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Brian McGrory

Maine seafood shack owner claws to the top

The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Lisa Leavitt for The Boston Globe/File

The Clam Shack in Kennebunk, Maine.

To grasp the full magnitude of what happened in New York City that Thursday evening in June, you have to go back to the previous night in Kennebunk, Maine, to an ancient little restaurant called The Clam Shack that hangs perilously on the shores of the Kennebunk River.

Steve Kingston is the likable owner, and as such he’s a one-man force of nature — boiling, shucking, frying, cleaning. You name it, he does it, though the truth is, ­Jeni, his wife, does even more.

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Steve’s not exactly shy about the virtues of the food they serve, and for good reason. The fried clams were probably in the sand the previous day, the lobsters crawling in cold Maine water that morning. For these reasons and more, tourists and locals flock to his unassuming window to unburden themselves of any and all extra cash.

Kingston heard about an annual event last year called The Lobster Roll Rumble. Twenty of the best seafood restaurants in New York and beyond gather for a friendly competition in which 1,000 paying diners determine who serves the best of the best. Steve nosed around, and sure enough, an invitation arrived this past winter.

Like so many other things, this sent Kingston into a tizzy. Should he dare venture from the safe environs of Dock Square? Could he possibly compete against some of the most famed restaurants of New York and Boston? We’re not talking good restaurants, but great ones — B&G Oysters and the Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, just to name two.

Kingston hemmed, hawed, and accepted. Then he didn’t tell anyone for months. “I kept regretting it,” he said. “What if we went down and got humiliated.”

When he eventually put out the word, more than a few Mainers scoffed. “They’re dirty down there,” one craggy-voiced lobsterman kept telling him.

On the eve of the event, Kingston bought 800 pounds of local lobsters, and spent hours boiling them in the back of his shack and shucking them with his wife and four friends. The floor is made of creaky century-old wharf-boards, while the 100-gallon pot, probably 50 years old, sends plumes of salty steam in every direction.

They packed the meat into coolers and loaded it into the back of a rental truck, along with 1,000 fresh rolls from Reilly’s, a third-generation landmark bakery in neighboring Biddeford. And off they went, Steve and Jeni, the former fretting about their fate the entire way.

At the event, other restaurants had crews setting up their stations. Steve and Jeni Kingston had each other. Celebrity chefs were camera ready. Steve hadn’t shaved that day. Most restaurants had staffs. Steve had cardboard cutouts of Mike Reilly, Mike Cymbrak, and Eric Emmons – his baker, chief shucker, and lobsterman, respectively. “We couldn’t give them the day off,” he said.

An hour into the event, a diner casually said to Kingston, “You’re doing well.” At that point, Jeni realized there was a scoreboard with a running tally of votes, and The Clam Shack was in fifth place.

“There was buzz about their station right from the get-go,” said Kai Mathey, a spokeswoman for Tasting Table, the respected dining website and newsletter that sponsors the event.

An hour later, the Kingstons were neck-and-neck with last year’s winner, the venerable Luke’s Lobster of New York. And then everything went crazy. As other restaurants packed up, diners mobbed The Clam Shack table. Celebrity chefs jostled for their lobster rolls. The scoreboard kept clicking in their favor.

The final tally: The Clam Shack, 15 percent, the next closest competitor, 9.6 percent.

Kingston didn’t hesitate when asked what made his lobster roll so much better — the freshness of the lobsters, the salty ocean water in which they’re cooked, the locally made bread, the mere dab of mayonnaise, and the drizzle of warm butter.

Of course, now he’s just north of unbearable. “The King of the Lobster Roll,” he’s taken to calling himself. An entire town rolls its eyes — while waiting at his window.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.
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