This past weekend my friend from Myrtle Beach, SC came up to continue a great tradition of epic Doversoleman food quests. As you all know these food quests started with my search for the elusive “perfect” fried clams (strips primarily). In keeping with the spirit of that wonderful journey we decided to up the ante. This time targeting a summer favorite, the Lobster Roll. We all know that if your from the north east, a great lobster roll can conjure wonderful memories and tasty sensations from summers gone by. From mayo to celery, buttered buns to drawn butter and anywhere in between, we know Maine is the place to get lobsters or as my niece used to say lob lob. Maine’s cold waters provide a bounty of sweet sumptuous lobster that is to say the least legendary. So we set off with Travel and Leisures list of the top 10 lobster shacks and 2 empty stomachs. What we were going to discover was anyones’ guess, however I knew no matter how this epic competition turned out I was going to be a winner.
Let me just state a couple of ground rules as I usually do in these judging posts. We will be judging these lobster rolls on 4 criteria, Lobster meat ( quality, sweetness, texture), Roll (freshness, crispness, butteriness – I know its not a real word…), Preparation ( Added flavor, mayo, butter), and Price (how many Clams it cost). As before we will use a 1-5 scale, 1 being sad and 5 being godly.
The first place we tried was a place mentioned in many lists we looked at, The Lobster Shack at Two Lights. Perched atop a very scenic light house area in the Two Lights park of southern Portland this lobster/seafood shack was definitely a tourist favorite. At the time we arrived during a weekend of almost hurricane like weather the waves were crashing on the rocks, the fog horns were blaring and I could have sworn I saw the Gorton’s fisherman peeking out from behind a lobster trap. For real character this place had it’s mojo going strong. From the moment you enter you can tell this place gets high traffic. From the portable ropes and arrangement of the ordering line, you know they get packed in high season. So down the to lobster roll. We ordered 1 lobster roll, 2 drinks and an order of fried belly clams… $38. Hey now! I was a bit shocked at first but then I realized I was taking it to the belly of the beast. We had ordered the 2 things on the menu that said market price. A short time later it was brought up to the counter. The first thing we tried was the clams ( I know its a lobster roll post but I can’t get away from looking for great fried clams…sorry). They were crispy, light, perfectly fried, and had great color. The taste was very good and distinctly subtle, which is how I like my steamer clams, sweet and not too strong. So if your into fried whole belly clams this is a great place to satisfy that hunger. As for the lobster roll. We cut it down the middle and took our first bite… I turned to my friend and he said to me ” so what do you think?”, I replied, ” nothing I could not make at home”. He agreed. It was fine, not great and not bad. Lobster was standard, not very tasty but not tasteless. The bun was a bit under cared for… not really toasted enough and the mayo amount was hardly worth mentioning. I found myself adding mayo and a touch of ketchup ( I love a remoulade or louise sauce on my lobster rolls) to get some flavor going. So over all we gave this roll a 3, and much of that depends on if you like paying $22 for a lobster roll. It was still overall a very pleasant establishment and if you are in the Portland area and you want the whole Maine experience, this place has the character you want and the food you will at least tolerate ( I know I really sold that one).
The next place was not on any list, it was recommended by a waitress of one of, if not the best restaurant in Portland, Hugo’s. The waitress recommended Bite into Maine, a food truck, as having the best lobster rolls in town. I was pretty skeptical at first but willing to take the advice any person associated with the heavenly food we ate at that amazing establishment. So after Lobster Shack, we got lost multiple times trying to find Fort Williams at Cape Elizabeth, the locale of this mobile lobster roll making machine. Well we finally found it. Sitting alone in the pouring rain under an American flag. I felt like I was in a Michael Bay film as we got out of the car and trudged up the hill to assault the food truck. I was struck and impressed as we talked with the owners Sarah and Karl Sutton as to their obvious passion for creating their tasty product. The other thing that really raised my interest was the fact that they offered 6 varieties of lobster roll, Maine, Picnic, New England, Chipotle, Wasabi and Curry. We opted for Maine (mayo and chives), Picnic (cole slaw and celery salt) and Curry ( like a subtle sweet asian curry). I was unprepared for sweet smell of buttery goodness that came wafting from the small opening in the truck’s window (it’s really a food trailer – not even a full truck). It was like the smell of fresh grilled cheese on steroids… note to self, remind me to make new air freshener with grilled butter sent (thats my Michael Keaton impression from “Night Shift”). The moment of truth … Maine style… wow, sweet lobster meat at the right temperature.. not too cold but not warm. Firm not watery. The chives add just the right amount of tasty compliment without being too present. The bun was crispy like a great grilled sandwich without being dry. Lets not forget the buttery taste of the bread either. I had a grin from ear to ear even while being drenched by horizontal rain. My compatriot agreed it was masterful. The picnic style was also good but we felt the cole slaw was cut up too much and not adding the sufficient crunch that could have really taken it over the top. The curry was the most interesting. I loved it. It was already amazing as a plain lobster roll on all the counts I discussed, but now you add a purposeful shot of curry, not too much and sweet not spicy. It was creative and it worked. My friend said he was not sure at first but by the third bite he was sold. We both agreed the curry style was our favorite, but thats like choosing a favorite child, they’re all great. Now to the price, only $13.5o… can you say OMG. I love to spend money and I would pay top dollar for these rolls and they turn out to be this affordable. We gave these rolls a 5. Over all this place was a hands down a winner, is it going to be the winner.. well shall see.
