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December 08, 2009

The Lobster Roll-Off - Chapter I - The Clam Box

Lobster Roll Dominic Armato

So, my time in Boston grows perilously short. I couldn't hope to put a tiny dent in my hitlist over the next few weeks (especially since we'll be out of town for one of them). But I know three things. First, I've very quickly become totally enamored of lobster rolls and my time to enjoy them is growing short. Second, it's really easy to drag the little ones around to seafood shacks in the afternoon and my son has become a clam chowder fiend so he's happy to come along. Third, we haven't had a good sandwich-off around these parts in far too long. So really, what better way to spend my last couple of weeks in New England than stuffing as much lobster into my face as is humanly possible?... Anyone?... Anything?... Didn't think so.

Let's get this Lobster Roll-Off Started!

For those who have been hanging around since the early days of Skillet Doux, or who have clicked through the archives or some of the favorite posts listed to the right, waaaaaay back in 2006 I undertook a year-long survey of some of Chicago's more notable Italian Beef stands. I visited a dozen, giving them all a ranking (yes, I know, I just railed against this practice yesterday... read the intro to the final Beef-Off roundup for an explanation) and getting to know all of the little variations and quirks that make Chicago's most underappreciated foodstuff special. And though they couldn't be more different in terms of flavor, the parallels between the Italian Beef and the Lobster Roll are striking. Both are long, torpedo-like sandwiches filled with a pile of a central ingredient. Both treat that central ingredient in minimal fashion, attempting to bring out its natural best. Both are served all over the city, with a particular focus on quirky old joints and little run-down shacks that tend to specialize in the same. Both live or die based on very subtle differences in their preparation. Both inspire rabid devotion in their fans and hot debates over which is the best. And perhaps most importantly, both absolutely scream out the region from which they originate.

On that last point, perhaps it isn't an apples to apples comparison. The Italian Beef is unquestionably a Chicago institution, whereas the Lobster Roll is more of a regional thing that can be found in abundance in the Boston area. But the similarities were striking enough and the sandwiches delicious enough to inspire another madcap dash around the city, sampling as many candidates as I can get my hands on. Plus, I'm a newbie here. I only just sampled my very first lobster roll this year, and I figured an outsider's perspective might be interesting to those who grew up on this stuff. So here are the rules:

  • Time permitting, I will, once again, attempt to hit a dozen establishments (suggestions entirely welcome!), though obviously in a rather compressed timeframe this time around.
  • Comparing Connecticut/hot/butter and Maine/cold/mayo would be an apples and oranges scenario, so I'm sticking to the cold.
  • My thoughts will be based on a single visit, with the clear understanding that it may or may not be representative of the establishment's norm.
  • The rankings themselves are completely subjective, very, very personal, and not at all intended to be taken seriously. Though I'll judge them relative to one another, this isn't actually an objective quest for "the best", but rather an attempt to familiarize myself with the institution, note the personal highlights of a whirlwind tour, and do so within a fun and slightly irreverent framework.

The survey is already well underway, with more than half a dozen places under my belt. And since this post is already a little lengthy, we'll start off with an abbreviated entry, since it's one that I just wrote about last week.

Lobster Roll - The Clam BoxDominic Armato

The Clam Box's lobster roll is, to my understanding, pretty much a textbook example of the genre and, thus, the perfect place to kick things off. The lobster is a sizable pile, though not intimidating, a good mix of claw, knuckle and tail -- a seemingly decent if not exceptional value for the $15.25 price tag. It's very lightly dressed with mayo, but otherwise seems unadorned with celery or any additions other than one possible exception noted below. It's chopped to a medium consistency, with some large chunks, most notably the claws, left largely intact and a few little bits of shredded tail hanging behind. The bread is the standard split hot dog bun that seems common around these parts (even if the fact that there's no "crust" on the outside is a bit of curveball for this native Chicagoan), and it's lightly toasted but otherwise unadorned. There's a token leaf of lettuce lining the bun, which pretty much gets lost under the salad, but I wonder if it isn't an attempt to keep the mayo from soaking into the bread, thereby destroying its integrity. If so, it's a wise and deft maneuver. There's a part of me that almost wanted to say I detected the slightest hint of mustard mixed into the salad, which would certainly be a departure. But if there, it was so subtle that I'm more inclined to believe it was my imagination. Really, the best way I can characterize The Clam Box's lobster roll is minimal. Anchored by some exceedingly tender, fresh lobster, there is little here in the way of distraction. A fine sandwich, one I enjoyed, and an excellent benchmark by which to judge the rest of the 2009 Lobster Roll-Off class.

And with that, we're underway!

The Clam Box
246 High Street
Ipswich, MA 01938
Call for hours, closed on December 14th for the winter, reopening in February


Whee! This sounds amazingly fun, am looking forward to the future posts. As someone in the Boston area, I'm curious to see your "hitlist" of places to try, any chance you'd post it?

Awesome. Look forward to reading more of these.

I'll reiterate my vote for J.J. McKay's in Wayland. And though I've never had the lobster roll there, you should probably try Mt. Vernon Pub in Somerville, which is something of a lobster institution around Boston. (If someone in your party doesn't want a roll, their already cheap twin lobster deal is at $9.99 through tomorrow.)

having spent most of last year in boston, taking every possible trip up to maine, these were some v. tasty lobster rolls: the lobster shack at two lights, on cape elizabeth (provided you scrape off the extra blop of mayo on top, and remove the pickle slice before eating)...maine diner on route 1 in wells (and i LOVE getting the surf-n-turf (with salad bar!) and a blueberry martini at the bull-n-claw, pretty much right across the street)...bob's clam shack in kittery...

(side note (not lobster roll related): you might also enjoy joshua's, in wells (not so kid-tastic, but good food, local, nice night out), and also summer winter, in the marriott in burlington, ma. google! google google!)

but my very, very favorite lobster roll is karen's on-a-roll, on route one, just north of ogunquit. it's a truck in a little clearing on the east side of the road; there's a red-white-and-blue wood cutout of an uncle sam-ish man holding an "open" flag (if they are, in fact, open). a few picnic tables, with lobster traps in the middle by way of decor. my favorite clam chowder (v. v. hot!). SO GOOD!!!

I just can't believe you didn't do a "crab cake-off" while you were in Baltimore. Shame.

I lived in Boston for four years and I have to admit I didn't take advantage of the awesome seafood there enough (college really got in the way of that...) But on a recent visit, I had the lobster roll at James Hook and Co., and those I thought were very good. Union Oyster House also has a decent lobster roll, but I think you're paying more for the experience of eating at the oldest restaurant in America (big whoop) than anything else.

I did something similar this summer when in New England. Had some that were top notch throughout but the standout was on the border of Portsmouth, NH across the bridge in Kittery, ME.

Phenomenal place I came across called Bob's Clam Hut on the side of the road.
Unreal lobster roll and the scallop roll may have been the best thing I have ever eaten.

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