For a sandwich that seems so basic, individual preferences seems to be a major factor in what defines a "real" Maine lobster roll. Most agree on the basics: a New England split-top bun, griddled in butter until golden brown, then stuffed to overflowing with succulent, sweet, freshly-caught Maine lobster. After that, things get a little trickier.
Should the meat be served hot? (No.) Should the lobster be naked, or should there be mayonnaise, and if so, how much? Should it be mixed with the lobster claw, knuckle, and tail meat, spread on the inside of the bun, or blobbed on top? Should the lobster be mixed with anything else, like celery? (Also no.) Should there be spices or other flavorings? Should lettuce come into play, and if so, how much?
Ask ten different seafood-loving locals in Portland, Maine, where to get the best lobster roll nearby, and you'll get ten different answers.
Some base their recommendations entirely on how much lobster a particular restaurant is cramming into their version of a lobster roll, but that never struck me as the most important criteria. After all, if "quantity of meat" is my chief concern, I'll just eat a whole steamed lobster.
I think the difference between "good" and "great" lobster rolls is trickier to pin down. The best lobster rolls aren't just expensive, bready troughs full of lobster meat, made to shovel into the mouths of tourists. No. The best lobster rolls are a careful balance of texture and temperature.
Something magical happens when a warm, soft on the inside, crispy on the outside, golden-griddled, fluffy bun contrasts with the cool sweetness of the lobster, with just a touch of lettuce for crunch. It's the interplay between those elements that make an outstanding lobster roll, not just the amount of lobster meat served in the sandwich.
Environment can be a big factor, too, depending on your personality. Ask yourself: When in Portland, Maine, do you derive more pleasure from looking at a scenic lighthouse while you eat your lobster roll? If so, you'll pay a premium at some of Portland's tourist spots, some of which also serve excellent lobster rolls. They are expensive, but there's something about feeling the spray of the ocean on your face, watching the lobster boats go by, as you perch on a giant slab of granite, that satisfies every mental image you have of summers in Maine.
Don't care as much about scenery? Venture off the beaten path in Portland, and even a little outside the city, to find amazing lobster rolls being served out of the backs of convenience stores and from converted auto shops, where the ocean is nowhere in sight.
No matter where you land on the "best" lobster roll debate, Portland (and the small towns surrounding it) have options made just for you. We'll help you find the best.
10 Lobster Rolls We Love
Portland Lobster Company »
The Lobster Shack at Two Lights »
Becky's Diner »
Fisherman's Grill »
Susan's Fish n Chips »
Old Port Tavern »
Town Landing Market »
Bite Into Maine »
J's Oyster »
Scarborough Lobster »
About the author: After spending thirteen years bouncing between Brooklyn, New Haven, and a tiny fishing village on the Southern tip of Mexico, Malcolm has returned to his roots, settling in Midcoast Maine with his wife and daughter. Together, they comment on cooking, eating, and food culture in Maine on their website, From Away.