Thursday, August 24, 2017

Hollywood Lobster Roll: Cousins Maine Lobster

One day this spring, a strange black food truck showed up on Spring Street in Portland just below my office. I was accustomed to seeing various food trucks in this area, but this particular one was new to me. Then I took a closer squint at the thing and realized it was a Cousins Maine Lobster truck. I've heard of this company – mainly from its Shark Tank fame – but they were definitely new to the area... which seems odd to me since they're called Cousins MAINE Lobster. I'm sure you've heard the story... two cousins with Maine ties start this company in California in 2011, got a deal on Shark Tank, franchised the business and now have over a dozen trucks across the country.

So of course, I've been wanting to try this lobster roll since that day I saw it parked outside my office. And just my luck, the few times it's been there, I've had other plans for lunch. So when I spotted the familiar black truck at the Maine Brewer's Guild Summer Session beer festival, I was on that thing like a hobo on a hot dog.

They offer two choices for the lobster roll fans:

Maine Lobster Roll - $16.99
Maine lobster, served chilled, with a touch of mayo.
Served on a New England style roll.

Connecticut Lobster Roll - $16.99
Maine lobster, served warm, with butter and lemon.
Served on a New England style roll.

I picked the Maine-style lobster roll and it was definitely better than I expected. The meat tasted fresh and it came with light mayo. The mayo wasn't actually mixed with the lobster but squirted into the bun first with the lobster meat placed on top. At this point, I'm over the Connecticut style roll - I do love hot butter with my lobster roll, but that crustacean needs to be cold (which I've probably already said about a million times.)

The traditional New England split top roll was a tiny bit over toasted but I'll take that any day over an under toasted one. And there wasn't a ton of lobster meat piled in the roll... which normally would bug me, but since I was about two hours into an afternoon beer festival and eating from my lap, I was happy I wasn't constantly trying to corral lobster meat into its bun.

My first annoyance was with the price. $16.99 is generally not a bad price for a lobster roll but I went to their website and every one of their trucks around the country (that actually had pricing on their online menu) was LESS than the Maine truck. Now maybe I'm completely off base here but wouldn't you think that Maine lobster in MAINE would cost less and therefore the lobster roll prices would be less? I'm so confused by why my lobster roll was $16.99 and the one in Los Angeles is $15.50!

The other thing that annoyed me was the design of truck itself. It's plastered with Shark Tank crap and pictures of celebrities eating these lobster rolls. Here's a little hint... it's like the guy who thinks he needs to take the prostitute out to dinner. Mainers know lobster. We know lobster rolls. We don't need to be lured or wowed into buying a lobster roll just because a famous person liked it.

Having a picture of Ryan Seacrest on the truck isn't going to improve the taste – if anything we just find it tacky. Plus we're not fooled into thinking these celebrities actually ate at this particular truck. Maybe it's necessary for Phoenix or Dallas where they probably barely know where Maine is... but we're seasoned professionals up here. Don't insult us with pictures of your fancy friends.

So overall... good lobster roll, questionable price, tacky presentation. Just close your eyes when you order.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sheepscot Bay Lobster Roll: Five Islands Lobster Company

One of my favorite off the beaten path spots along the coast is Five Islands Lobster Co. in Georgetown. As you drive into Five Islands, at first you think, holy crap, am I driving down someone's driveway? But then you come up on the huge working lobster wharf and a sea of picnic tables and you think, holy Maine! Five Islands sits on Sheepscot Bay just as it opens up to the Gulf of Maine and is known as the "prettiest harbor in Maine." I would have to agree... it's pretty damn scenic.

There's not much better than sitting only feet from where your lobster is plucked from the ocean knowing that it hasn't been languishing in a tank for a few days. Not only can you get a lobster roll, but they serve up good old cooked (in salt water) lobsters and fresh locally dug steamer clams. On the day I was there, it was late afternoon and the third stop on a lobster roll filled day. It was fun to watch out-of-towners navigate the intricacies of extracting the meat from the reddened shell or how exactly to tackle those bewildering steamed clams. You almost want to just help them before they starve to death!
Lobster Roll
Freshest in Maine! We pick our own lobster meat daily, add just a touch of mayonnaise and serve it on a buttered grilled hot dog bun with lettuce.
Big Boy Lobster Roll
When you can't get enough, make it a Big Boy! We stuff twice the amount of lobster meat into a homemade potato roll for twice the fun!
Most of you would've guessed I went for the Big Boy – not this time (mostly because I was afraid of the potato roll)! This regular lobster roll was pretty good and definitely fresh. I enjoyed the briny flavor of a lobster picked directly from the ocean and cooked perfectly in salt water. While there wasn't a boat load of meat in this roll, the flavor of the lobster was delicious and the light mayonnaise was not overwhelming. Heck, I wasn't even sure mine had any mayo. And then there was that useless piece of lettuce that served no purpose at all and I'm just going to ignore. I really loved the salty lobster, but overall I think the rest of the sandwich could be improved.

