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.
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 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
Massachusetts-based D'Angelo sandwich shops are a bit of the also-ran of the fast food sandwich genre. The future looked bright for the company when they were purchased by Pepsi in the early 1990s, who intended to develop the New England hot sandwich chain into a national brand, alongside Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. Instead, they decided not to bother.
What we're left with under current owner Papa Gino's direction is the sandwich chain's $11.99 version of a lobster roll. It's served either naked and very cold, or hot and smothered in breadcrumbs, or with a six inch steak-and-cheese sub on the side (as a poor man's "Surf and Turf"). The bread gets high marks for its crusty chew, however, a less-than-meager amount of watery lobster meat was completely overwhelmed by a half-ton of shredded iceberg lettuce. One taste of the lobster proved too much; served far too cold, and with a distinctly swampy taste that suggests the meat had been picked from the shell long, long ago.
D'Angelo Grilled Sandwiches: dangelos.com
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
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
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
Pat's Pizza is a chain of thirteen Greek-style pizza restaurants in Maine, which first started slinging pies in 1953. Many locations advertise a lobster roll special on the sign outside, for the bargain-basement price of $7.99. I wasn't expecting much from the pizza chain's take on a lobster roll, particularly at the tail end of the tasting, when I was feeling discouraged.
I am pleased to announce, however, that what I found at Pat's Pizza in Yarmouth was jaw-droppingly delicious. Made fresh to order, the bun was soft, fluffy, and perfectly fresh. The outside was toasty and warm, while the inside stayed cool and soft. A dab of lettuce offered a slight crunch, but the star here was the lobster salad; a generous portion of sweet Maine lobster meat, freshly picked, slightly chilled, and tossed with just the right amount of mayonnaise. A finish of salt and pepper intensified the flavor ever-so-slightly, making this lobster roll the surprise standout in our bottom-shelf lobster roll roundup. It's the only sandwich in the entire tasting that I took more than a bite of, greedily polishing it off while standing in the sun in the middle of the asphalt parking lot.
At under $8, you can't beat the price, and the quality of the lobster roll doesn't suffer one bit. It's the budget lobster roll against which all others should be judged.
Pat's Pizza: patspizza.com