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Posted by Bruce Bilmes and Susan Boyle on Sunday, December 9, 2012 1:42 AM

The Maine lobster roll is legendary, and a much-loved regional specialty. It's most commonly found in Maine and, at its best, features room-temperature chunks of fresh-cooked lobster lightly bound in mayo, served on a butter-toasted top-loading hot dog bun, garnished with perhaps a little celery or lettuce. There's also something called a hot lobster roll, a rare and elusive lobster sandwich that many fans claim puts the mayo's version to shame. The differences are small but significant: the meat is warm, not cool; it's dressed with lots of melted butter, not mayo; there are no vegetable garnishes. It can be found in Maine but its true home is Connecticut.

The hot lobster roll was the principle reason for the Roadfood Tour stop at Lenny & Joe's, where many folks say it can be found at its best (see the review of the Westbrook store). And we thought our roll was a perfect blend of tender claw and chewy tail, toasty bun, and sybaritic quantities of butter. Some other tour participants were less impressed, finding the meat just too chewy. We think that perhaps this falls to the chance collection of meat that ends up on one's particular roll: chewy pieces of tail are fine when combined with tender claw and knuckle meat. Too much tail, though, and you've got too much chew.

We love the O-rings at L & J's and were not at all fond of the huge steamers that did not taste sweet and clean:
We'd been to the Lenny & Joe's in Westbrook, which has waitress service (this one has an order counter), and found the fried seafood, served in generous portions, to be terrific. Fried seafood, hot lobster roll, dark onion rings - don't need much more than that!


Chris: As any Roadfooder worth his/her table salt, I am particular about lobster rolls – in that I’ll eat any lobster roll but only return for a handful of them. I’ve never considered Lenny & Joe's to be up to snuff for lobster rolls but we, too, had only visited the sit-down restaurant in Westbrook. This drive-in branch in Madison was certainly more commodious for our hungry group, but frankly the lobster roll was a notch lower than that at the Westbrook location. The meat just wasn’t fresh-tasting enough, and the bun was disappointingly soft and ungrilled. We prefer the rolls from Westbrook Lobster (read the review) in Clinton, Flanders Fish Market (read the review) in East Lyme, and Johnny Ad’s (read the review) in Old Saybrook. Bruce will probably delete this statement before publishing, but the lobster roll at Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough (read the review) in Noank doesn’t qualify as a true lobster roll, per se, since it’s basically a scoop of lobster meat on a hamburger bun. But to be truthful, we rarely eat lobster in Connecticut, being very spoiled former residents of Maine!

lobster roll

I was suckered into ordering the salt potatoes, thinking for a fleeting moment that they would be like the ones we’d had in Utica, NY last summer. They were not: just oversized red potatoes that weren’t even that salty:

salt potatoes

But the mediocre grub didn’t detract from enjoying ourselves there and watching others eat, like the power table of ChiTownDiner, Cousin Johnny, Mariton, and Buffetbuster:

greg and cliff

Subconsciously, I was really waiting for the pizza that would follow at Zuppardi’s, and no hot dog or lobster roll could top that…

Bruce: Ha, I enjoyed your Abbott's comment! But, tell me, what the hell IS a lobster roll but lobster meat on a bun? That said, the hamburger bun instead of the hot dog bun is slightly troubling, but it is toasted or grilled (I forget which). And, you get a big sidecar of melted butter to pour on. The bigger problem with Abbott's hot lobster roll, though, is how they pack the meat into portioning molds, and it can sometimes be dry and lifeless. We've long since switched to splitting a giant, hard-shell lobster for two at Abbott's, but hard-shell's are hard to find there in mid-summer. Gotta go early in the season.

Those salt potatoes look pathetic. Anyone who orders them, here in Connecticut, deserves what they get.

Chris: Trust me, they were pathetic. I wasn’t thinking straight when I ordered them. But you know when you see something regionally inappropriate on a menu and you order it reflexively without thinking? There ought to be a term for that, like Travelin Manned, because I do that with some strange frequency.

My definition of a lobster roll is one that is served in a hot dog roll. Plus, I think that Abbott’s scoop of lobster meat on a burger bun is just weird, but packing it into those molds is even weirder. I’ve never seen that anywhere else, and any New England restaurant with “lobster” in its name should know better, period.

Bruce: Have you ever had the hot lobster roll from The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport (see the review)? Served on a hamburger bun, and one of the greats. I think the quality of the meat trumps all, but the bun has to be grilled or toasted, and there has to be plenty of butter. Unlike many hot lobster roll fans, by the way, I love the cold mayo'd version too.

