This rapidly growing fast-food chain is bringing Maine lobster to the masses
Hollis JohnsonJun 16, 2016, 09.03 PM
Lobster has successfully clawed its way to the fast-casual market.
Luke's Lobster, the chain founded by Luke Holden in 2009 to rectify the dearth of affordable, good lobster rolls in New York City, is clear proof of that.
With 19 locations in seven states and Washington, DC, Luke's Lobster's mission to bring quality Maine lobster to the masses is running smoothly.
Luke's is even looking westward, recently opening stores in Chicago and Las Vegas.
As a steadfast New Englander, I'd like to think I have some grasp on what makes a good lobster roll. So I decided to head over to the nearest Luke's to find out for myself if this is truly the cheap yet authentic experience that is intended.
Luckily, there's a Luke's a few blocks from our office, at 25th St. and Broadway.
The space is small, with a rustic Maine coast vibe. Think lots of weathered wood, with some corrugated metal thrown in for an edge.
The menu is short and to the point: three rolls, two huge sampler options, some soups, some sides, and some sweets. You can also order the rolls in half sizes as well, for roughly half the price. The cashier was extremely patient and friendly considering my lengthy hemming and hawing over what to order.
The seating is sparse, and doesn't really jive with the decor theme well. But so far, just a trifling gripe to have.
Now this is the kind of New England kitsch I'm used to: buoy art and grainy prints of lobster boats. They've really nailed the wall art here — pun unintended.
Cookbooks with recipes from Luke Holden himself are available as well – he's a native Mainer, so I assume his word is good on real Maine food.
There's a charming board announcing the lobster sources. Luke's works directly with the lobster fisherman for supplies to ensure quality and sustainability.
My order arrives rather quickly, brought out to my seat in under six minutes — now that is impressive. The feast consists of: a lobster roll, a crab roll, a cup of clam chowder, a side of coleslaw, and a bag of chips as well as drinks. Definitely make use of the combo deals on the menu.
Luke's carries Maine Root, a fair-trade soda company based in — if you can believe it — Maine. The blueberry soda is a favorite of mine. It's sweet, but the blueberry flavor has a slight tartness to it as well, like real ripe blueberry off the bush.
Luke's also offers some drinks of its own, like the blueberry lemonade. It's tart, with just enough sweetness from the honey added to keep it light. The blueberry taste was very subtle, however, bordering on absent.
First to try is the clam chowder. Admittedly, I'm very picky about clam chowder — as one should be, in my opinion.
The first spoonful left me unimpressed; it's saltier than I'd like, and not in a briny way that would be acceptable. Yet somehow, with every spoonful, it gets better — the clams are large and plentiful, and the consistency is thick and hearty but not too viscous.
On to the coleslaw, which is ultimately forgettable. The dressing is very weak, to the point where it seems to be a cup of shredded cabbage with pepper. Definitely not the best — but given that it's Luke's Lobster and not Luke's Coleslaw, it's a minor infraction.
Of course, the main attraction makes up for the slaw stumble. The lobster roll, at $16, isn't cheap in comparison to similar fast-casual meals, but it's quite cheap for a good quality lobster roll.
The simple bun is toasted and buttered, which is very important. Butter and lobster is a match made in heaven, and toasting it adds a crunch and makes the bun more stable.
A sprinkling of "secret spices" dusts the top, with a slight bit of mayo and lemon butter. The lemon butter is a perfect touch, as it adds some acidic clarity to the rich lobster taste.
While many lobster rolls rely on mayonnaise as filler in an attempt to skimp on lobster, this roll does no such thing. It's all lobster, with a swipe of mayo.
Just look at this hunk of claw. Luke's does anything but skimp on lobster meat, meaning every bite is filled with the rich, smooth, distinct taste of lobster, perfectly complemented by the tangy whisper of lemon butter and a crisply toasted bun. This roll is, in a word, delightful.
The crab roll is less so. While it's not a failure, there's less going on with it in terms of flavor. It's generously stuffed with shredded crab meat and sprinkled with similar seasonings.
However, the lemon butter doesn't cut through the depths of flavors as efficiently as with the richness of the lobster. If anything, the crab gets lost a bit when the buttered bun comes into play.
In terms of texture, the crab roll is less satisfying as well. The shredded crab isn't as gratifying a thing to bite into as the tender yet firm lobster meat.
And of course, no New England lobster roll feast is truly complete or authentic without a bag of Cape Cod kettle chips on the side. Some say they're too crunchy and hard, but I swear by them.
I wasn't expecting as authentic a New England experience as I found at Luke's; the lobster roll is a sacrosanct tradition, after all, and good lobster is hard to find.
But with strong connections to their sources in Maine and beyond which keeps costs fairly low, it seems Luke's is poised to bring a truly authentic lobster roll to the rest of the country. And I, for one, am happy for that — everyone deserves a wicked good lobster roll.