From gas stations to floating restaurants to food trucks, lobster rolls rule summertime dining in Maine. The portable delicacy has been around as long as the hot dog bun.
Its origin can be traced back to Connecticut, of all places, in the late 1920s. But Vacationland has the lock on Maine-style lobster rolls — not to be confused with Connecticut’s warm, buttery lobster rolls. When guests cross the bridge from New Hampshire this time of year, this succulent, portable taste of Maine’s signature crustacean is what they crave. There is no shortage of places to score one. From diners on Route 1 to the docks of Mount Desert Island, lobster rolls come in all shapes, buns, treatments, styles and prices.
How can you tell you’ve got your hands on the real deal?
“Fresh lobster is the No. 1 consideration in lobster roll goodness or greatness,” said Michael Stern, writer and co-founder of Roadfood.com, a food site featuring the best roll-up-your-selves fare in the U.S.
Look for tail, knuckle and claw meat. “It’s got to be big pieces. Once you get into the shredded meat category, the lobster roll is going downhill,” warned Stern, who along with his partner and former wife Jane Stern tasted Maine’s many options. “I’ve been told the quality of the meat depends on where the lobster is trapped. The coolest, deepest water gives you the plumpest meat.”
Steve Kingston, owner of The Clam Shack in Kennebunk, believes new-shell lobsters are the best. He keeps them in salt water from the Kennebunk River until they are ready for boiling.
“Our cooking process accentuates the sweetness and saltiness of the meat,” the Travel Channel-dubbed King of Lobster Rolls said. “Ocean water penetrates the shell, and the meat tastes better and better.”
Serving up summer hordes since 1968, it’s no wonder this classic joint has a trove of accolades, including best Lobster Roll in American from a 2013 Lobster Roll Rumble in New York. An owner for 16 years, Kingston takes the crowd-pleaser serious. “It’s a simple sandwich, but you’ve got to do it right.”
Once you’ve got great meat, what’s the next step? Don’t overdo it, experts say.
Ben Conniff, president of Luke’s Lobster, a string of fast, casual restaurants in urban locations such as New York and Boston, has created a lobster empire based on Maine’s edible icon. From the docks of Maine to a processing plant in Saco to the city streets, he doesn’t waver from his recipe.
“In a good lobster roll, nothing about it detracts from the lobster itself. Lobster is the most delicious thing in the world. You want to accentuate the lobster and do nothing to cover it up,” he said with authority.
When you start with fresh meat, you don’t need much else. “You don’t want to taste mayonnaise, dill, celery and bread. You should bite into it and taste buttery, salty sweetness that rounds out the bite and doesn’t mask the lobster flavor,” Conniff said.
Luke’s Lobster, which opened its first Maine location in Tenants Harbor last week, starts with fresh, chilled meat. Next comes a thin layer of mayo on a bun with a squeeze of lemon butter on top and a dash of secret seasoning.
“A light hand is critical,” Conniff said. “The lobster is always the star. Nothing is pre-mixed. It’s a lobster roll — not a sandwich that happens to have lobster on it.”
Stern, who calls out Five Island Lobster Co. in Georgetown and The Clam Shack as favorites, concurs. “The beauty of a lobster roll is its simplicity and clarity. One place in the Midwest tried to doll it up with curry powder and an avocado,” he recalled with lament. “That was a disaster.”
Some chefs get fancy and lace lobster meat with herbs, aioli, lemon zest, corn and tuck it into popovers, which chef Tim Labonte does at Eve’s at the Garden in the Portland Harbor Hotel. In Maine’s foodiest city, “the lobster roll is a catalyst for creativity” Labonte said. As long as its lobsterness still resonates, it’s a winner.
“Chilled lobster is the best expression of the dish,” Conniff said. “For us, it’s about delivering that authentic lobster roll that really showcases lobster best. That means getting the best lobster and cooking it right.”
So, what about the roll?
“In my opinion, the bun must be griddled. The bread must have a generous amount of butter spread on both sides and cooked until golden brown,” Matthew Ginn, chef at Portland’s Evo and Maine’s Lobster Chef of the Year, said.
“At the Chebeague Island Inn, we make a potato bun using Maine Yukon Gold potatoes, and the result is a rich but soft bun that’s great for the griddle.”
A New England split-top roll grilled with butter is what Cal Hancock of Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co. swears by.
The Clam Shack’s roll is more of a bun. But even that’s local.
“Instead of factory rolls, Reilly’s Bakery in Biddeford makes us a good yeast roll,” said Kingston, who gets fresh batches delivered daily. “It’s a nod to tradition and compliments how great the meat tastes.”
According to Stern and the 500 lobster rolls sold every weekend day at The Clam Shack, it’s over the top.
One final key to enjoying this ideal summer repast: location, location, location.
“Ambiance is very important to enjoying a lobster roll,” Stern said. “Looking out at a picnic table overlooking the water — to me, a lobster roll should be eaten outdoors.”