The bun was weakly grilled – not buttery or golden brown. Since it says they serve it on a buttered grilled hot dog bun, I'm wondering if the butterer was asleep on the job that day. Five Islands charges $19 and serves the lobster roll with chips. You can pay extra for fries or onion rings but after three lobster rolls in one day, I was fine with the tiny pile of ruffled potato chips. The price wasn't too bad although, for a few dollars less, I'd go back to McLoon's every time!

Seating at Five Islands is plentiful but I found the picnic tables to be a little dirty and sticky. Like maybe they didn't have that one person who went out and wiped them down a few times during the day. Or maybe that person was sleeping on the job too. Also, if it's a hot day, there's not much for relief from the sun since there aren't many tables with umbrellas. They don't serve alcohol but you're welcome to BYOB!

I would still definitely give this one a thumbs up and say it's worth the short drive to Georgetown if only for that quintessential Maine view and the beauty of Sheepscot Bay. You could even swing in for some takeout and dine on the beach at Reid State Park just ten minutes away!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Perfect Lobster Roll Heaven: McLoon's Lobstah Shack

I think if I had to pick my favorite spot of the summer so far, it's McLoon's Lobstah Shack on Spruce Head Island in South Thomaston. When you hit the end of Island Road, you're treated to one of the most beautiful little spots – we were definitely blown away by this view. The family owned McLoon's is a small shack with a takeout window with the area's oldest working lobster wharf just next door. So you know these salt water critters have got to be the freshest!

The day we visited was picture perfect with a nice breeze and low humidity and thankfully McLoon's wasn't overly crowded. There's no actual indoor seating but they do have a tented area along with a selection of picnic tables with umbrellas and some without. We snagged the best spot they had to offer... a lone picnic table with an umbrella just to the right of the shack about as close to the water as they'll let you get. It's one of the few times I've found it acceptable to sit on the same side of the table as my fellow diner. But that view... there was no way you could sit with your back to it!

On this particular afternoon, McLoon's was the second of three lobster roll stops. When I told this to the girl who waited on me, she assured me theirs would be the best. The order here is simple...
Fresh Lobster Roll – A generous portion of sweet and tender tail and claw meat in a perfectly grilled roll with your choice of mayo or warm butter (or both!) Served with coleslaw, potato chips, and pickle
This lobster roll was definitely nothing fancy or flashy – just good ol' fashioned deliciousness. The bun was buttered and toasted to a golden brown. Seriously, that bread couldn't have been more perfectly prepared. I hadn't even taken a bite yet but could already tell I had something special in front of me.

McLoon's doesn't lie in their description of the lobster. While there wasn't the obscene amount of lobster like Red's, it was definitely a generous portion and it was sweet and fresh and just friggin' delicious! The roll comes with light mayo or butter or both and for the first time, I opted for both. My taste buds and I were both completely happy with that choice. The price is one of the lowest I've paid this year and for $16 you not only get one of the best lobster rolls you'll eat but cole slaw, chips and a pickle too!

And in case you're interested, McLoon's is a BYOB joint so don't forget your cooler. I asked earlier in the season if the view makes a lobster roll taste better. Not that this one needed any help, but it certainly didn't hurt... and man it sure does make it hard to leave that spot! Especially with a cooler of good beer sitting at the best table they have to offer.

Depending on traffic, McLoon's is an hour and forty minutes to two hours from Portland and makes for an excellent day trip up the coast. If you're crazy like me... make a couple lobster roll stops on your road trip! They're kind of like Chinese food and after you eat one, you're hungry for another an hour later.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Lobster Roll With a Side of Lobster: Red's Eats

I've lived in Maine my entire life and this was the first time I had ever dined at Red's Eats in Wiscasset. (I was beginning to feel like I should have my Maine-ah status revoked!) Located on Route One in the "Prettiest Village in Maine," Red's has been a seafood mecca for over 75 years. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to finally be sampling what some claim to be the best lobster roll in Maine! I've driven by this place so many times only to find a line that wrapped around the building and looked to be hours long so I was prepared to wait and crossed my fingers that I didn't waste time in line for crap.

