A Lobster Tale
New England is famous for many things, but few are more legendary than the lobster roll. Sweet or salty, mayo-laced or butter-basted, served atop brioche or nestled within a bun, our region’s best-loved dish comes in many forms and flavors. Food editor Amy Traverso set out on a somewhat precarious coastal quest, logging more than 700 miles from Massachusetts to Maine (and digesting a lifetime’s worth of lobster), to suss out perfection.
“I can’t do it. I can’t eat another roll. You have to help me.”
That’s me, on the phone with my husband, Scott. It’s 9 a.m., and I’m prostrate in bed in Newburyport. Exhaustion has set in, and my immune system is rejecting the mere idea of seafood. Two months ago, when I agreed to traverse our coast in search of succulent lobster, it seemed like an enviable plan. Three days ago, when I set out on my mission, I was less sure. You see, between the assignment and the road trip, I hit a small—albeit brilliant—speed bump: Turns out, I’m pregnant.
But my taste buds still function and my doctor sent her okay. I packed the car and headed down Massachusetts’s South Shore, then picked up Route 1 to the North Shore and Maine, stopping to test an infinite number of lobster rolls.
New England tourists plan their vacations around tasting our go-to
sandwich, and each year, foodie chat boards like Chowhound and Road Food light up with debates over the best. It’s a worthy argument, for sure, except no one can agree on what a lobster roll actually is. Most think it’s a sandwich of chilled lobster, bound with a dab of mayo and a little celery. Others swear by warm, butter-drizzled meat in a roll. My own criteria are simple: The meat must be sweet, moist, and firm—all measures of freshness—and be a mix of knuckle, claw, and tail. Whatever the dressing, it must be applied with a light hand. Finally, the bread must be a split-top, New England–style hot dog bun, buttered and griddled on both sides.
Testing and re-testing food is my job, so I was undaunted by the idea of roll after roll after roll. Until now. Curled in a ball, I’m questioning my logic. Scott is panicked, and in our mutual hysteria, we decide that the sensible thing is for him to fly up to Rockland—in a tiny commuter plane, in the fog. Did I mention this is our first child?
Sometime later, I call US Airways to check on the flight. “The fog’s come in, so they might have to divert to Bangor,” says the control tower. I call back 20 minutes later and get the same answer. On the third call, he relays, “The pilot says he wants to try to land.” Try.
Here’s the ideal: A seaside shack.
No, make that harborside. A working harbor, where boats unload catch every morning. The hut is tiny, and the menu is brief: boiled lobster, lobster rolls, corn on the cob. There are picnic tables on a dock, and rolls are served with chips and a pickle on the side.
I start making lists. I’ve had many a meal at Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit, Maine, but its rolls run about $18 and are quite small. Likewise, the Lobster Shack at Two Lights in nearby Cape Elizabeth seems priced with tourists in mind. I cross both off the list. But I keep another vacationer’s favorite: Red’s Eats in Wiscasset. I’ve heard it described as both the Best There Ever Was and a sorry trap for tour buses.
On the South Shore, at the Back Eddy in Westport, I feel an ocean breeze and think I’ve found seafood nirvana. One problem, though: the Eddy doesn’t serve lobster rolls. I blame my addled first trimester brain and veer to Mattapoisett, where the much less scenic Oxford Creamery commands a view of Route 6. Inside, though, it’s all seaside kitsch, in a good way, and the smell of a Frialator permeates. I approach the first lobster roll of my journey with enthusiasm, and it is… fine. The meat isn’t terribly sweet, but it’s tender, and the bun is perfectly griddled.
Bob’s Seafood Café is just a stone’s throw from Popponesset Beach in Mashpee. I’ve read odes to its rolls: their size, their beauty, their size. Nearly a pound of meat! It’s Labor Day weekend, and the place is packed, with long lines at the take-out counter and lots of crying children. It’s an upscale parenting hell, and suddenly the enormous rolls seem less a marvel than another sign of national excess. It doesn’t help that the meat has clearly been marinating in mayonnaise, causing stringiness. I prepare for my northern sojourn. First stop: Saugus.
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Okay, so it may not be Kennebunkport-chic, but friends insist Kelly’s Roast Beef makes a great lobster roll. It’s big, a full half-pound of meat in a nicely grilled bun. But the meat has that pre-mixed mayo flavor. Plus, the guy at the counter says it’s all claws.
