The toasted bun was heaped with succulent chunks of Maine lobster meat slicked with clarified butter and flecked with celery bits, salt and pepper. It was love at first bite.
That lobster roll was our first, served at Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay, and was indicative of the classic New England sandwich – simple in concept, stunning in flavor.
“We serve between 85,000 and 100,000 lobster rolls a year,” said Sam’s executive chef and partner, Lewis Rossman, who came from the East Coast to open Sam’s eight years ago. “The lobster roll catapulted our success.”
The made-to-be-messy lobster roll is an East Coast specialty whose fans obsess over its tradition and insist on fastidious preparation, but it’s much more about mystique than mystery. After all, it’s simply lobster on a hot-dog bun in two styles – in chilled-salad form (Maine-style) and as butter-drenched chunks (Connecticut-style). Its monumental stature as a regional delight may puzzle the uninitiated – until they taste one.
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Though the lobster roll continues to make inroads into the California dining scene, it’s not easily found on menus in our area. That’s why we’ve taken to making it at home, and you can, too. But first, let’s take a boat ride.
What is it?
It’s the tail, claw and knuckle meat from the American lobster (a.k.a. Atlantic or Maine lobster), cut into pieces and made into a chilled salad, and served on a grilled hot-dog bun. The hot version is more favored by purists; it’s the meat alone, buttered and plopped on a bun with more butter. Sometimes there’s crossover, and a touch of mayo and a sprinkling of spice mixture can top off the the hot version. Potato chips and dill pickle are traditional sides for both.
Lobster salad includes mayonnaise with an and/or list of other ingredients, depending on who’s making it – celery, chives, cayenne, tarragon, chervil, flat-leaf parsley, fennel, cucumber, lemon juice, kosher or sea salt, celery salt, ground black pepper. Some versions call for lemon aioli, lemon-butter sauce or lemon pepper. The New England Lobster Co. in Burlingame offers options of bacon and/or avocado, a California twist.
The lobster roll is hardly haute cuisine, but it is part of New England’s culinary culture, just as smoked brisket is in Texas and the bratwurst is in Wisconsin. It’s served everywhere, from beach-side shacks to upscale seafood emporiums.
Its origins aren’t precise, but food historians credit the original clarified butter-drenched version to Perry's restaurant in Milford, Conn., in the 1920s. The cold-salad version could have been concocted in the mid-1960s at the Lobster Roll restaurant in Amagansett, N.Y., becoming a sensation in neighboring states and quickly appropriated by Maine as its own.
American lobsters were once so commonplace that coastal American Indians in the Northeast used them as fish bait and fertilizer. In colonial times, they were considered “poverty food” that was served to indentured servants and prisoners. At the time, harvesting them was the simple task of wading into the water and bending down.
Now lobster is considered a high-end, special-occasion dish, with restaurant sales spiking on Valentine’s Day.
“The allure is the splurge factor,” said Brad Van Mierlo, the Northern California sales manager for Pacific Seafood. The company distributes “several hundred pounds” of lobsters a week to restaurants and stores in the Sacramento area, he said, mostly “chickens” weighing a pound to 11/2 pounds.
In a fishery valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, live wild American lobsters are caught in baited traps, hand-harvested, distributed nationally and sold year-round at seafood markets and supermarkets ($11 to $13 a pound in Sacramento, but prices vary with availability). Ten states along the Eastern Seaboard have lobster fisheries, but Maine harvests 80 percent of the nation’s supply, according to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
Lobster-centric mail-order companies abound. One of the most popular, www.lobsteranywhere.com, sells a “lobster roll kit” that makes “six to eight overstuffed rolls” for $129.
Sure, you can spoon your lobster salad or chunks of hot, buttered lobster into a hot-dog bun, kaiser roll, torpedo roll, brioche or croissant, but you’ll be cheating. In New England, a lobster roll isn’t genuine without a split-top bun with flat sides, a refinement of the common round, side-split hot-dog bun. The flat sides are easier to grill, and the topside split makes the bun easier to fill. Hey, it’s a regional thing.
The only local bakery we know that makes the New England-style bun is Grateful Bread. If you want to assemble something as close as possible to a real lobster roll, call baker-owner Joe Artim with your order two days in advance. He’s making them in soft and firm styles; supplies are limited; 2543 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento, (916) 487-9179.
Another good choice is the artisanal hot-dog buns at the Village Bakery; phone in your order a day ahead; 814 2nd St., Davis, (530) 750-2255.
