Nobody who knows I just spent two weeks in the northeastern states would have the slightest difficulty, if asked, figuring out what one of my main goals during the entirety of the visit would be: eat as much great lobster as I can find and afford. So yeah, that’s what I did. I don’t eat all-lobster-all-the-time, because it would be bordering on the criminal to ignore the great Italian food in north Boston or the regional favorites in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania (all of which we either spent time in or passed through on our road trip last week), never mind to skip all of the other fabulous fresh seafoods on offer. Fish and chips, sushi, New England clam chowder, grilled or roasted or sautéed or fried what-have-you. Fabulous, all, when beautifully made by experienced locals.
But lobster. Lobstah, as New Englanders tend to pronounce it. Heaven on earth, I say.
In the Northeast, perhaps the most signatory, elegantly simple, and delicious preparation of lobster is the lobster roll. It’s a sandwich. The standard definition of this is a split-top bun, hotdog style, filled with chunks of lobster meat. The commonest way to prepare and serve this is to either mix the meat with mayonnaise into a lobster “salad” to fill the bun or serve it otherwise entirely plain and put melted butter on it, either mixed in ahead or served on the side. Supremely uncomplicated, perfectly delectable.
Some restaurants and clam shacks serve this in any number of decorated and variably seasoned ways, the most familiar of which might involve some chopped celery and/or snipped fresh herbs, Old Bay Seasoning, minced onion, lettuce leaves, or some few other well-intended adulterations. Some vary the bread ever so slightly, toasting or butter-grilling its sides, or using something other than the typical soft white bread bun. But not many dare monkey substantially with the daringly exposed combination that is so beloved. One does not defy the gods of tradition with impunity, especially when the tradition involves something like lobster that in its pure form is so delicate and easily overwhelmed by fuss.
The height of northeastern innovation: serve a lobster roll on a *round* bun instead of the traditional split-top hotdog bun. Whoa! What’s *next*???
This year’s first lobster roll stop was at a venerable institution which shall remain nameless, where in times past I had revered the lobster roll as one of the area’s best, and a hidden gem at that, because the house is mainly known for and devoted to quite other culinary traditions. It used to be a butter-grilled roll that, albeit the standard split-top bun, was slathered somewhat liberally in salted butter before being put on the griddle, and then the lobster meat served with nothing more than a small amount of very simple mayo or a splash of melted butter, and if I recall, a nice wedge of lemon on the side. Absolutely ideal, in my view. But new ownership and a new lead cook always like to offer the New and Improved, which is seldom really either, and so it was in this instance, a lobster roll whose newer identity was of a sandwich with chunks of lobster in it, hardly the pristine joy of times past. Ah, well. The meat was reasonably fresh and sweet, and certainly the chance to find a lobster sandwich of any sort under about $30 (USD) in north Texas is not only limited but possibly, ludicrous.
Slaw on the side, fries rather than chips? Getting a little racy, aren’t we. A bit of green *in* the sandwich? My, what slippery slope is this!
After that, it was hit-and-miss hunting time, and the variations, while slim, kept the pursuit interesting. Another commonality when one’s lobster-rolling along is that most are served with french fries, or even more likely, potato chips/crisps, and a drink. Not more. A few places widen their scope to include slaw of some sort or perhaps even a green salad; corn on the cob; some kind of slow-cooked beans. Picnic fare, primarily. You might see hot sauce or ketchup or malt vinegar or other condiments on offer, and the drinks might be any number of things, though probably something equally picnic-friendly like iced tea, sodas, lemonade, or beer is the most popular. None of these is unwelcome, to me, but again, I don’t see any special need for any of them either. There’s a perfectly good reason that the tradition stands firm. Excellence. It’s all in the execution.
Next thing you know, somebody’s serving *plantain* fries (kinda hard, if you ask me, and not especially flavorful—maybe a shot of that Old Bay Seasoning would’ve come in handy there—but kudos for trying) and smoked Spanish paprika in the sandwich mayonnaise. Pretty soon we’ll be seeing cats and dogs living together and the dish running away with the spoon!
And when anyone gets that down pat, there’s no faulting the grandness of the invention. We found lobster happiness in several popular and highly touted locations along our short road trip route, both in towns and seaside, in shabby old rustic sheds and in white-tablecloth establishments. We found slight disappointments in a few, too, though nothing drastic. If we saw something less than enticing in the lobster rolls being served up before ours, we could always opt for any of the other treats I mentioned earlier, and we certainly did, in large quantities. We even discovered one of the currently trendy spots favored for its semi-puritanical goodness, right on the cover of the Sunday supplement.
As usual, of course, the satisfaction of the find was greatest when we listened to a few locals mention in a sidelong way a place that is a genuine jewel disguised as the neighborhood convenience store, truly convenient in that it lay about five minutes by car from one of our rented places. Driving by there, you wouldn’t guess that at the picnic tables by the parking lot, let alone at those tiny tables and chairs squeezed in the back corner of the store by the shelves of motor oil and snack packets and aspirin, you can have what we found to be the freshest, least in need of further elaboration, lobster rolls we’ve had yet. But boy, did we—and that, three days in a row.
When experiencing famous regional classics like lobster roll, one might be compelled to try some other regional specialities alongside. Like the unique Grandma Utz’s Handcooked Potato Chips, fried in 100% lard (yep, porky tasting) and a can of Moxie soda, a gentian root flavored carbonated beverage that lives up to its catchphrase of being Distinctively Different, though I can’t vouch (yet, at least) for its characterization as Nerve Tonic. Unless you count the fact that I’m widely considered to have a ‘lot of nerve’. Never mind the unusual accoutrements: the lobster roll at Libby’s is easily king of all I’ve had so far.
We’d’ve stayed the whole two weeks there (possibly just sleeping under the stock shelves) if we had known. The store owner’s lobsterman husband standing and cracking the just-caught, freshly cooked magnificence just a meter away from the service counter where we were ordering was the clearest possible <angels singing> moment of knowing that when we got our enormous lobster rolls we would be deliriously happy. And yes, we were. Even the “Small” (normal hotdog-sized) roll was jammed with huge chunks of sweet, sweet fresh lobster just faintly kissed with mayo (Days One and Two) or melted butter (Day Three, and the favorite, by a lobster’s antenna). The Medium and Large rolls were, well, too much of a good thing, but not so much so that we didn’t attempt them as well. As one should, because, well… Lobster. Amen.
Large enough to engulf the plate, but can one *really* have too much of perfection?