Essex, Massachusetts, is much closer to my scenic ideal, and J. T. Farnham’s—a small wooden shack overlooking a salt marsh—is picturesque. Like Kelly’s, Farnham’s is best known for something other than lobster rolls (fried clams), and I know its onion rings are perfection. But, wearing seasickness wrist bands (which allegedly cure pregnancy queasies but really just make me look like a Björn Borg groupie), I save my strength for the lobster, which is, again, fine. Light on the mayo, but with that dreaded pre-mixed flavor. I sigh. Definitely not The One.
Just when I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve set the bar too high, I hit pay dirt. The Fish Shack, right in the center of Rockport, looks a bit ramshackle, but my roll appears to contain—could it be?—bits of tail meat moistened with the faintest hint of mayonnaise. Things are looking up. I head to the Maine border, skip dinner, and go to bed.
And that morning is when death by lobster seems imminent. I’m still waiting for Scott and decide to slog through a forgettable roll at the Brunswick Diner. I perk up a little as I hit Wiscasset but am saving Red’s for later. I visit nearby Sprague’s, where the roll has big chunks of fresh, sweet meat.
Meanwhile, after three passes, Scott’s plane touches down. I almost weep with gratitude as he takes over driving duties and promises to share lobster testing, too.
Here’s what I mean by “sharing”: At each spot, I order a grilled cheese, take one bite of his lobster roll, and look away. It lets me verify Scott’s impressions without short-circuiting.
With four candidates left, we stop at the Bayview Lobster for dinner and sit on a deck under a tangle of Christmas lights. I’m happy. So is Scott, whose appetite for lobster remains robust. Our hopes rise when we see the roll, but fall when we find the meat crumbly.
The morning’s first stop is Red’s. “Now this is a lobster roll,” Scott says. He’s holding a pile of undressed meat in a grilled bun, served with melted butter and mayo on the side. I choose the butter and bite into the plumpest, sweetest meat I’ve had. Sweeter than Sprague’s, sweeter than the Fish Shack. The bun is buttery and crispy from the griddle. And I’m quite certain: This is it.
In the interest of fairness, we make three more stops on the way home, at Morse’s Lobster Shack in Brunswick, Five Island Seafood in Georgetown, and Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster in Freeport (mayo, mayo, mayo). At this point, even Scott is looking a little green around the gills, and we’re confident we’ve found our winner: Red’s. I almost hate to admit it, because every food writer wants to recommend only the
most obscure spots; to map the culinary terra incognita. But honesty trumps narcissism, and I’m voting with the masses.
Just in case you’re wondering, I haven’t had a bite of lobster since this trip. Or shrimp, for that matter. (It’s too close for comfort.) Maybe by the time the little one starts talking, we’ll take him or her to Red’s and revisit our tour again—minus the morning sickness.
Boston might not host the same bounty of lobster shacks as the new england coastline, but its rolls still stack up well. Here, the city’s five best.
Served atop a lightly toasted Pepperidge Farm bun, the meat in B&G’s pricey-but-savory version of the New England classic is tossed with lemon aioli, celery, and chopped chives. $26, 550 Tremont St., 617-423-0550, bandgoysters.com.
Belle Isle Seafood
There’s no pre-made lobster salad here—each roll is made to order, which means calorie counters can have their fresh meat with mayo, butter, or au naturel on a grilled bun. $17, 1267 Saratoga St., 617-567-1619,
James Hook & Co.
An old-school wholesale lobster dealer, James Hook has the freshest (and cheapest) rolls in town—more than 5 ounces of choice meat merged with just the right amount of mayo and celery. $12, 15-17 Northern Ave., 617-423-5500, jameshooklobster.com.
Even cold-roll devotees praise Neptune’s hot, toasted brioche lobster sandwiches: Each is served with chunks of tail, knuckle, and claw sautéed in nothing more than a little salty butter. $24, 63 Salem St., 617-742-3474,
Maine native and chef Andrew Wilkinson’s classic masterpiece consists of eight heaping ounces of tender meat blended with mayo, celery, salt, and pepper on an open, griddled long roll. $23, 199 Clarendon St., 617-536-3500, skipjacks