Lobster roll at Poor Phil's, photo David Hammond

Lobster was once trash food, used by Native Americans for bait to catch better food, fed to prisoners and the enslaved in the early American colonies. Lobster in those days was super-abundant; people got sick of the stuff.

Now, of course, lobster is luxury food, and it’s hard to imagine ever getting enough of it.

In the Midwest, the most common preparation for lobster is simply to boil or steam them and then serve them with butter that’s been heated and skimmed. This drawn butter, pure butterfat, is all the condiment most people add to lobster.

On the East Coast, where lobster is plentiful, the lobster roll is a popular preparation, usually just the lobster meat, mayonnaise, parsley, celery (salt or chopped stalks), salt and pepper, mixed together and laid into a lightly toasted, buttered bun that’s split on top rather than along the side. It used to be a little challenging to find lobster rolls in the Midwest, but now they’re on many menus.

In the past month or so, I’ve eaten lobster rolls at a good number of places, including  Da Lobsta, The Original Island Shrimp House, Bounce Sporting Club, and Parlay at Joy District and, of course, Oak Park’s own Poor Phil’s.

Mary Murphy, General Manager of Poor Phil’s, told us, “We had an employee visit Washington, D.C., and she saw this food truck serving lobster rolls. There was a line a mile long. She got them to give her the recipe! We add a little wasabi, which really makes the flavors pop.”

Based on this painstaking research – I ate all the lobster rolls so that you don’t have to (grin) – I’ve have come to some conclusions about what makes a good lobster roll.

Lobster meat. Lobster rolls can come with the lobster meat in chunks or shredded; I prefer chunks, but those chunks must be tender and, ideally, abundant. Da Lobsta serves lobster rolls with chunks of lobster, which we much prefer. The Original Island Shrimp House really loads in the lobster, which is also good because there should be lobster in every bite. Poor Phil’s lobster was also chunky and perfectly tender, which is exactly what we’re looking for.

Seasoning. The spices added to lobster rolls are traditionally spare, but I prefer them a little more seasoned; Parlay did a good job of seasoning the lobster with tarragon (an herb that works well with seafood), and the wasabi that Poor Phil’s adds to the mix is a great idea, though I would have preferred more wasabi and less mayo.

Bun. A hot dog bun or a French roll are sometimes used for the lobster roll but using the traditional East Coast bun makes the meal more special, and the density of this bun helps the sandwich hold together under the weight of the lobster meat, mayo and other ingredients. Places like Bounce and Poor Phil’s all use the iconic roll, which is much appreciated.

June 15 is National Lobster Day. Celebrate with a lobster roll – it requires less work than pulling apart a lobster in the shell, and when prepared correctly, it can be even tastier.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...