I had my first taste of a lobster roll as a kid on a family road trip with my parents. Like many other of our Chinese immigrant friends, road-tripping as a family was a big deal. It was for one, cheap. And two, it was my parents’ way of seeing ‘Murica in all of its splendor and getting a does of culture. One summer, traveling in style in our ’94 Dodge Intrepid, we did a loop of the New England states, delighting in cheap roadside dining and cooling off in motel pools along the way.
While passing through Maine, we drove by a roadside stand advertising outrageously cheap, fresh seafood. Doubling back, we decided to eat there, despite the fact this place was called a “shack.” Lobster is a luxury for a typical Chinese family. So when my parents and I were each presented with what looked like a hotdog bun heaping high with chunks of lobster meat, already pulled from their shells, our eyeballs nearly jumped from their sockets.
I remember the lobster itself tasted mildly of the ocean, and sweeter than any crabmeat or shrimp I’d ever had, but also meatier in texture too. It had a richness–from the buttered bun and mayo dressing–that was a rare treat for me, because my parents never cooked with butter or mayo. I’m not sure my parents enjoyed it as much as I, but that lobster roll certainly left an impression on me, not to mention buttery fingers.
Now in my adulthood, hoping to relive that first roadside experience, I try to order a lobster roll whenever I see it on a menu. I’ve had the gamut of really good versions to stomach-turning ones. Like with any regional specialty, the lobster roll is, arguably, a dish that’s probably most authentic and best from where it originates–New England. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to find a true Maine lobster roll half a world away here in Tokyo at Luke’s Lobster.
Adjacent to the first floor of the Journal Standard in Harajuku on Cat Street, Luke’s Lobster is one of the latest culinary brands brought to Tokyo by the lifestyle/retail giant Baycrew’s Group. Luke’s is an American chain of fast casual restaurants best known for its Maine lobster rolls and other seafood (crab and shrimp rolls) and sides. With a sizable presence in NYC (about 10 branches), Luke’s also has locations along the east coast and Chicago.
Depending on your hunger level, for ¥980 you can get a “Japanese size” lobster roll, or a “U.S. size” for ¥1580. Both sizes use the exact same size bun (about 6 inches); however the U.S. size uses lobster meat from a whopping 5 lobsters (that’s 4 ounces of meat) while the Japanese one, from a mere 3 lobsters (about 2.5 ounces). No, not the entire lobster. Luke’s only uses the claw and knuckle meat, which tends to be the sweeter and more tender portions of the crustacean. Both the lobster meat and rolls are directly from local sources in Maine.
Making the decision between how many lobsters (3 or 5) to sacrifice for the benefit of my lunch was not a difficult one. I frickin’ love lobster. So, I decided to splurge on the U.S. size. I even upgraded to a meal for a total of ¥1980, which includes a pack of kettle chips and a soft drink (ginger beer for me). Daaaamn that’s me, Miss High Roller. But seriously, this is way more than I typically like to spend for a lunch for myself, and obviously I am not eating lobster rolls everyday (although I have entertained this idea…). So what the hell, I went big.
Taste: The lobster was delicately sweet and briny, although I wished it had been more sweet. But, given the distance it traveled (from Maine), it’s completely understandable the meat would not be as sweet as fresh-caught (lobster looses its sweetness as it gets less fresh). But, it was still a very fresh tasting lobster. What also attributes to the pure taste is the lobster is not dressed in mayo or any other mix-ins, like chopped celery or onion. The meat is unadulterated, with just a hint of lemon butter and salt, and a dash of dry seasoning (pepper, thyme, and oregano), served slightly chilled. Only the bun had a smidge of mayo. Much appreciated on a hot sweltering day! Very refreshing.
The texture was tender and meaty. Luke’s lobster is hand-pulled and left in whole pieces, rather than chopped. Each bite was rather satisfying and had a good mouthfeel, like eating freshly-picked lobster.
The bun was a traditional top-split roll, buttered, and lightly griddled on the outside for a golden, crispy crunch. The bread itself had substance to it – chewy and hearty like an artisanal bread, without any chance of falling apart beneath the weight of the lobster.
Purists will love this lobster roll, but others who prefer more mayo-dressed lobster meat will probably find this version too simple. I for one, really prefer having lobster that tastes like lobster, and not mayo.
Presentation: “For here” orders can expect to be handed their lobster roll cradled in a sheet of wax paper, with no basket or tray. Considering the lack of tables and very limited bench seating here, a basket would have been nice to balance a sandwich, chips, and/or slaw on my lap.
Value: To be honest, I was disappointed at the small size of the lobster roll. Even by U.S. standards, this would be considered a small-to-medium sandwich. It took me about 6-7 bites to finish the entire thing, leaving me sad and wanting more. While nibbling on my chips, I contemplated getting back in line to order a second roll, but by this time, the line had grown much too long for my patience. Not sure I could justify spending ¥3500 on lunch either.
And although some may balk at the price tag of ¥1580 for just a sandwich, these prices come in considerably cheaper than Luke’s U.S. prices. Here’s a cost comparison of the same lobster roll in U.S. v. Japan:
Ok, before I get lectured on the fact that you can’t compare prices like this between U.S. and Japan without taking into effect factors like per capita, exchange rate, blah blah blah… realize that you are paying for top quality ingredients. Not to mention, shipping costs, import taxes, and novelty factor. Few other restaurants are serving lobster rolls in Tokyo of this quality and cost (compare the lobster roll offered at T.Y. Harbor, for ¥2800).
The bottom line: the lobster roll is on the small side, but is great quality, and prices are very fair.
Ambiance: Styled after a dockside seafood shack, the restaurant is a walk-up counter where you place your order, pay, and grab a number to be called. Though Luke’s is decked out with themed props to achieve that nautical feel, the ambiance does not feel gaudy or over-the-top. Alongside the counter is wooden bench seating, for about 15-20 at most. Certainly not intended for slow dining, be prepared to be stared at by the folks in line if you decide to park yourself on the bench, or just go stand in the shade and enjoy your roll in peace. It’s a quick meal- a few bites and you’re done.
Crowds: I recommend going on a weekday as soon as Luke’s opens at 11am. The line starts forming and grows after 11:30am. Although it’s a small kitchen, sandwiches are assembled quickly, so wait times are pretty reasonable.
While no lobster roll has attained that first lobster roll yum status, Luke’s version does find itself at the top of my list. And it hits the spot if you are craving good shellfish. I probably won’t be going to Luke’s every week, but just knowing the option is there to get an authentic Maine lobster roll in of all places, Tokyo, is a cool idea, and a testament to the growing globalization of regional cuisines. Whether the lobster roll is a hit with the Japanese, kudos to Luke’s for keepin’ it real.
Luke’s Lobster, 6-7-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo