Singing the praises of S.F.’s best lobster rolls 

click to enlarge Split-Top Maine Lobster Roll, served with a side of french fries and a side of cole slaw, from Woodhouse Fish Company in San Francisco - GODOFREDO VASQUEZ/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Godofredo Vasquez/special to the s.f. examiner
  • Split-Top Maine Lobster Roll, served with a side of french fries and a side of cole slaw, from Woodhouse Fish Company in San Francisco

For us New England transplants, lobster rolls sit on the same precarious pedestal as a New Yorker’s cheese slice or a Texan’s slow-cooked brisket. We’ll swear blood oaths to our favorite seafood shacks and savage any bistro that defiles the form.

It’s a basic formula: hot dog bun lightly grilled in butter, packed with chilled knuckle and claw meat, lightly dressed in mayonnaise. You can stray a bit from the canon — celery is acceptable — but don’t get fancy, mister. This is street food, so leave your brioche and herbes de Provence out of it.

God bless seafood-obsessive San Francisco, 3,000 miles from the Maine coast, for its startling abundance of lobster rolls. I recently sampled four of The City’s most buzzed-about rolls, and present my findings to you, ranked low to high.

 

4) Anchor & Hope:

 

I’m typically a fan of this airy downtown seafood spot, but its lobster roll was flaw-riddled and disappointing. The bun was portioned from a long slab of sweet pullman loaf, a hearty departure from the light, spongy standard. A more serious offense was the lobster’s soupy mayo bath. Lesson One at lobster roll school: Too much dressing ruins everything. The mayo was a house-made lemon aioli, gussied up with Old Bay, parsley, tarragon and chives, but no matter. At $25 for a 4-ounce roll, this kind of misstep was inexcusable.

3) Sam’s ChowderMobile:

 

Sam’s roving ChowderMobile has given countless Bay locals their first taste of the lobster roll, and they could do worse. Sam’s makes a "Connecticut-style" variant of the standard roll, in which the lobster is served hot and butter is used in lieu of mayo. This isn’t how I was raised, but I can take pleasure in the basics: huge chunks of buttery claw meat, with a handful of celery bits for texture. I only wish Sam’s lobster tasted fresher. The roll I got was fairly priced ($16.16), but the accumulated food miles, or too much time in the truck, had taken their toll.

2) New England Lobster Company:

 

New England Lobster flies live lobsters directly from Maine; you can visit some feisty specimens before your lunch. The meat on the roll was Atlantic-fresh, and the strict loyalty to tradition was refreshing: the lightest touch of mayo, with chilled, unadulterated claw and knuckle meat on a lightly grilled bun. With a price of only $15.50 (not much more than you’d pay in Maine), this one nearly took the crown. It’s well-worth eating your roll in a dusty South San Francisco industrial park.

1) Woodhouse Fish Co.:

 

Woodhouse also had the good sense to barely tweak the standard Maine roll, allowing the meat to take its rightful place on center stage. This roll beat out New England Lobster Company’s on small nuances: first, the bun, specially created for Woodhouse at La Boulange, was just a smidge lighter, sweeter and more flavorful; and second, the house-made aioli, though used sparingly, was notably creamier. At $17 for a small, $25 for large, prices were decent. And for absolutists who balk at the pinch of chives, try "hold the chives."

Note:

Waterbar makes a nationally ranked lobster roll, but it was unavailable at the time of my review. Nettie’s Crab Shack supposedly makes a good one too, but I found the $35 price tag unreasonable.

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Jesse Hirsch

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