Where to get it
We called around, with some luck. But note that the prices quoted will change as lobster supplies fluctuate. At Matteo’s Bistro, the lobster roll is served as a small-plate special at lunch and dinner, with white truffle-asiago shoestring fries ($12), and as an appetizer during happy hour ($7); 5132 Arden Way, Carmichael, (916) 779-0727, www.pizzamatteo.com.
Look for the lobster roll as a lunch special at Ella Dining Room & Bar (rock shrimp are mixed in) and in open-face style during its happy hour ($15). Available now until the end of August and likely beyond; 1131 K St., (916) 443-3772, www.elladiningroomandbar.com.
The venerable Rudy’s Hideaway offers its lobster roll with more than a quarter-pound of Maine lobster “sauteed with a pinch of celery and served on a toasted soft roll with drawn butter and mayo on the side” ($19; 12303 Folsom Blvd., Rancho Cordova; 916-351-0606, www.rudyshideaway.com). Its roaming food truck, the Cruzin’ Crustacean, also serves the lobster roll.
We were surprised to find a lobster roll at the New Haven Pub & Grill in the foothills in Pollock Pines, made on a now-and-then basis. “We can sell 20 in a day,” said manager/server Stacey More ($18, 6396 Pony Express Trail, (530) 644-3448.
We also found lobster rolls at the two Woodhouse Fish Co. locations in San Francisco ($18 and $26; www.woodhousefish.com) and at the New England Lobster Co., in Burlingame ($17.50; www.newenglandlobster.net).
Farther afield, former New Jerseyites Kim Locker and her family rocked Southern California a year ago when they opened the lobster-roll specialist Lobster West in beachside Encinitas ($13 to $16 www.lobsterwest.com).
Corti Bros. Market is selling “lobster” salad ($15 a pound), using crayfish from the Tahoe Lobster Co., which harvests the crustaceans from Lake Tahoe ( www.tahoelobstercompany.com). In the deli, hot or cold crayfish sandwiches are $9, served on split-top buns from Grateful Bread bakery. Live crayfish are $10 a pound; 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, (916) 736-3800, www.cortibros.biz.
HOW TO COOK A LOBSTER
Cooking and cleaning lobsters are parts of the lobster-roll mystique, but can be messy and tedious. The effort seems more worthwhile, however, as the bowl fills with luscious meat. We dare you not to pick out pieces as you go along.
If you don’t want to bother, we have a Plan B: Consider the 2-pound package of frozen Maine lobster meat ($22) from Sunh Fish seafood market, 1900 V St. Sacramento, (916) 442-8237, or find the company on Facebook.
If you’re a purist and want to cook lobsters in your kitchen, here’s how:
To prep live lobsters, the syndicated cooking show “America’s Test Kitchen” recommends chilling them in the freezer for a half-hour to sedate them and “make it easier and safer to maneuver them into the pot.”
To boil lobsters, Bon Appétit magazine offers this:
Place live lobsters in a deep stock-type pot, pour water to a depth of 1 to 1 1/2 inches. Bring to a boil and salt generously. Add lobsters, cover and cook until they’re bright red, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer lobsters to a rimmed baking sheet and let them cool.
Bon Appétit’s ultimate lobster rolls
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Warm, toasty, buttered rolls are key. If you can’t find New England-style buns, trim 1/4 inch from both sides of standard hot dog buns to remove the crust and create flat sides, exposing more surface area for grilling. Recipe from the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen.
Three1 1/4 pound live lobsters
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
2 to 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Freshly ground black pepper
6 New England-style split-top hot-dog buns
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
After lobsters are cooked (see sidebar, Page D5) crack the shells, pick meat from tail (remove the fibrous intestinal tract), claws and knuckles, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces.
Mix lobster, celery, lemon juice, chives, and 2 tablespoons mayonnaise in a medium bowl; season with salt and pepper and add more mayonnaise, if desired.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Spread flat sides of buns with butter. Cook until golden, about 2 minutes per side; fill with lobster mixture.
Do ahead: Lobster meat can be prepared one day ahead. Cover and chill. Toss with remaining ingredients just before serving.
Per serving: Calories (kcal) 450; fat (g) 7; saturated (g) 2; cholesterol (mg) 200; carbohydrates (g) 29; dietary fiber (g) 1; sugar (g) 3; protein (g) 63; sodium (mg) 720