By Jim Ferri
Lobster rolls are the heroin of Maine.
I’d never tasted a lobster roll, but since I’d read and heard so much about them decided to try one during my drive along the Maine coast last week. It was too late when I realized I had become an addict.
If you’ve never heard of a lobster roll (and many people haven’t) here’s the definition offered by the James Beard Foundation, the organization regarded by top chefs as the Holy See of the food industry: “A specialty of Maine, they are basically hot dog buns stuffed with lobster salad.”
Hot dog buns? Lobster salad? Ugh…you may just as well call Beef Wellington a hunk of meat wrapped in a donut. Perhaps it’s time for the Foundation fathers to book a trip to coastal Maine.
In Maine you’ll find there are many different lobster-roll recipes although their common bond (in addition to the fresh lobster) is not a hotdog bun but a thick piece of freshly toasted buttered-bread, similar to “Texas toast,” or a specialty roll. But it’s the inside that makes the difference.
Granted, some rolls are similar to lobster salad and contain myriad ingredients. Others are a mix of lobster meat and a bit of celery and mayo. Some have only fresh lobster pieces with the slightest hint of mayonnaise. Still others are butter only. The recipes are endless, as are the summertime lines outside of the more popular lobster shacks.
I was first warned about the lines while on the checkout line in the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine. When I asked the woman at the register how long was the drive to Rockport, she told me “it will only take you about an hour.” She then thought for a moment and warned me “the only problem you’ll have is near Wiscasset because Red’s Eats there serves the best lobster roll.”
About a half-hour later I stopped at Red’s and explained to the young woman and her three coworkers inside that I’d never tasted a lobster roll and since I didn’t want a whole one I would just like to buy a spoonful for a taste. She told me but she was sorry but she wasn’t allowed to do that.
Reverting to Plan B I told her that I would then buy a lobster roll for the next customer who came along if they would allow me just to taste a spoonful of theirs. At that moment two people walked up and I explained that I wanted to buy one of them a roll.
Quickly realizing by the looks on their faces that they thought I was somewhat weird, I explained that I was writing this article and I didn’t want to spend everyday eating several meals of lobster rolls. “Oh,” they said, “no, we’ll buy it and you can have a taste of it.”
It was delivered in about three minutes and it was quite good, served on a Texas-toast type of bun, with plenty of butter on the side. The couple warned me that in another week, at the beginning of the tourist season, the line would wind around the corner and up the street behind us.
I had heard great praises of another lobster-roll shack in Georgetown, a village south of popular Boothbay Harbor. A few days later while driving on U.S. 1, the road that links all the towns and villages along coastal Maine, I turned eastward on Rt. 127 towards Georgetown.
It was a pretty drive across the rolling hills of coastal Maine, although longer than I expected, and I had no idea where I was going after I passed a few forks in the road that weren’t sign-posted. I decided just to keep driving in the direction of the ocean and soon came to 5 Islands lobster shack on a little promontory of rock in Sheepscot Bay.
I had a delicious roll, which along with the scenery made the drive well worth it. I sought out the owner, Keith Longbottom, and asked why some people consider his rolls to be the best in Maine.
“It’s because of the freshness,” he told me. “We take the lobsters from the boats right here and put them into a holding tank through which we pump the seawater from the bay. Then we cook them in a 50 gallon pot of fresh seawater and serve them with just a pinch of mayonnaise.” 5 Islands lobster rolls were delicious, even better than my memories of my first taste of fresh Maine lobster in Bar Harbor 40 years ago.
There are many lobster shacks and restaurants scattered all along the Maine coast, each with its own recipe and legions of fans.
Here are five popular places renown for their lobster rolls. They were selected based upon favorites shared with me by Mainers. Two of them were winners in the “Lobster Roll Rumble,” the annual face-off in New York City hosted by Tasting Table as a charity benefit.
It’s interesting to note that although entrants in the “Rumble” came from all over the USA, the winners were, once again, all from Maine.
Red’s Eats, Wiscasset
41 Water Street
Wiscasset, ME 04578
Walk-up and take-out only; served with mayo or drawn butter on the side.
5 Islands Lobster Co., Georgetown
1447 5 Islands Road
Georgetown, ME 04548
Walk-up and take-out only; eat at the picnic tables or grassy area overlooking Sheepscot Bay.
The Clam Shack, Kennebunkport
2 Western Avenue
Kennebunk, ME 04043
Walk-up and take-out only; offers lobster roll with melted butter, a swipe of mayo, or both. The winner of the 2012 and 2013 “Lobster Roll Rumble.”
Eventide Oyster Co., Portland
86 Middle Street
Portland, ME 04101
A smallish restaurant with a bar atmosphere and outdoor seating; serves its rolls with a choice of Hollandaise, House Mayo, or Brown Butter Vinaigrette. Awarded the Editor’s Choice Award in the 2013 “Lobster Roll Rumble.”
Warren’s Lobster House, Kittery
11 Water Street
Kittery, ME 03904
A large popular restaurant with about a dozen lobster dishes on its menu; boasts of its “Foot Long Lobster Roll,” the “biggest in Maine.”
If you go:
Maine Office of Tourism
111 Sewall St Augusta, ME 04330
Tel: (207) 287-5711