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first... the way they operate immediately annoyed me. If you say you open at 11:30 am, and you have a line that stretches halfway down the block, you should OPEN AT 11:30! They were 5-10 minutes late opening... and I had skipped breakfast so I was extra hungry for this lobster roll.

We arrived in line at 11:20 am and finally made it to the window at 12:20 pm. Not horrible, but when I got to the window to order, I realized that there was one window for both ordering and picking up your orders. And there was one person taking orders and plating orders which caused a bit of a log jam in an already tight area. Seems to me if you cut another hole in the building and made a "pick up" window with a different person handing out the orders, that might make the line go a little faster. But I've never owned a take-out joint so what the hell do I know. Or maybe they want that constant line so the people driving by, slowing down and jamming up traffic wonder what the heck all those poeple are waiting for! It helped a tiny bit that the pleasant girl at the window apologized and thanked us for being patient.

Now to the good stuff... Your order is simple at Red's: LOBSTER ROLL. It comes naked, with a side of butter. The end.

When my number was finally called to collect my feast, I nearly skipped up to the window. Even the crowd of pushy people and giant dog under foot couldn't foul my mood. The first thing I noticed? A massive amount of lobster. Like so ridiculous you couldn't even see the bun. Too much lobster? Never! Anyone who says that's too much lobster clearly hates lobster. There was so much you couldn't even pick up the bun, so I had to kick a bunch of pieces onto my tray... hence my lobster roll with a side of lobster!

The traditional split top roll was grilled fairly well but not that buttery grilled I love so much and it was a little smushed. I guess that's to be expected when there are about 100 pounds of lobster meat jammed into it.

Piping hot Kate's homemade butter was served on the side. They have a tea kettle of butter going continuously and pour a side of it right before they hand you the tray. The cold, fresh lobster was chunked a bit bigger than I prefer but the meat was tender and I didn't feel as though I needed piranha teeth to bite through a piece. A recent CBS Sunday Morning story featuring Red's said they use the meat of a whole lobster in every roll. I don't believe it for one second -- I'm pretty sure there was more than that! And all for just $22! (The prices have come down quite a bit since the spring.)

We found a nice clean table in a shady area at which to enjoy our lobster rolls. The view is not half bad with the Sheepscot River visible through a sea of blue umbrellas. I recommend this joint as a stop on your way up Route One if you're not in too much of a hurry and don't mind standing in line.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Falmouth Lobster Roll: Foreside Tavern

I should've written this review weeks ago but I just couldn't bring myself to put pen to paper... or fingers to keys might be more accurate. The Foreside Tavern on Route 1 in Falmouth is not a restaurant I associate with lobster rolls and when I saw it on the menu, I briefly considered ordering, but then moved on to nachos... or something equally as hard to screw up. But then my two dining mates both declared they would be having the lobster roll. Maybe it was peer pressure but I caved, threw caution to the wind and ordered it.

Boy, was I sorry. This was probably the worst lobster roll I've had so far this year. I feel like I was drawn in by the promise of brown butter (and not wanting to be the only one at the table not eating a lobster roll), but I should've been scared away by the brioche.
Brown Butter, Brioche
The brioche bun was... distracting. It was grilled (yay) but it was SO bready that I couldn't actually taste the lobster (boo). To remedy the situation, I had to tear off about two inches of the bread and push the remaining lobster into what was left of the bun so I could taste the lobster. This might have been mistake number two.

The lobster was served warm with brown butter. I've only had a couple of lobster rolls where the lobster was served warm and I've come to the conclusion I prefer my lobster cold. If not prepared correctly when warming it up, guess what happens? The lobster dries out. Bleck! And what they called "brown butter" wasn't very flavorful and just made the lobster look dirty.

At one point, I started to think maybe I had consumed so many lobster rolls this summer that my taste buds had become lobster snobs so I asked my lunch dates if it was just me or was this roll not great. They both agreed with me so this is not me or my taste buds being picky.

Sadly, for the first time this summer, I didn't finish my lobster roll. The bread to lobster ratio was too high and I ended up eating the last few bites of lobster meat out of that dreadful roll because I wasn't about to leave lobster behind no matter what! The price was listed as Market and I don't actually know what they were charging, but whatever the price, I'm sure it was too much. Stick to the regular menu items here... it's not a bad place, just not the right place to for this particular meal.

After reviewing four consecutive sub par rolls, I'm looking forward to telling you all about some great ones so stay tuned!