FALMOUTH — It’s a cloudy Saturday afternoon on vacation, not quite beach weather, but not so dreary that we’re forced to stay inside. A perfect day to check out the pushcart we noticed recently, parked next to a tavern with a sign promising lobster rolls.
We are in town for my husband’s annual reunion with two high school friends. Brad has lived in Southern California for 25 years but comes to the Cape every summer with his family, and Mary still lives on Long Island near the town where the three grew up. As breakfast winds down, talk turns to lunch — or more specifically, where we should go for lobster rolls — and Brad hatches the idea of a “lobster roll-off.” We will stop at six places, buy one at each, bring them back to the house, and rate them on taste, value, ratio of lobster to roll, price, and other intangibles. We quickly start to take this very informal exercise quite seriously.
Our first stop is the The Barking Claw pushcart we had our eye on. The friendly owner, Bill Swain, loads the roll, and we tuck it into a cooler. Next: Bean and Cod, a shop and cafe in Falmouth Center. Because parking is impossible, only two go in to procure the goods. Co-owner Stephen Vannerson wraps it up.
Then to the Clam Shack on Falmouth Harbor. In a light sprinkle, there is a sizable line out the door, but a little rain won’t keep this important player from the lineup. Now to the frenzy of Woods Hole. Impossible parking. We divide and conquer. Three of us head to different destinations. I’m tempted to delete points from Quicks Hole for making me wait nearly half an hour. Meanwhile, Brad is at Landfall Restaurant, and Mary, who has traveled across the drawbridge to The Phusion Grille, returns quickly with the largest haul.
At the house, we cut up the rolls, and pass Cape Cod potato chips as palate cleansers, along with an occasional sweet potato fry that came with the Landfall order. The rolls are at a slight disadvantage because they’re meant to be eaten on the spot, not cooled down.
While some might argue that there are no bad lobster rolls (I’m looking at you, Brad and Mary), the Barking Claw roll is a unanimous favorite, 4 ounces of “guaranteed hard-shell” knuckle and claw meat in a toasted split-top roll lined with romaine, then drizzled with melted butter, over meat and bun ($14). The lobster is sweet and firm with a definite, but not overpowering, buttery flavor. The bun has cooled, but it too is soft and buttery, complementing the shellfish. And based on our value ratio, it is a relative bargain.
The Bean and Cod roll is a close second with its toasted, buttered Pain d’Avignon hot dog roll filled with 3 ounces of knuckle, claw, and tail mixed with mayonnaise, celery, and lemon juice ($19.95). It has suffered a bit in transit; the bread, no longer warm, seems slightly dry. But the amount of mayonnaise is perfect, enhancing, rather than hiding, lobster flavor.
The Clam Shack is 6 ounces of knuckle and claw with mayonnaise, in a buttered and toasted hot dog bun ($16.25 or market price). The Landfall version has about 4½ ounces of knuckle and claw with celery, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and white pepper, in a buttered split roll ($20). Both are very good, classic exemplars, but both taste like somebody in the kitchen has a heavy hand with mayo.
The Quicks Hole, 5 ounces of knuckle, claw, and tail with basil, mayonnaise, and lemon, stuffed into a buttered and toasted torpedo roll, topped with pea greens ($24.95), has too many distracting flavors. And it’s hard to manage, with lobster spilling out. All agree that the delicious pea greens have no place on a lobster roll.
The Phusion roll, 7 to 8 ounces of knuckle and claw with mayonnaise, sour cream, tarragon, and lemon juice in a buttered and grilled brioche bun ($21), nearly drowns out the lobster flavor and tastes artificial.
In our scientific tasting, simple won out.
Not that we would turn down a lobster roll in any form.
Bean and Cod, 140 Main St., Falmouth, 508-548-8840
Clam Shack of Falmouth,
227 Clinton Ave., Falmouth, 508-540-7758 (closed until Memorial Day 2014)
Landfall Restaurant, 9 Luscombe Ave., Woods Hole, 508-548-1758
Quicks Hole, 6 Luscombe Ave., Woods Hole, 508-495-0792
The Barking Claw, Woods Hole Road @ Grumpy’s Pub, Falmouth, 774-487-1510
The Phusion Grille, 71 Water St., Woods Hole, 508-457-3100
Andrea Pyenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.