For “Ocean Treasures” (season 1, episode 8), Weekends with Yankee visited the flagship restaurant of Luke’s Lobster in Portland, where we learned how a tiny lobster Maine roll shop grew into a sustainable seafood company with locations in ten cities across America. Find co-host Amy Traverso’s complete picks for the best lobster rolls in Maine in this 2018 Yankee feature.
In 2017, Yankee senior food editor Amy Traverso embarked on “The Great Lobster Roll Adventure” up the Maine coast, from Kittery to Eastport, to sample nearly two dozen rolls and crown a champion. It wouldn’t be easy to compare so many rolls tasted only hours or days apart and determine one single “best lobster roll in Maine” winner, so she sat down and laid out “a set of criteria … as well as a searching and fearless written inventory of my own lobster roll biases.”
Here are her criteria:
How to Rate a Maine Lobster Roll
Extras: The beauty of the Maine lobster roll is its simplicity. Therefore, lettuce, with its bitter, vegetal flavors and tendency to wilt and turn slimy when exposed to heat or mayonnaise, has no place in any lobster roll, ever. Celery, shallots, lemon zest, lobster roe, chives — all may be considered on a case-by-case basis, but tradition runs deep here.
Sauces: Mayonnaise should be tossed with the meat just before serving or served on the side. Lobster left to sit in mayo absorbs its flavor and turns flabby. And while butter may be better (or not), it should be poured over warm meat, lest it congeal.
The Bun: The roll must be split-top, buttered, and toasted on a griddle.
Size: The whole shebang should fit into an average-size mouth, so that each bite is a medley of sweet meat, buttery bun, and sauce.
The Shack: Every great roll deserves a great view.
In the end, Amy made a list of top spots, compiled over several weeks of talking with local food experts and a source list from 15 years of personal experience, and then rated each roll on a 10-point scale based on portion size, texture, sweetness, saucing, bun, extraneous additions (e.g., the dreaded lettuce), and ambiance. In this Maine lobster roll mission, there would be no excuses for oversalted cooking water, overcooked meat, or a badly buttered bun. Wondering which rolls came out on top and which one earned the title of Best Lobster Roll in Maine? Read on.
McLoons was Amy’s top pick for the best lobster roll in Maine. Describing the tiny red hut in South Thomaston with island views as “the lobster shack of your dreams,” Amy raved about the roll’s construction. “Not only can you get a half-and-half roll (one side butter, one side mayonnaise, sliced crosswise), but also they put the mayo in the bottom of the bun. Like a condiment! Which is what it is! The lobster tastes like lobster, the bun tastes like butter, and the sauces enrich the lean meat. One thing is certain: This will be hard to beat.”
At this Cape Elizabeth shack, “the 180-degree view of the rocky shore is as impressive as the roll, which, bless them, is served with a dollop of mayo on top (or butter on the side). Just the right size, excellent bun.”
At this shack at the easternmost edge of Maine, near the Canadian border in the town of Eastport, Amy described the meat as “the sweetest we’ve had so far.” Even better, “the kitchen garnishes each roll with two prettily preserved claws.”
The roll at this popular shack in the southern tourist town of Kennebunkport boasts “big chunks of meat, claws, and tail.” Despite the fact that the roll is served on “a fluffy, buttery hamburger bun,” Amy had to admit it was still pretty great.
This up-and-coming Portland food truck with views of Cape Elizabeth Light serves its “Maine-style roll” dressed in mayonnaise and fresh chives. Sadly, the meat tasted too strongly of mayonnaise and the garnishes didn’t make up for that lack of sweetness.
On a similar “best lobster roll in Maine” quest nearly a decade earlier, this Wiscasset shack was Yankee’s top pick — and the traffic-jamming lines that snake from the counter every summer are a testament to its enduring popularity. But this time around, Amy found two problems with Red’s: While the sauces are served blessedly on the side, and the butter is poured from an old-fashioned enamel kettle into little plastic cups, the butter congeals as soon as it touches the cold meat. And these rolls are huge, much too big to bite into unless you remove half the contents. This drives the price up considerably (and Red’s takes only cash). But if you want tons of lobster and money’s no object, this is the roll for you.
Located at the base of Mount Desert Island, this shack, with its Instagram-ready wall of lobster buoys, is arguably one of the most picturesque in all of New England. After discarding the roll’s limp lettuce, Amy found meat that was wonderfully plump and tender, and a view to match.
The location (and large parking lot) in one of Maine’s busiest tourist towns takes away points for ambiance, but the perfectly griddled bun and blessed lack of lettuce or garnishes earned it a spot on Amy’s list.
This roadside Yarmouth shack, a local landmark since 1926, serves up a no-frills sweet-meat lobster roll. (Even better is the classic Maine-style peekytoe crab roll, which is so labor-intensive to make that very few shacks even offer them these days.)
This South Freeport shack is a lovely place, with plenty of water views and red-striped petunias in planters, but consider yourself warned: This Maine lobster roll comes with a very assertive strip of lettuce.
The lobster roll at this general store is a good size with tender meat and the perfect amount of mayo, but the French bread-style bun and extras (cucumber, lemon zest, chives, and lettuce) miss the mark. Plus, no good water view.
This quirky and beach shack in Harpswell is in a great waterfront location and serves the lettuce on the side, but Amy noted with disappointment that the meat had been “marinating in mayo to the point of indistinguishability.”
The diminutive Maine lobster roll at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland is so atypical, with its Chinese-style steamed bun and brown butter sauce, that it really needs its own taxonomy. But it’s too good to be ignored, so it’s included here. We’ve also got the recipe, so you can make one yourself at home.
The lobster roll is New England’s top culinary export, and Luke Holden, a third-generation lobsterman turned investment banker turned restaurateur, has made it his mission to spread the lobster gospel around the globe (there are currently 10 Luke’s locations in Japan). To supply the company’s 30-plus restaurants, Holden sources meat directly from Maine fishermen via his own seafood company, thereby eliminating middlemen and ensuring consistent handling and processing. At $17, the standard roll is reasonably priced by Maine standards and offers a taste of home to a homesick New Englander.
What’s your pick for the best lobster roll in Maine? Let us know in the comments below!