We headed an hour north of Portland to Brunswick to experience a more typical lobster roll restaurant. The kind of place you go for a couple of beers and look out over the water. Estes Lobster House was a pleasant drive south of the highways on located on Casco Bay. We ordered the lobster roll and found that all rolls in Maine are not created equal. For $19 you get cold, tasteless lobster (when I say cold, I mean old refrigerated lobster) on a limp hot dog roll with some hint of unappealing mayonnaise. It was really not good. Perhaps it was unfair that it had to be the first stop after Bite into Maine, but life’s not fair and Estes was going down hard. Need I waste anymore time lambasting this place? I will say the service was very nice, in the summer it could be a great place to sit back and have a cold one. After that however, drive somewhere else to eat. They got a 2 … and perhaps thats being generous.
So onto what is hailed by many to be the best Maine lobster roll ever. I am talking about Red’s of Waccasset. Maine. Written up in all the foodie and travel mags from here to Pismo Beach as the best of Maine. Let me just say now that the town it is in is a great and charming place. Red’s also has the look of a no nonsense lobster roll making place of business. We ordered 2 lobster rolls, some fried shrimp and some fried belly clams. We waited about 12 minutes and then the food was release to us. They are known for giving more than a whole lobster in every lobster roll and they were good to their word. They deliver this lobster roll without anything but mayo and butter on the side.
After the first bite we know what the issues were. It was good, the lobster meat was above average on the sweetness scale, but barely. There was tons of lobster but the tail meat was uncut so it made it difficult to really eat it as a sandwich. The biggest issue was they did not commit to a style of preparation. If its a mayo lobster roll then go with that and make it cold, if its a butter new england style go with a toasted bun and warm lobster… I was more impressed than my friend who was very turned off by it. As for the shrimp and clams, they were awful. They used some type of really bad beer batter that just turned the seafood into doughy seafood zepole. It was so bad I just threw it out. Now the kicker, $25. Yes, $25 a lobster roll… those rolls had to get up and dance into my mouth for that price and instead they were barely good enough and not nearly great. Over all it was a huge disappointment. Could it have been all the hype and the price… sure, but no one can deny that it was not the best we had that day. Red’s gets a 3.5 from us when all is said and done.
The Final lobster roll of the trip ( and I was hurting at this point) came at the end of the trip at a place called the Clam Box in Ipswitch, MA. Ok, here is where I digress and revert to an addendum on my older post on fried clams. This is the place from which the fried clam got its name… Ipswitch, praise be. I am happy to report this is the mecca of fried clams and perhaps fried seafood in general. I was a bit skeptical being that the Clam Box is revered as the birth place of fried seafood, a potential tourist trap, but they are the real deal. From the first bite of my favorite fried clams strips to the fried clam bellies, I was blown away… really blown away. These were crispy, light, and most importantly sweet ..that deep clam sweetness that only lives in the recesses of my childhood. I had found it here at the Clam Box. The belly clams and scallops were also as good as they get. End of clam rant…My friend at the lobster roll as I could not fit anything in my mouth except friend clams. He said an I quote… the second best of the bunch. My guess is it was. He described it as being sweet and delicious. I had to abstain to leave more room for fried clams but I trust him. So lobster roll got over all 4 in Shinya’s book, the clams got a 5 from me (only one is better, the fried clams from the Big E , because their clams have just an iota less coating – they get a 5.0 +)
So where does that leave us… where we knew we’d be after eating at Bite into Maine. Far and away the best lobster roll we had eaten. Bite into Maine not only met or surpassed all of the main criteria for a great lobster roll, they then tossed in a bit of creativity… creativity that worked. I was not going to bring up price either, but at $13.50 they were the best and cheapest (I guess the rents cheap) but they were so good I would pay double. Kudo’s to Sarah and Karl Sutton who moved from the mid-west to serve up what many locals are calling hands down the best lobster rolls in Maine. I am planning to go back soon and have the Chipotle and Wasabi, they say they’ll have them waiting for me.