Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Best Lobster Rolls in Portland, Maine

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Who serves the most delicious burrito in San Francisco? The best lobster rolls in Maine? Welcome to Taste of the Town, where we call on a local expert to share the absolute best versions of their city’s most iconic food.

It doesn’t get more Maine than a lobster roll. And Portland, a maritime hub and center of the state’s dining scene, is where you’ll find the highest concentration of excellence. Whether you grab-and-go from a no-frills food truck or sit down at a fancy restaurant on the waterfront, enjoying a lobster roll (or two) while you’re here is a must-have experience.

The lobster roll’s origin story is a murky one, though its New England roots are clear. “Lobster salads”—chilled lobster meat with egg yolk, oil, vinegar, and mustard on a bed of shredded lettuce—began popping up in regional cookbooks as far back as the 1800s. The first official roll is usually credited to a Connecticut spot called Perry’s, which started serving them hot with butter (what’s now known as “Connecticut-style”) in the 1920s. But as the concept spread up the coast, a chilled mayo-y version emerged, harking back to the original lobster salad. Now commonly referred to as “Maine-style,” this type of lobster roll features mayonnaise-dressed meat that’s lightly seasoned with tarragon and celery and served on a split-top hot dog bun with flat, grillable sides.

In Portland, this classic Maine-style roll still reigns supreme, but restaurants aren’t afraid to experiment. You’ll find lobster rolls served cold or hot, on steamed bao or flaky laminated pastries, bathed in butter or curry-flavored mayo or even yuzu kosho. The only rule is that they must contain real, fresh lobster meat—ideally caught just steps away from where you’re scarfing them down.


a variety of lobster rolls on a trays

Lobster everything at Highroller.Photograph by Greta Rybus

Highroller Lobster Co.

104 Exchange St.
What started in 2015 as a food cart has since become a beloved sit-down restaurant in the city’s Old Port. The space exudes a punk rock meets In-N-Out vibe: red-painted tables, Adult Swim on the TV, and a life-size skeleton watching over diners. During the day you’ll find a mix of tourists and locals on their lunch breaks; come nightfall it’s a watering hole for Portland’s restaurant industry workers, which is how you know it’s great. Menu options range from a traditional split-top roll with your choice of sauce (the roasted pineapple mayo is a standout) to the adorably named Lobby Pops (buttery, warm cooked lobster on a stick). If you have room, try the Surf and Turf, a burger topped with butter-drenched lobster meat, or the lobster bisque—it’s one of the best in Portland.


The Lobster Shack at Two Lights

225 Two Lights Rd., Cape Elizabeth, ME
Situated between two lighthouses, this rustic seaside shack boasts the kind of coastal views that inspired local artists like Winslow Homer. The line is long almost every day in the summer, but don’t worry, it moves quickly. The Lobster Shack keeps things simple: split-top bun, chilled lobster meat, just a dollop of mayonnaise, and a pickle slice on the side, which lets you really enjoy the sweetness of Maine’s official crustacean. Snag one of the highly Instagrammable red picnic tables and wander on the rocks below while you wait to hear your number called. And be sure to finish your meal with a slice of their famous blueberry pie.


Chef de cuisine Hannah Ryde plating a lobster roll in kitchen.

Chef de cuisine Hannah Ryder plates a lobster roll in a buttery, croissant style bun at Twelve.Photograph by Greta Rybus

Twelve

115 Thames St.
Colin Wyatt, the chef at this upscale waterfront restaurant, spent years in New York City working at famous spots like Eleven Madison Park before returning home to open Twelve. And nowhere is this storied career more evident than in his lobster roll. Here, the lobster meat is served warm with butter, but the classic bun is replaced with a beautifully flaky croissant-esque roll. A collaboration between Wyatt and pastry chef Georgia Macon, it’s a study in rich flavor and texture, and it proves the lobster roll’s rightful place on a fine dining menu. Reservations for Twelve can be hard to snag, so if you can’t get one, try walking in for a bar seat. And don’t forget to top off your meal with a chocolate sundae, served with decadent miso caramel and Urfa pepper.


J’s Oyster

5 Portland Pier
Nestled on the working waterfront, where you can watch local lobster harvesters bring in the day’s haul, this iconic blue-and-white bistro has been a neighborhood fixture since it first opened in 1977. A favorite of Anthony Bourdain’s, it’s the kind of place where you might sit shoulder to shoulder with the actual lobsterman who caught your lunch. Kick off your meal with a cheap beer and an order of steamers (a local delicacy of soft-shell clams that the friendly staff will happily show you how to clean and eat), then move along to the lobster roll. Here the tender meat is completely unadorned and piled on top of a grilled split-top bun with a leaf of green lettuce—and the mayo comes on the side, thank you very much.


Brown Butter lobster roll on blue background

The famous brown butter lobster roll from Eventide, served on a steamed bao bun

Eventide Oyster Co.

86 Middle St.
Though it’s been around more than a decade, this James Beard Award-winning raw bar and restaurant still draws lines out the door before it even opens each day in the summer. But the food is absolutely worth the wait. Start with some raw seafood like halibut ceviche or bluefin tuna crudo, then get to the main event: the Eventide Brown Butter Lobster Roll. The meat is bathed in a cooked-down blend of powdered milk and unsalted butter and served on a steamy house-made Chinese-style bao bun. It is so popular that other places in town have tried to replicate it, but nothing else comes close.


Bite Into Maine

Fort Williams Park
Nestled beside the city’s oldest and most iconic lighthouse, the Portland Head Light, this humble food truck has been posted up in Fort Williams Park for over 10 years. The rolls here are geographically agnostic. Choose Maine Style with mayo and chives; Connecticut Style with just melted butter; Picnic Style with coleslaw, butter, and celery salt; or a trio of flavored mayonnaise options: Wasabi, Chipotle, and Curry. Can’t decide? Opt for the lobster roll flight, a mix-and-match combo of three mini rolls. Then lay out a picnic blanket on the grass and feast in the sunshine.



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