you’ll pass interesting exhibits chronicling the island’s turbulent but fascinating history. 

Travel in Time

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Break up the journey with a stop at Portsmouth’s Strawbery Banke Museum. This sprawling open-air history museum – populated by re-enactors in period dress – features 10 acres of faithfully restored homes, gardens, and shops. The town was named on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2008. 

Get Food for Thought

Portland, Maine

Take a break from feeding your body to feed your soul at the Portland Museum of Art. While they have a great assemblage of European art, the real show is the American collection featuring a diverse range of artists including Winslow Homer, John Haberle, John Singer Sargent, and Edward Lord Meeks. 

Catch a Sale at the Old Port

Portland, Maine

Before you leave Portland, be sure to browse the quaintly cobblestoned Old Port downtown shopping district. After all, you have to see it first before you realize you can’t live without it. 

Meet the Family

Bar Harbor, Maine

If you’ve ever been in a restaurant and been tempted to reach in and grab a candidate out of the lobster tank – and who hasn’t? – then head three hours north of Portland to the Mount Desert Oceanarium in Bar Harbor. You can tour the lobster hatchery, take the marsh tour, and even brave the Discovery Pool Touch Tank to shake hands with a live lobster. 

Loop the Loop

Maine

Fifteen minutes away from Bar Harbor is the second most visited national park in the U.S.: Acadia National Park. Drive the one-way Park Loop Road to enjoy 27 miles of jaw-dropping views of rocky cliffs, crashing surf, and wild forests, or explore the miles of rustic carriage roads on foot or bike. 

Biddeford Pool

Biddeford Pool, Maine

A large tidal pool where the Saco River meets the sea, hosts lobstermen and vacationers alike, and is an excellent place to explore Maine’s salt marshes. Many species of birds and wildlife call these lush, muddy banks their home, and the East Point Sanctuary is considered to be one of the premier birding spots in the Northeast. Leave your four-footed friend at home if you want to stop here, however, as dogs are not permitted. 

LOBSTER ROLLS AROUND THE COUNTRY

By Ray Robinson

New England – and specifically Maine – is the country’s unquestioned lobster roll hotbed, even when the crustacean itself comes chilled, with a little bit of mayo. But in the last decade or so, restaurants around the country have realized that they also should be satisfying customers with the delicious seaside treat, even if they’re nowhere near the water themselves. Here are some of the very best, thanks to live shipping!

Luke’s Lobster

New York City, New York, and Washington, D.C.

While he’s unquestionably a businessman, Luke Holden isn’t just taking advantage of people’s unquenchable desire for lobster. He grew up the son of a lobsterman in Maine, and, five years ago, he smartly decided to take his home state’s roadside consumption experiences to New York City, where he found others’ rolls were overdone and overpriced. 

All lobster for Luke’s gets shipped in fresh from Maine to the mini-empire’s 13 locations in Manhattan and D.C., in a lobster truck whose giant painted claws boldly announce its bounty from blocks away. 

Acadia

Chicago, Illinois

You might expect the lobster roll at one of Chicago’s premier fine dining establishments to be some misguided flight of fancy, a journey into flashy “rethinkings” and “twists.” Instead, Acadia does them with just a few semi-standard additions: chives and a light dusting of paprika. 

When constructing an authentic lobster roll, shipping in lobster from Maine is almost necessary. Also shipping in the split-top hot dog buns from the same state? That’s just dedication. 

The Optimist

Atlanta, Georgia

In 2012, Esquire named The Optimist as its Best New Restaurant of the Year. In 2014, we’re naming its lobster roll the best in Atlanta. 

Superchef Ford Fry’s seafood destination does a helluva job of taking you away from landlocked Atlanta, and the roll itself – dressed lightly with mayo and celery salt – is classic and delicious enough to make even the biggest pessimist smile. 

The Ordinary

Charleston, South Carolina

While classic lobster rolls with minimal fireworks show off the delicious, sweet meat the best, there’s always a place for something done a little differently as well. The Ordinary’s roll is anything but – Tabasco®, mustard, garlic, chives, shallots, and OLD BAY® Seasoning join the claws and knuckles. However, it works beautifully in its own way, and the thick paper sitting under the roll and side of chips lets diners know that it’s still got all the down-home-ness every great lobster roll needs. 

Hinoki & the Bird

Los Angeles, California

And while we’re talking different, let’s talk about the roll at LA’s Hinoki & the Bird. Initially, it’s not even immediately recognizable as a lobster roll. I mean – the bun is black! It gets that way by being fired over charcoal from Japan’s Nara Prefecture, because, well, why not? So, yeah, not terribly typical. And then there’s the green curry aioli, which adds a unique hit to the lobster meat, but without overpowering it. 

Smack Shack

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Seafood in Minnesota is generally caught through a hole in a giant sheet of ice. In 2010, Smack Shack decided to add lobster to the Midwest seafood scene with a food truck serving lobster rolls and more out of a parking lot. Soon they developed a partnership with the city’s beloved The 1029 Bar for when things get cold (something that apparently happens in Minnesota) and eventually opened up its brick-and-mortar. 

A little lemon aioli and fresh tarragon join piles upon piles of lobster meat – more than 2,000 pounds of which are served every week – on a toasted brioche bun. Who said Minnesota was just for Juicy Lucys?

Perla’s Seafood & Oyster Bar

Austin, Texas

Texas! Even Texas can’t help but get in on the lobster roll craze, and the state’s barbecue (and, well, actual) capital of Austin has probably the Lone Star’s finest example. Perla’s classically straightforward effort gets a few shards of bibb lettuce for some snap, over a solid half-pound or so of “lobstah.” 

And while you’re consuming stuff that seems like it doesn’t belong in Texas, hop on the Bloody Caesar, a fine example of Canada’s clamato-heavy answer to the Bloody Mary.

Oyster House

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

How do you like your lobster roll? Chilled New England-style? Warm and buttery Connecticut-style? Take your pick at Philly’s seafood emporium, whose crustaceans are “out of the water less than 24 hours” and loaded onto buns that can barely contain said sea meat.

Just don’t fill up on oysters beforehand. Well, actually, maybe do – just to prove there’s always room for lobster.