Summer is road-trip season, so we're taking a culinary tour of America. But because Portland is a city of immigrants from other states, we don't have to leave town to do it. We're traveling to 50 Portland restaurants to try one distinctive food from each state. Our 50 Plates tour continues with a lobster roll from Maine, which joined the union on March 15, 1820.
The state: Once an enclave of grizzled seafarers and French fur-trappers, these days Maine is generally understood by Oregonians as a craggy New England backwater that exists only to confuse non-Oregonians when you tell them you live in Portland. “Which Portland?” they ask. Refrain from bricking them over the head with a pair of L.L. Bean duck boots; they mean no harm. While our Portland is jokingly referred to as the nexus of retired twenty-somethings, the American Time Use Survey shows that gainfully employed Mainers spend the least time working in the entire country. Is the East Coast rat race wearing you down? Migrate north to “Vacationland” and spend your golden years existing in a real-life Thomas Kinkade painting! Like Stephen King, Maine’s modern literary wunderkind, many Mainers are, unfortunately, deranged Red Sox fans. Which is to say they are not to be informed of Kinkade’s best coast origins lest you’re ready to be strangled with the sleeves of their squall jacket.
The food: Let the barbarians of Chicago and the Jersey Shore fill their buns with nitrate-enriched beef product. In the maritime state of Maine, it’s lobster you’ll find atop that doughy hot dog holder. While its origin story traces back to a joint in Connecticut called Perry’s, Maine’s roadside food stand version is wicked simple: a heap of juicy lobster bits, doused in butter and served cold on a toasted roll. Slight variations on the theme include dashes of mayo, celery or scallions tossed in the mix, but the lack of heat is the real determinant of origin. Eating a king’s ransom of cold lobster may feel like a crime, but you’re far more likely to be incarcerated for the public indecency of licking buttery entrails off your Red Lobster bib than for eating it off a cheap white hot dog bun.
Other dishes considered and rejected: New England-style clam bake, Acadian buckwheat pancakes, chicken fricot.
Get it from: The lobster rolls of Portland, Maine, may win in terms of authenticity, but our own Portland purveyor is the unequivocal champ when it comes to bikeability. Located on the Spring Water Corridor in Cartlandia, Main Street Lobster serves lobster rolls two ways: chilled with mayo and herbs or sautéed with butter, herbs and lemon. If $14 seems steep for a lobster hoagie, make an afternoon out of pulling apart lobster tails and tell me how that goes. You’ll gladly pay someone else to do it for you, and now you’ll have an appreciation for the work owners Cathy Evanson and David Beavers put into the thing. And then before you know it, you’re eating a lobster roll while biking in to the sunset—an impossible feat with lobster in any other form.
Click on the map to see each state's distinctive food and where to get it in Portland.