While I'm nowhere near the fundamentalist that wanderingjew is, I tend to avoid regional specialties outside their region. Not out of principle, but because I find it jarring and unsatisfying, even when the food is well-prepared. I'm sure there are folks for whom the food on the plate is everything. For them, I guess a good BPT in Florida is the same as one in Iowa. Doesn't work that way for me.

Chris: We’ve never been to The Clam Shack but now we’re curious. One of my mayo’ed favorites is the lobster sandwich from Alive and Kicking (read our review) in Cambridge, served on toasted Scali bread, but it’s not advertised as a roll. The Beach Plum in Portsmouth, NH also serves a great lobster roll. But I totally agree with you: the bun must be toasted or grilled (I prefer the latter), and the butter must be copious.

I guess I’m just too curious about regionally inappropriate food. Some items I wouldn’t touch – like a Philly cheesesteak outside of Philly – but for most items I am maybe overly inquisitive. Take BBQ, for instance: I take every challenge for Carolina BBQ outside of the Carolinas, but usually it’s the sauce that’s so named and not the pork. Occasionally I do find some gems, though. Last month, we had Chicago dogs from Spalla’s here in Natick that were honestly better than a few I’ve had in the Windy City. But seafood, as we all know, is best served on or very close to the coast!

Next: Zuppardi’s throws a pizza party for us! Stay tuned…


Re: regional items outside their region. Like Chris, I would almost never order a Philly cheese steak in Kansas or a crab cake in Arizona, but if the dish is one that is virtually unknown outside its region (like salt potatoes), it's tempting. Who wouldn't want to see a steamed cheeseburger if they came across it on a menu in Idaho, a West Indies salad in Iowa, or 5-way chili in -- Lord, forgive me -- San Antonio?
Posted by Michael Stern on Sunday, Dec 9, 2012 6:46 AM

Michael, you're exactly right -- there are indeed laws that govern my ordering here, but I'd have to ponder how to codify them. Food for thought, thank you!
Posted by ayersian on Sunday, Dec 9, 2012 9:01 AM

There is a Boston sports bar in Santa Monica (Sonny McLean's) and a few years ago I went to see a Red Sox playoff game. They have a Boston menu. Of course I was not going to order the fried clams, which I had never even seen on a menu in LA. But as the platters whizzed by, I thought they actually looked good, so I broke down. And somewhat depressingly, they were pretty good. Not Clam Box, of course, but quire decent.
Posted by artphon on Sunday, Dec 9, 2012 10:52 AM

Michael/Chris - Have you ever ordered far outside the region and been happy with the results? When I've done it, I usually end up with something like Chris' salt potatoes. So not only is the result something disappointing but, unless you order almost everything because you're eating on a publisher's dime, you've probably missed out on something they do well.
Posted by Bruce Bilmes and Susan Boyle on Sunday, Dec 9, 2012 11:13 AM

artphon, I think you hit on the one time where it makes sense to experiment out of region: if you are eating in your hometown area.
Posted by Bruce Bilmes and Susan Boyle on Sunday, Dec 9, 2012 11:19 AM

You're right, Bruce. Success far outside the region is rare, not counting dishes that have become only nominally regional like Key lime pie, Buffalo wings, and New England chowder. Also, I would make a case for the worthiness of ordering out-of-place things in a handful of very good restaurants with a raised consciousness, like Zingerman's, where the pulled pork is terrific, or Bette's Oceanview Diner, which knows what to do with scrapple, or All Star Sandwich Bar (good beef on weck). Of course, however good the food may be at these places, my Roadfood sensibilities tend to go haywire from the cognitive dissidence of eating it out of its natural habitat.
Posted by Michael Stern on Sunday, Dec 9, 2012 5:24 PM

I guess it's that cognitive dissonance that gets me. Even a perfectly executed oyster po'boy in Utah just isn't as much fun as one along the bayous.
Posted by Bruce Bilmes and Susan Boyle on Sunday, Dec 9, 2012 5:48 PM

We are from Maryland and naturally love crab cakes. About 15 years ago my wife ordered Maryland Crab Cakes at a charming little restaurant in the Pocono's. Believe me when I say they were not a thing of beauty. First of all they were cone shaped, second they must have tied a string on the crab and pulled him through the filler. Sitting on the platter in a pool of some sort of yellow sauce were these weird cone shaped things. They were just terrible. My wife complained to the waiter, who brought the owner to the table. He vigorously defended them as "just like they are made in Maryland". We told him were were Maryland natives and had never seen or tasted anything like these. He reluctantly exchanged them for another selection, after telling my wife if she was such an expert maybe she would like to advise the chef how to make them. She asked for a piece of paper and wrote out her recipe and handed it to the owner as we were leaving. We now live about 4 miles from that restaurant and have never returned. I have often wondered if he ever adopted her recipe.
Posted by jackzig on Monday, Dec 10, 2012 5:10 PM

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