Having spent time out of nearly every summer of my life driving up and down the New England coast in search of the next great seafood shack, along with a stint as an oyster-shucker and lobster roll-stuffer in Boston, I'm pretty darn picky when it comes to fried clams, chowder, and lobster rolls. And you wanna know the truth? Most lobster rolls in New York don't pass muster, with meat that's chopped too small, the wrong type of bun, or—worse—too much mayo (a cardinal sin in Maine). After having tasted rolls from nearly every shop that specializes in them, here are my three favorites.
All three do it right. Their rolls nail that simple balance between buttery bun (top-split New England-style, of course) and sweet, fresh lobster meat that tastes of lobster, not mayonnaise or dressing. Any of these rolls would be worth a detour in a drive along the New England coast.
Lobster is pricey. There's no way around that. But some rolls offer better value than others. If you're the kind of person who measures the value of their meals in ounces and dollars, we've got you covered: I snuck along a secret scale with me to weigh the amount of lobster meat you get in each order (I weighed only the meat and whatever dressing clung to it, not the roll or condiments).
When Luke Holden arrived in New York from Maine in 2007 to start a career as an investment banker, the son-of-a-lobster-man noted that at the time, most lobster rolls in the city were served on white tablecloths with a $30 price tag. That's a far cry from the paper plates and picnic tables that are typical of lobster roll joints in their native Maine. He quit his job and opened up the original East Village location of Luke's Lobster, a small walk-up restaurant with a few stools serving a tiny menu of rolls and chowders, all at about half the price of what anybody else was doing at the time.
It worked, and Luke's has since expanded to over ten locations around the city. Their rolls are made with sweet claw and knuckle meat served in a top-split griddled bun with nothing but a thin swipe of mayo and a sprinkle of lemon butter, along with a shake of their "special seasoning." I'm always skeptical of spice blends like this, but theirs actually works, enhancing the meat rather than distracting.
At just $13, their Crab Roll is also a crazy good bargain. I like to come in with two people, order one of each, and split them both down the middle.
Value: These lobster rolls come in at nearly exactly 4 ounces of meat for $15, giving Luke's the best value of any roll I've seen in the city: $3.75 per ounce of lobster. That's cheaper than even most of the roadside shacks in Maine. How do they do it?
Red Hook Lobster Pound
Red Hook Lobster Pound uses only tender claw and knuckle meat in their rolls, saving the tail meat for other lobster-centric dishes like lobster mac and cheese, lobster elotes, and a couple of different lobster salads. This is a good thing—claws and knuckles are sweeter and more tender. The rolls come in three varieties: cold with mayo (Maine-style), warm with butter (Connecticut-style), or "Tuscan" (tossed with a basil vinaigrette). All are stuffed into buttered and grilled top-split hot dog buns, sprinkled with a touch of paprika, and served with a fat Brooklyn Brine pickle. If you're the type who doesn't appreciate any greenery marring your lobster, ask for it without the shredded lettuce.
With giant bubbling lobster tanks, live lobsters offered by the pound, and picnic table dining, the original Red Hook location is just about the closest you'll get to a real New England lobster shack without having to drive up the coast, though you'll also find their rolls offered at their new East Village location, their stand at the Barclay's center, in Montauk, or their two mobile trucks in New York and D.C.
Value: The two rolls I ordered weighed in at just under four ounces of meat apiece, giving this $16 roll a value of $4.21 per ounce of lobster meat.
Ed's Lobster Bar
Ed McFarland cut his lobster chops at the Pearl Oyster Bar, though the roll he serves at his eponymous Soho lobster bar is quite a bit different from the mayo-slathered roll they serve at Pearl. Made with sweet chunks of tail, claw, and knuckle meat dressed with just a touch of mayo and piled into a buttery top-split but, this is the most lobster-iest tasting roll you'll find around, though the tail meat can occasionally come out a little tough.
Traditionalists might balk at the red wine pickles in place of bread and butter (does anyone in New York serve b&b pickle chips?), the fries instead of chips, or the—gasp!—real plates, but there's no faulting the roll itself. Besides, real silverware along with a full menu of wine and beer means that Ed's is the only pick of the three that's casual enough for a quick bite, but fancy enough to take a date.
Value: at a whopping 6.2 ounces this was by far the largest lobster roll I tasted, though at $29, it was also the priciest coming in at $4.67/ounce. That said, the platter also comes with a big pile of near-perfect french fries.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.