When I bought my first car in Maine, I was impressed by the array of license plate designs available, each intended to represent something essential about the state and its residents. There was the standard-issue pinecone-and-chickadee landscape, a twilight farm scene, silhouette sketches of adoptable pets, a loon adrift in a reedy marsh, even one where Bananas the Bear growled menacingly in allegiance to the University of Maine. A neighbor told me that he had once proposed an all-white version, with all-white lettering, to the DMV “to represent the snow we see for six months of the year.”

Although I was tempted by the style featuring a scarlet (pre-boiled?) lobster beached just beyond a tin-roofed fish shack, I did wonder, only half-seriously, why I couldn’t choose one stamped with what has become the state’s most iconic dish: the lobster roll.

Given their stature as the food that summer tourists seek out more than any other, it’s a little surprising that the state has so few businesses that focus on lobster rolls. Sure, you can find good ones at seafood shacks along the coastline, and a few pricey restaurants like Eventide or Scales serve excellent, soignée versions of the rustic sandwich. But until recently, a visit to a true roll specialist involved tracking down and waiting patiently in line at one of two mobile restaurants: The Highroller Lobster Co. cart, most frequently in residence at local breweries; or the Bite Into Maine truck, perched near Kitty’s Point in Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams Park.

In late 2017, the owners of both rolling kitchens debuted brick-and-mortar establishments, which meant that finally, their sandwiches would be available year-round, rain-or-shine or snow. Tight space in both means you may still have to wait for a seat – the Bite Into Maine Commissary in Scarborough seats a dozen people; Highroller’s Exchange Street digs can fit just over twice that. Still, diners seem to turn over their tables quickly, and personally, I’ll happily cool my heels if it means being able to snack on a lobster roll in the middle of a long, very white Maine winter.

BITE INTO MAINE COMMISSARY, SCARBOROUGH

“We buy our buns from Botto’s Bakery in Portland, and they have to be unsliced,” Sarah Sutton, co-owner and chef of Bite Into Maine, told me. “I like to do all the cuts to the exact depth of where the meat goes. I’m a little anal, a stickler for detail, and if it’s not cut evenly, one side can break off as you eat. So we do all 700 by hand every day because we really don’t like to take risks with expensive ingredients like lobster.”

Call Sutton’s approach cautious if you must, but it results in a roll that has been widely celebrated as one of the best in the nation. Bite’s classic Maine-style roll ($17.95) is almost architectural in its attention to balance among its few ingredients. First sweet lobster meat – claw and knuckle only, as long as supply from local lobstermen allows – which has to be mixed with cooling mayonnaise in precisely the right quantity and piled generously into the yielding center of a butter-toasted bun. With a million ways to get it wrong, Sarah Sutton and her husband, co-owner Karl Sutton, get it exactly right, every time.

Their lobster BLT ($11.95) is nearly as good, with strips of crisp, applewood-smoked bacon adding a saline crunch and smokiness to the sandwich. It, and the vegetarian Caprese sandwich ($6.75) – a riff on the mozzarella, basil and tomato salad – are served on crispy, toasted ciabatta buns that taste wonderfully like buttered croutons.

Not all of the Commissary’s dishes are quite as successful. I found the yellow curry powder in the curry lobster roll ($17.95) distracting, the turmeric and coriander flavors masking most of the lobster’s sweetness. The celebratory St. Patrick’s Day whoopie pie ($2.95), made with Guinness sponge and Bailey’s buttercream, was sticky and a bit too doughy, as if made with an overmixed cake batter.

While nothing was wrong with either of the two pre-bought soups I tasted on a recent visit to the Commissary – a haddock, shrimp and scallop chowder ($4.95), and a creamy, pink lobster bisque ($7.49) – nothing was terribly special about either, apart from the extra helping of lobster chunks Bite into Maine adds to the bisque just before serving.

It’s a shame, because Sarah Sutton and her team clearly know how to make side dishes. By far my favorite is their oniony potato salad ($2.95), which percolates with a subtle sweetness and a pleasing prickle of acid from apple cider vinegar. Order it if you visit the Bite Into Maine restaurant on a chilly day and you’re in the mood for comfort food, perhaps along with the lobster-filled grilled cheese ($11.95): two slices of griddled sourdough bread held together by a gooey, savory webbing of Fontina and sharp cheddar. You may not be able to see the Portland Head Light from the homey, country-cozy Commissary seats, but you won’t really care.

THE HIGHROLLER LOBSTER CO., OLD PORT, PORTLAND

“Basically, we do a twist on classic Maine staples,” Baxter Key, chef/co-owner of The Highroller Lobster Co., said as he described the concept behind his new restaurant. “A lot of people get offended if you put any flavors on lobster, especially unique flavors. But we like to play with possibilities that other people are too scared to, because it’s too much of a risk with such an expensive ingredient.”

Irreverent as their approach may be, Key and his fellow chef/co-owner Andy Gerry frequently find success in high-wire experimentation. One example is their fried lobby pop ($10), made by dunking a lobster tail in a batter of fresh buttermilk and cornmeal, then deep-frying it like a corn dog. Dipped into the housemade charred pineapple mayonnaise, it tastes like an Alice-in-Wonderland version of a state fair snack: I don’t know if it’s supposed to make me grow or shrink, but either way, it’s delightful.

Another unlikely, yet utterly winning combination can be found in the Surf & Turf burger ($20), a Jarlsberg-and-cheddar-topped ground-brisket patty, piled high with warm, freshly picked lobster meat. You won’t be telling your rabbi about this particular dish (and certainly not if you add bacon for an extra $2), but you’ll probably tell anyone else who will listen. Amazingly, it really is that good, especially slathered with the kitchen’s tart lime mayonnaise.

The offerings at Highroller Lobster Co. in Portland’s Old Port include a basic lobster roll and the Surf and Turf. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

It is also the sort of dish that would have been unimaginable in Highroller’s food cart, without the flattop grill in their spacious new kitchen. Key and Gerry have taken full advantage of the affordances of their brick-and-mortar space, expanding their menu to include new items such as crisp, Old Bay-seasoned French fries ($5), and even a gluten-free lobster bisque thickened with butternut squash ($10). I found the bisque too sweet, but loved the lavish serving of fresh lobster bobbing in the soup.

Highroller’s experiments with signature sauces don’t always pan out perfectly – their curried ketchup has too much curry powder, and their jalapeño mayo is less spicy than Green Goddess dressing – but by and large, their dishes do. Right down to their traditional take on crab rolls ($14) and lobster rolls ($17). Both are served in griddled brioche buns, absolutely heaving under the weight of the meat. Between them, the lobster roll is probably better, especially if you opt for the version dressed generously with toasted-lobster-shell-infused ghee (clarified butter).

And despite their careful attention to technique and quality ingredients, Highroller maintains an atmosphere that feels a million miles from fussiness. “We’re trying for a really fun, fast-food, ’70s/’80s skateboard vibe with neon and cool red-and-white linework murals on the walls,” Key said. The reality is a few degrees quirkier still: On one recent visit, I watched a kung fu movie play on the flat screen as I ate, and was twice offered rosé wine in a can. I opted instead for a draft beer, Lux ($6), produced by the restaurant’s business partners and former Highroller food-cart hosts, Bissell Brothers. I hadn’t walked in expecting to pair a citrusy, easygoing rye ale with a lobster roll, but I left grateful for happy accidents.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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