On a whim, I asked a few out-of-state friends to play a word association game recently. I primed the pump with some neutral words, asking them for the first thing that came to mind when I gave them a prompt. “Tractor,” I’d offer, which would solicit a response of “farm” or “farmer,” usually. “Cat” led to “dog,” and (disturbingly) “chicken” almost always led not to “egg,” but to “nugget.”
Friends, you know what’s coming. A perfect 100 percent of the time, “Maine” generated a single response: “lobster.”
As stereotypes go, this one is pretty benign – and accurate. So rather than fight it, let’s embrace our state’s official crustacean. And what better way to usher in a new era of shellfish-acceptance than by exploring 10 (or so) of the state’s must-taste lobster dishes? After all, if you can’t beat ‘em, crack ‘em (and dip ‘em in butter, if that’s more your speed).
1. LOBSTER ROLLS
There’s no other way to begin than here, nestled into the longitudinal cleft of a tender bun. When it comes to lobster rolls, that’s about where the consensus ends.
Toasting, grilling, brushing with butter, dressing with mayo, adding chives or diced celery – all are options. There are so many regional variations even within Maine that it’s not worth trying to decipher whose lobster roll dogma is the right one. Don’t spend too much time fretting about whether you’re eating a “real Maine lobster roll.”
Three of my favorite lobster roll destinations sit not far from the coastline; an ambitious eater might make a long day-trip of visiting them all. Roll prices also vary considerably, so call ahead for prices.
Start your journey in Wells, where you’ll find a classic take on the dish at Hoss & Mary’s food truck. After decamping for Key West in 2015, itinerant owners Brian Coddens and Deena Eskew are back in Maine at Congdon’s After Dark every Thursday through Sunday. A few years in swampy Florida did nothing to diminish the quality of the couple’s ultra-traditional roll.
A few miles northeast, you can see for yourself why many locals think Bite Into Maine’s lobster rolls are among the state’s best. Whether you visit the brick-and-mortar commissary in Scarborough, the mobile kitchen at Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, or the chrome-and-steel food truck overlooking the lighthouse at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, you’ll be able to choose your own roll-adventure. Variations like curry, wasabi or chipotle are all solid options, but the classics – chive-topped and delicately mayonnaise-dressed Maine style, or the drawn-butter-drizzled Connecticut style – will always reign supreme. Le homard est mort. Vive le homard.
By the time you reach Steuben, a Down East town about three hours north, you’ll be hungry again. No better place to stop for a lobster roll than The Meadow’s Take Out or its new sibling, a saloon-style full-service restaurant called Ole 98. Both businesses are run by Vera Small and chef Ryan Roderick, who specializes not only in locally caught seafood, but Portuguese dishes like an oniony, warm-spiced Portuguese rice side ($5).
Bonus: If the weather doesn’t cooperate with plans for shack-and-truck dining, check out Rebecca Charles’s Pearl Kennebunk, an outpost of her acclaimed New York restaurant, Pearl Oyster Bar. Here, $14 will get you a butter-toasted slider bun piled with as much dressed lobster as you’ll find in many full-sized rolls elsewhere. If you’re hunkering down for a while, add a side of Pearl’s famous shoestring fries for $7.
Bite Into Maine, 185 US Rte. 1, #2, Scarborough/Portland/Cape Elizabeth. 289-6142. Biteintomaine.com
The Meadow’s Take Out, 1000 Main St., Steuben. 546-3434. Facebook.com/themeadowstakeout
Pearl Kennebunk, 27 Western Ave., Kennebunk. 204-0860. Pearlkennebunk.com
2. LOBBY POPS
They sound a bit like candies you’d encounter in the waiting room at a fancy spa or hotel, but Highroller Lobster Co.’s skewered lobster tails are a different kind of treat – savory and perfect for an urban picnic on the grass at nearby Lincoln Park or Post Office Park. Each “pop” consists of an entire, pre-cooked lobster tail that can be ordered simply warmed through ($16) or dipped in batter and deep-fried like a corn dog ($17).
Since summer marks the start of lobster season, we prefer the simpler, unbattered version along with a side of lobster-infused ghee or tart lime mayo. When chilly weather calls for the crisp fried version, your snack-on-a-stick will benefit from the kick of jalapeño mayo or hot relish.
The Highroller Lobster Co., 104 Exchange St., Portland. 536-1623. Highrollerlobster.com
3. WOK-FRIED MORNING GLORY WITH LOBSTER
Portlanders usually associate newcomer Crispy Gai with Thai-inspired fried chicken, but saunter past the menu’s list of thighs, drumsticks and wings, and you’ll discover a hidden gem. There among sticky rice and pork skewers is a side of quick-fried morning glory greens (also known as water spinach or “hollow vegetable”), flavored simply with garlic, bird’s eye chili and a squirt of oyster sauce ($13). For $9, you can upgrade your dish of vibrant, astringent greens with chunks of picked Maine lobster that lend sweetness and bounce. It’s impossible to untangle the Asian influences here – Cantonese, Thai, Malaysian – but take a sip of your lime-leaf-scented Pineapple DTO “snack sized daiquiri” ($5) and just enjoy the ride.
