Pick a side. No fence-sitters allowed. Connecticut or Maine?
It’s the seafood version of the Chicago-New York pizza and hot dog battle: New York thin-crust pizza or Chicago deep-dish pizza? New York dirty-water dog or Chicago-style dog with all the fixings? The players in this lobster roll battle royale are the Connecticut-style and Maine-style lobster rolls. Always the intrepid explorer, I hit the road to Connecticut and then up to Maine to find out for myself.
I’m no stranger to the lobster roll. I had my frequent-buyers punch-card at Luke’s Lobster the first time I lived in NYC and I was no stranger to Red Hook Lobster Pound, either. What I’m saying is I had already pretty much made up my mind that I was a Connecticut-style guy. But, I’m always willing to challenge my beliefs and I’d never been to Maine, so I set out to sample from the source.
For those of you who don’t know, I’ll go over what the two lobster rolls are all about. Starting with the similarities, a lobster roll is usually on a New England split-top bun that has been lightly toasted with butter on a flat-top stove. The better lobster rolls strictly contain the claw and knuckle meat which is juicier and more tender (leave the tail meat for grilling). How the lobster is handled is where the two styles diverge. For Connecticut-style, the lobster meat is heated up in clarified butter and served warm, usually topped with a dash of Old Bay seasoning. The Maine-style roll tosses chilled lobster meat with a little mayo with a sprinkling of chives over the top. That’s it. Hot–butter, cold–mayo.
The first notable stop was in Connecticut. Lenny & Joe’s Fish Tale started out as a roadside clam shack in 1979. Now they have 3 locations and are a Connecticut institution.
The roll was buttery, lightly toasted and filled to capacity with warm, buttered lobster. It’s so simple and so very good. Who doesn’t like melted butter over steamed lobster chunks? Connecticut set the bar pretty high for Maine to beat.
Since I have had plenty of Connecticut-style rolls, it was time to venture into Maine. If you’ve never been, the coast of Maine is quintessential New England. This is where nautical design and décor originated and it is effortlessly displayed all the way up the coast. Beautiful.
Also, quintessentially Maine are the many lighthouses along the coast. I have learned that one of the best lobster rolls was at a food cart at Fort WIlliams Park outside of Portland. Also at the park, Portland Head Light, one of the most famous lighthouses in New England. Done and done.
The multi-award-winning food cart is called Bite Into Maine and was set up in one of the parking lots. It was surprisingly small but fully stocked for the crowd gathered around. I muscled my way to the front (don’t these people know who I am?) to order up a Maine-style lobster roll. Unfortunately, they were out of the red potato salad which I would have liked to try. But they had plenty of lobster and some Maine blueberry soda, my beverage of choice with lobster rolls.
We took our treasured rolls to a picnic table near the lighthouse to get the full New Englander experience. What can I say? Maybe it was the ambiance, but it was a better roll than the one at Lenny and Joe’s. Maybe the best I’ve had. Just enough mayo to add some flavor and fat without taking away from the huge chunks of perfectly cooked lobster meat.
Score a big one for Maine.
The last stop before heading back to the city was Scales in Portland. I had been there for an exceptional dinner the night before and decided to go back to try the lobster roll. It was on a very toasted buttered roll piled high with lobster, topped with mayo and chives. It was also served with an insane amount of french fries. Not my favorite.
The cost was pretty close to Bite Into Maine ($18 vs $19) but I'm guessing the nicer restaurant felt like they had to dress it up somehow with fries and the mayo on top. It's much better mixed in. Some bites had too much mayo and some not enough. I've had some good lobster rolls at nice restaurants but I've had just as good or better at stands or seafood shacks.
But don't take my word for it. Mike Urban literally wrote the book on road-tripping New England for the best Lobster Shacks. I'm going to take this book and head out to see how many of these places I can visit next summer.
By the way, forget what I said about choosing a side. There's enough divisiveness in the world today. The only side you have to pick is which one you want today. Or get one of each. Two-fisting your lobster roll might be the best idea yet.