Mayonnaise-based lobster roll at Old Port Lobster Shack. (Trevor Felch)
San Francisco is Dungeness crab territory — there’s no doubt about it. Whether it’s steamed, in a cake, part of chowder, or layered in a cheesy melt sandwich, our beloved Pacific coast crab is the Crustacean King in these parts.
However, you’d be forgiven for thinking that lobsters have clawed their way to the top of the shellfish world in San Francisco, based on how many New England seafood shacks specializing in lobster rolls have opened around the Bay Area. People really love their lobster rolls and aren’t afraid to pay the average $25-$35 price tag for buttery or mayonnaise-enriched lobster morsels in an oversized fluffy bun (since when was there a rule to have more bun than meat?). With the opening of Luke’s Lobster this fall, we decided to check out the wildly different lobster roll renditions at the handful of options in the Bay Area serving them.
We learned a few things:
Butter or mayonnaise — it doesn’t matter. What matters is the moderation because there are several lobster rolls that get overpowered by butter or mayonnaise.
The bun matters. Way too many lobster rolls have buns that are too big and you end up tasting more bread than lobster.
Above all, the meat matters. Our favorite lobster rolls had a nice variety of lobster chunk sizes, ranging from tiny shreds to substantial chunks. What is vital, though, is the lobster meat’s briny sweetness and tender, clean texture. Stringy, bland lobster meat need not apply.
San Francisco is notoriously averse to chains, which makes Luke’s Lobster’s decision to make the city’s FiDi/SoMa area its first West Coast home a very peculiar one. Its location on Second Street is in the midst of all the Sales Force Transit Center/Sales Force Tower construction chaos that supposedly will be ending soon. It’s also curiously about 30 steps from another lobster roll favorite (more on that place in a later blurb).
However, despite those challenges, Luke’s is without question very good at doing what they do. After all, the concept began nine years ago as a small solo spot in Manhattan’s East Village and has bloomed into 42 locations — from Japan to Miami to Las Vegas and much more — according to their website listings. Despite the size, Luke’s locations always tell customers where the seafood is coming from, and they focus on partnering with local businesses, like Marine Layer for t-shirts in San Francisco or fellow SoMa neighbor Blackhammer Brewing for a lobster shell and kelp saison that was brewed for the store opening (and will hopefully return again).
The roll itself is generally ordered as part of a trio with a crab one and shrimp one, hence it’s decidedly cheaper and smaller than the significant majority of its peers. Luke’s size and power has a benefit in that the company can directly work with its owner fisherman partners in Maine and the Atlantic coast of Canada. So, the meat is indeed far better than you’d expect if simply told you’re visiting a fast-casual lobster roll chain.
The lightly toasted split-top bun comes from the East Coast and is pleasantly not out of proportion to the quarter-pound of lobster meat. This is the rare both slightly mayonnaise, slightly butter-based lobster roll and they kind of cancel each other out — you don’t notice either. There is a small smear of mayonnaise on the bun and a touch of butter mingling with the lobster meat. That makes for a slightly boring lobster roll experience but also one that unequivocally focuses on the meat itself. If you don’t want an over the top lobster roll and just want pure, sweet meat with a little bit of bread as a serving vessel, this rendition is your best bet in San Francisco.
The most well-known lobster rolls in the Bay Area come from the duo of maritime/nautical themed Woodhouse Fish Co. locations, created by the same family who owns the intensely eclectic Buck’s of Woodside. There is all kinds of seafood to choose from — cioppino to fried Ipswich clams to Baja-style fish tacos — but the majority of diners make a beeline for the two sizes of split-top lobster rolls. The decision between the two simply depends on how hungry you are (the large for $38 can be a bit much for one comfortable sitting; the small for $23 might require a few oysters and clams to help fill you up).
Guests have the option of having a plain butter lobster roll but the house specialty is a mayonnaise-based roll. Don’t flinch when we say this — if you like tuna salad or chicken salad sandwiches, this is the lobster roll for you. It’s definitely the most mayonnaise-heavy of the ones we tried and that works wonderfully in tandem with the diced celery mingling with the lobster chunks, chives flecked over the top, and the lemon on the side waiting to be squirted on everything. That latter element is a brilliant addition because the acidity brings out more of the natural briny flavor of the lobster.
