For the second year in a row, visitors to states in the Northeast in 2017 including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut (minus Fairfield County, because those guys have already won the lottery of life) all have something special waiting for them in their local McDonald’s: The reintroduction of the chain’s cult-favorite “Lobster Roll.” From the 2016 press release:
“The return of the Lobster Roll is exciting for McDonald’s because it was such a hit with our customers last summer,” said Suzanne Pingeton, McDonald’s Marketing Director for the Boston Region. “We aim to deliver diverse, quality menu items that resonate with the customers in our community, and we’re proud to offer this regional favorite at such a great value.”
Before we go too far down this road, it seems important to outline my credentials. I grew up in midcoast Maine, arguably the lobster fishing capital of the universe, and have eaten probably hundreds of the mayo-soaked crustaceans in my lifetime, from real-deal mom-and-pop seafood shacks up and down the coast, for most of my life. I’ve also attended Tasting Table’s “Lobster Roll Rumble” competition in NYC, written about lobster rolls in my guide to eating in Maine, and judged the Boothbay Harbor “Clawdown” competition not once, but twice. I’m friendly with the folks who run the food truck that makes probably the best lobster roll in the country, and have written about downmarket lobster rolls for Serious Eats.
Look, I’m not trying to brag, because a person bragging about eating lobster rolls on the internet would be one of the saddest things of all time. I’m just saying: I’ve been intimate with more than a few lobster rolls, from the traditional versions dotting the seacoast to the hipster versions being served in Portland and points south.
So how does the “Lobster Roll” from McDonald’s compare? Frankly, I’ve had worse.
Let’s step back for a minute. I’m not trying to suggest, for even a second, that the $8.99 lobster roll being slung at the Golden Arches can possibly compare to a fresh-made lobster roll using lobster caught that morning, while standing on a rickety wharf in the middle of the woods as the sun goes down and the blackflies start to circle your ankles. But for a mass-market, mass-produced copycat? I expected much, much worse.
The McDonald’s lobster roll uses what the press release only describes as “North Atlantic” lobster meat. This is a little bit suspicious; if the lobster were caught in Maine, McDonald’s would have that fact plastered all over their marketing material, which leads me to believe that the majority of the lobster used in these rolls is of Canadian origin. For those of us with friends in the lobster industry, this poses some ethical problems, since lobster caught and or/processed in Canada and imported to the United States tends to wreak havoc on the economics of local product, but let’s leave those concerns aside for a minute.
The issue, taste-wise, is that the lobster meat is probably arriving frozen, being thawed at the local level, mixed with a refreshingly light touch of mayonnaise, and scooped onto griddled, cornmealed, buns with what can only be described as ungodly amounts of lettuce, both shredded and whole-leaf.
What’s wrong with using frozen lobster, you ask? Though it’s probably the only way that distribution for this kind of product on this scale makes sense, cooked lobster meat tends to suffer a little bit, once it’s been frozen and thawed. It loses much of its flavor and takes on a weird, kind of watery texture that’s not inedible, but when compared to fresh, succulent lobster meat, definitely shows its inferiority.
I tried two different lobster rolls from McDonald’s locations in two different towns, located about 40 miles apart. Both lobster rolls looked great, with a shredded lobster salad mixture (which I’m guessing weighed in at around two or 2.5 ounces) and a conspicuously placed claw. The rolls themselves are small, and the “filler factor” is huge here; as I mentioned earlier, there is more lettuce in this sandwich than anything else.
So why, then, am I lending a cautious recommendation to a lobster roll that features limp, watery lobster meat from Canada, served on a small bun with a fucking cavalcade of exploding lettuce shards that you’ll be digging out of your car’s upholstery for months?
First, the price. Lobster roll prices have gone crazy in the last couple of years, with lobster rolls at the most famous stands in Maine reaching terrifyingly close to the $30 range. That’s just stupid. It doesn’t matter how much you love steamed ocean bugs covered in mayonnaise and served on New England split-top hot dog buns; at some point, the cost-to-return ratio gets severely out of whack. I love a lobster roll (probably even more than most), but would I rather eat a double-cut dry-aged lamb chop with veal demi glace and roast fingerling potatoes, with a glass of bourbon? Uh, yes, almost every time. $8.99 gets the lobster roll back in the hands of the masses, which is where it started and where it should be.
Second is a question of simple nutrition. At a conservative 290 calories, the lobster roll at McDonald’s is probably one of the healthiest options on the menu. It weighs in at even less than a basic cheeseburger, which feels like a much less substantial meal, and certainly doesn’t feel as well-suited to the notion of “summertime” eating.
So, should you get one?
If you live in Maine, and can make getting a lobster roll a part of a larger memory, if you can wait with your family down by the wharf, can sit facing the ocean, smelling the salt, dipping your toes in the frigid Atlantic while you wait for that perfect combination of cool, freshly-caught lobster and warm, toasty bun, the kind that gives you a little kiss on the lips with every bite you take, then that’s one thing. Paying a premium price for a premium product, supporting one of Maine’s last remaining industries, AND building memories that you’ll carry forever is worth every single cent.
On the other hand, if your lobster roll experience until now has been limited to grabbing one at a strip mall Panera in a landlocked part of Connecticut, then who cares? Grab yourself a lobster roll from McDonald’s when the mood strikes. You’re probably getting a very similar product to what’s available locally, and you’re landing a perfectly decent lobster roll at a deliciously deep discount.