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Eating my way through Chicago's lobster rolls was part pleasure, part pain. I'm always up for eating lobster, but it seems like many Chicago restaurants serve it in ways that mask the crustacean's flavor. I don't want to find chunks of lobster in my mac and cheese, topping pizza or in tacos—lobster should be served simply or not at all.
When it comes to lobster rolls, since I grew up closer to Long Island Sound than to Maine, I am in the Connecticut-style camp, which means I prefer my lobster rolls to be served warm with butter on a toasted bun. That's not to say that I don't love a good Maine lobster roll, when the meat is bound with just a hint of mayo and maybe a little spice.
Over the past couple years, Chicago has embraced lobster rolls. Today there are dozens. So when it came time to assess Chicago’s lobster rolls, I needed a plan. I ate every lobster roll I could find at seafood restaurants, plus other versions I found especially promising. I order one whenever I spot one on a menu on town, and in all, I've eaten more than 20.
While I was impressed, on the whole, with the buns that restaurants were using, the majority of the lobster rolls had too much going on. I ate lobster swimming in drippy mayo. I ate what can only be called lobster salad, which had more vegetables than meat. I ate lobster rolls with shriveled, desiccated meat, doused in butter to cover it up, and some that were too large to pick up and eat—to eat lobster rolls, you use your hands. And I even ate a lobster roll topped with a whole claw, in which the hard cartilage was still present.
"I am eating a lobster roll topped with shredded lettuce," I texted my mother at one point.
She told my dad, and he called me.
"I hear you aren't having very good lobster rolls," he said. "Don't they know they just need butter or a little mayo?"
He’s right, and the lobster rolls that make my list are the simplest versions out there. While some of have extra, unexpected ingredients, they never overwhelm the lobster, which is the main event in all of them. No, there's nothing as good as eating a lobster roll right on the ocean in New England, but if you can't be there, these are the next best thing.