Crispy Gai, 90 Exchange St., Portland. 536-1017. Crispygai.com
4. LOBSTER BAKE
When I don’t feel like making a pizza at home, I order one. But when I’m in the mood for a traditional lobster bake and I’m not up for shoveling sand and gathering seaweed on the beach, I’ve got fewer options. On a summer Thursday, with a little forethought, however, I could find myself at the White Barn Inn, letting chef Matt Padilla do all the heavy lifting for me.
Once each month, Padilla oversees a traditional family-style dinner of corn on the cob, new potatoes, clams, whole lobsters and house-made blueberry crumble. At $95 per person before tax and tip, this lobster bake is admittedly a splurge. But if you’re in the market for a meal that’s as much about briny woodsmoke wafting past the poolside garden as what’s on your plate, this may be the lobster experience for you. If so, there are two final Thursday-night bakes scheduled this season: One this week (Aug. 5), and another on Sept. 2.
White Barn Inn, 37 Beach Ave., Kennebunk. 936-2321. Aubergeresorts.com/whitebarninn
5. MAINE LOBSTER PIZZA
Speaking of lobster bakes and pizzas, Steve Quattrucci, the chef/owner of Monte’s Fine Foods in Portland has found a clever way to marry the two. His Maine Lobster pizza ($27) replicates many of the flavors and textures of a lobster bake. That’s a harder task than you might anticipate, as many of the non-shellfish flavors in a lobster bake are subtle, easily overwhelmed by mozzarella and marinara.
Quattrucci solves this puzzle by lining his cold-fermented, Roman-style pinza crust with mild fontina and provolone cheeses. In doing so, he cedes the stage to steaming, jacket-intact new potatoes, lemon, chives, cracked Maine lobster claws and yes…even corn.
Monte’s Fine Foods, 788 Washington Ave., 613-9873. Montesportland.com
6. MAINE LOBSTER POKÉ
If you ever doubt how versatile an ingredient lobster is, taste how well it plays the lead role in a Hawaiian-style rice bowl at Portland’s Crunchy Poké. The tiny, counter-service shop plays up Maine lobster’s sweetness by combining it with Kewpie mayonnaise, red cabbage, crunchy Vidalia onion and a dusting of smoky chili powder ($16.50).
I like to take my lobster poké to-go and wander over to the Portland Ocean Gateway, where, during the week, you can practically watch Portland’s tourism-driven waterfront transform in front of your eyes.
Crunchy Poké, 426 Fore St., 835-0838. Crunchy-poke.business.site
7. LOBSTER AND ROASTED CORN CHOWDER
In Kittery at lunchtime (or brunchtime), Blue Mermaid Island Grill serves an excellent, unexpectedly traditional lobster-and-roasted-corn chowder ($8) alongside its largely Caribbean-themed entrees. And if a trip to the border sounds a little too far, you can often score a bowl of lobster chowder at Blue Mermaid’s food truck, which forms part of the regular “pod” at Congdon’s After Dark in Wells.
Blue Mermaid Island Grill, 10 Shapleigh Rd., Kittery. 703-2754. Bluemermaid.com
8. GRILLED LOBSTER AND GOUDA SANDWICH
While you’re checking out food trucks and carts, seek out another lobster treasure at Congdon’s. This one is easy to track down. Just head to the Tasting Maine truck, which towers over its peers (literally), thanks to a 13-foot, bicolor brick chimney shaped and painted to look like the Portland Head Light. Here, under the lighthouse, you’ll find a super-savory grilled cheese assembled from fat slices of sourdough and an enormous scoop of mayo-dressed lobster salad ($20).
9. LOBSTER BAO
Whoever first said, “sun’s out, buns out” might have been referring to bikinis and Speedos, but that person could also have been talking about N to Tail’s pillowy, lobster-stuffed bao ($15).
While N to Tail tends to fare best when chef Jung Hur’s kitchen focuses on innovative, upscale takes on classic Korean dishes, its lobster bao are a noteworthy exception to this pattern. Borrowing promiscuously from Momofuku’s foldable riff on steamed Chinese buns, as well as Japanese flavors (umami-steeped pickles and sweet mayonnaise), N to Tail’s buns make a terrific appetizer, especially when accompanied by a cool glass of Barreled Souls Brewing’s Nunjutsu triple IPA ($8).
N to Tail, 29 Exchange Street, Portland. 773-2900. Ntotail.com
10. LOBSTER PUFFS
Perhaps the most unique of the lobster dishes on this list, a bag of Big Tree Grocery’s airy, deep-fried lobster puffs ($8 for a two-quart bag) will take a bit of advance planning to acquire. But these umami-saturated snacks are absolutely worth the effort.
Think of these crunch-bombs like a salty, lobster-flavored hybrid of a pork rind and a shrimp chip. The puffs themselves are made from tapioca, rice and Maine lobster purée, then tossed in lemon-brown-butter dust.
To score a bag, you’ll need to place an order online early in the week, then collect your haul in Biddeford or Portland. But if you’ve got guests coming, these puffs make an ideal finger-food to pour into a bowl and set out when you’re serving summery beverages (think chilled, fruit-forward rosés or even slushy margaritas). Or – as I can attest from personal experience – they’re equally tempting when you find yourself roaming the kitchen at midnight, peckish for a quick, intense fix of Maine’s most iconic flavors.
Big Tree Grocery, 10 Westpoint Lane, Suite 220, Pepperell Mill, Biddeford. bigtreefoods.com/maine-orders
Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of four recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]