The lobster itself is terrific as a nice blend of claw, chunky-textured and thinner strands of meat. You get it all and it’s pleasantly not spilling out of the fluffy, not overbearing bun. This can actually be eaten like a sandwich. Call it the lobster salad sandwich.
For lobster rolls, sometimes simpler is better. For Mitchell Rosenthal, the Executive Chef/Owner of FiDi/SoMa seafood destination Anchor & Hope (and Stock & Bones Restaurant Group siblings Town Hall and Salt House), a lobster roll is all about, well, the lobster. His world-renowned chef mentor shared that belief: “When we were Executive Chefs at Postrio, I remember when Wolfgang Puck responded to other chefs using a lot of ingredients on a lobster roll, and he said ‘why do you want to cover gold?’ I carry that same ethos, the star of the show is incredible lobster and a great bun.”
The restaurant ships fresh lobster in from Maine four times a week, which explains for the consistent quality of the meat. Rosenthal also emphasizes the “mouthfeel” of a lobster roll, which diners may not notice at Anchor & Hope until they think about that concept. You can actually get one bite of Panoramic Baking pain de mie, medium-sized morsels of lobster (Rosenthal isn’t a fan of giant chunks of meat) and a little moisture from aioli or butter, and have everything be in harmony. Of all the lobster rolls we tried, it’s the most “textbook” lobster roll. If you were at a beach shack in Kennebunkport, this is what you’d expect, minus the hot dog bun.
Anchor & Hope guests can opt for drawn butter or a subtle Old Bay and lemon aioli, and after trying both, we can attest that it’s strictly a matter of personal preference. If you’re a giant Old Bay fan, you might not feel a bit let down since the classic Baltimore crab seasoning doesn’t have a commanding presence, but does nicely enhance the seafaring umami profile of this aioli.
There is no avoiding two unique traits about the lobster roll at the Big Night Group’s gorgeous FiDi seafood spot: there is uni butter involved (!) and it’s $35. Sure, lobster rolls are inherently expensive because lobster is a luxury commodity. But, yes, $35 is a lot of money for one sandwich no matter how you spin it.
Here’s the good news: it’s a fantastic lobster roll. In Leo’s early days after opening in, I found the lobster roll underdressed, the lobster meat itself to be somewhat pale and the whole ensemble way too dominated by bread. Things have changed drastically for the better. The glamour of uni butter isn’t quite what it sounds like. It’s not like a few uni slabs are marinating the lobster meat. It’s like a low humming saltwater spritz to the superb Maine lobster meat nestled inside a slightly toasted Acme brioche roll that has more in common with a fluffy brioche doughnut than the dense, ultra-buttery brioche bricks often found at bakeries. Of all the lobster rolls, this was one of the few perfect sized ones. Bonus points should be awarded because you can choose between fries, salad and chips.
Redwood City is not just the “Climate Best by Government Test” city, a reference to its eccentric welcoming sign. It’s now the Lobster Roll Best by Taste Test city, too. Originally, this article was going to focus exclusively on San Francisco, but many passionate lobster roll voices raved about Old Port Lobster Shack in Redwood City. We now understand why.
A hybrid lobster shack-BBQ restaurant in a Redwood City shopping plaza isn’t exactly where you would initially expect a standout lobster roll to be. We’re definitely not talking about a weathered beach shack on the rocky Atlantic coast here. However, once you grab an outdoor table and the lobster roll arrives, it doesn’t matter where you are.
This is a massive roll with a spectacular amount of lobster meat spilling out. You cannot possibly have more than one bite holding the composition before it starts making a mess. For those who debate whether a lobster roll is a sandwich or not, then here’s a strong case as to how it isn’t technically a sandwich. The meat had a gorgeous sweetness to it and was very lightly dressed with mayonnaise, speckled with a couple green onions that contributed more in appearance than any herbal flavor. Each lobster morsel was tender — no strings or weak pieces. Of all the lobster rolls, this one had the most vividly “lobster flavored” lobster, as if it truly was just steamed and picked from the shell. This was a big lobster roll with even bigger excitement as well. It’s a lobster roll that we’re pretty sure even the most experienced Maine seaside shack goer would approve of.