Our coast is one of the few places where a “shack” is a good thing.
The definition here has less to do with the quality of the structure than the atmosphere and location, denoting a funky little place at the shore. Usually, a funky little place at the shore with a deep-fryer, a takeout counter, and plastic utensils.
One of our favorite lobster shacks is Bob Lobster, a roadside stop halfway between Newburyport and Plum Island, right in the middle of the salt marsh.
More than a decade old, Bob Lobster is clean, sturdily built and well lighted, unlike the inland definition of a shack. It’s also friendly, informal, and home to some of the best seafood in town. And unlike a good number of the other seafood shacks you’ll run into, it stays open through the winter, albeit on reduced hours.
Proprietors Bob and Joyce Hartigan open Thursday through Sunday from Columbus Day to Patriots Day, and a good portion of their business comes from the retail fresh-fish counter, which also offers steamed lobsters for 50 cents per pound over the live price and “take-and-bake” items like lobster pie.
Bob has been lobstering for 30 years, the menu informs diners, and the lobsters here come from his traps off Plum Island. When possible, the other fish and shellfish are also locally sourced.
For a lot of folks, the draw is the fried clams, steamed lobsters, and other plates served up for take-out or eat-in.
In the summer, the small parking lot is thronged with locals and tourists alike, most of whom opt for one of the outside picnic tables overlooking a tidal inlet. There you can sit in the sun and enjoy a lobster roll ($12) while enjoying the view across the Great Marsh all the way to Ipswich. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some takeoffs and landings, either by planes at the nearby Plum Island Airport or by egrets, herons, and other birds that make the neighborhood their home.
In the winter, it’s a bit quieter and you’re limited to the restaurant’s dining room, which consists of a handful of picnic tables in a small side room.
On a recent night, four of us started out with a shrimp cocktail ($9), which included a dozen or more medium-large shrimp and cocktail sauce. It was fine, but nothing special.
More exciting was my fried shrimp dinner ($18 with fries and slaw), which included mountains of sweet, good-sized shrimp that had been battered and fried but not overfried.
Our other big eater ordered a side of fried oysters ($15). These were big, rich-tasting shellfish, not for the faint of heart, and the color of the coating indicated the kitchen knew they needed some extra time in the deep fryer.
His wife had the plate of the night, a fried lobster dinner that is usually $22 but was on special for $16, with chunks of deep-fried lobster meat, a whole lobster’s worth it seemed, sweet and tender inside its crisped batter, with a cup of melted butter for dipping. Watch that specials board when you come.
We don’t usually get the plain steamed lobster here, as we’d rather buy them still kicking from the counter and cook at home. But options start at a pound-and-a-quarter lobster dinner ($17 with fries, slaw, and melted butter). First-timers should probably start their education with Bob’s Clam Bake, featuring chowder, steamed clams, and a one-pound steamed lobster for $24.
The folks at Bob Lobster know their way around a deep fryer. The fries are the thick kind, golden on the outside and soft inside, not skinny Golden Arches style. As for onion rings, instead of a few strings of onion inside hunks of crumbly batter like you get a lot of places, the ratio here is more even, so they actually taste like onion.
Usually the non-fish-eater in our group chooses the hotdog over the chicken fingers and makes a ho-hum face. But this time, she discovered the pulled pork sandwich ($8) on a bulkie. The meat was sweet and tangy, and the portion large enough to take home half for lunch the next day. Big thumbs-up.
A bonus is dessert: Richardson’s Ice Cream from Middleton, which is available from kiddie size ($2.50) to large ($3.50). They have vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and a rotating cast of other flavors available in a dish or sugar cone.