Slideshow: Fast-Food Lobster Rolls: Can They Be Any Good?

Amato's
Amato's
With locations in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont, Amato's is famous for its "Italian" sandwiches, a sandwich invented by a young Italian immigrant in 1902 on Portland's waterfront that combines boiled ham, American cheese, and raw vegetables. People seem to either love or loathe them, but what's perhaps more impressive at Amato's is the lobster roll.

At $7.99, the bargain-priced sandwich is packed to overflowing with finely chopped lobster mixed with a healthy dose of mayonnaise and a touch of shredded iceberg for good measure. The chain gets the pleasing temperature contrasts of a Maine lobster roll just right, and the sweet lobster was paired perfectly with Amato's signature soft, chewy rolls. It was a surprise bright spot among the bottom-shelf rolls we tried. Call first; the lobster roll at Amato's is a seasonal item and may not be available in all restaurants.

Amato's: amatos.com

Panera
Panera
How nuts are people for Panera? I've never seen a branch of the Missouri-based chain that doesn't have an overflowing parking lot, with people performing risky highway crossings just to have lunch there. It leads me to believe that there are people who find eating soup out of a bread bowl to be a much, much more thrilling undertaking than I do. The lobster roll here doesn't disappoint, however; the $14.49 sandwich-and-chips combo packs big chunks of fresh, lightly-dressed lobster meat into a golden, chewy brioche bun. It's pricier than the others in this mix but definitely one of the better mass-market lobster rolls we tasted.

Panera Bread: panera.com

Ninety Nine Restaurant
Ninety Nine Restaurant
Ninety Nine is a New England chain of "family" restaurants, that has two major claims to fame: There are always 9 entrees under $9.99, and when the Red Sox win, kids eat free. Founded in the 1950s, the chain was one of the inventors of the "fast casual" neighborhood restaurant concept, long before chains like Applebee's and TGI Friday's rose to prominence.

The lobster roll was one of the surprise brighter spots in our tasting. Served chilled with mayo or warm with drawn butter, the $15.99 sandwich-and-fries combo was gigantic, and overflowing with sweet chunks of lobster meat. The huge toasted roll was soft, chewy, and served warm, as it should be. The lobster salad gets just a touch of crunch from a small dice of celery, but otherwise, it's plain and simple, the way a lobster roll should be. Overall, I was impressed and quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of the lobster roll at the Ninety Nine.

Ninety Nine Restaurant: 99restaurants.com

Shaw's Supermarket
Shaw's Supermarket
Against my better judgement, but drawn in by the price (only $5.99 when you use your Shaws Card!), I was taken with the supermarket chain's blister-packed, hermetically-sealed version of a Maine lobster roll. Though the lobster salad had a peculiar pink tinge, and was approaching its sell-by date, I tried to remain optimistic about what was to come.

A quick read through the ingredient list made my heart sink. The third ingredient in the lobster roll, after lobster meat and mayonnaise, was "breadcrumbs," which I presume are used as a filler. This kind of attitude toward lobster never bodes well, and my taste buds confirmed my suspicions. The sandwich was too wet, too marshy, and the bun too stale and chewy. The lobster salad itself? The first phrase that came to mind was "low tide." Skip this one.

Shaw's Supermarket: shaws.com

Linda Bean's Perfect Maine
Linda Bean's Perfect Maine
Can a lobster roll that costs $17 really be included in a "bottom shelf" roundup? It can when it is made as flat-out badly as this one, and particularly when the sandwich has the audacity to refer to itself as "perfect." The problems start with the split-top hot dog bun (made specially for the restaurant by the Amato's bakery) that had been butter-griddled at some point, but was served at room temperature and stale. Next, Linda Bean piles on a quarter pound of lobster, but mucks it up with Miracle Whip and a very, very generous pour of dried dill. It's an insulting treatment of Maine lobster that is antithetical to the very nature of the bug; that is, that lobster is "perfect" on its own, and doesn't need a budget salad dressing or a crate of "secret herb blend" to make it taste better. Pass.

Linda Bean's Perfect Maine® Lobster Roll: lindabeansperfectmaine.com

Au Bon Pain
Au Bon Pain
The "Lobster Salad BLT" from Au Bon Pain promises lobster claw and knuckle meat, mixed with light mayonnaise, topped with applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, and sliced tomatoes, and served on a brioche bun. Mayonnaise lovers will find a lot to love here; the sandwich is essentially a slurry of gloppy light mayonnaise and crumbled bacon, with a lightly fishy aftertaste and a crumby, crumbly brioche. Pass.

Au Bon Pain: aubonpain.com

[Photograph: Kita Roberts]