How Many Lobster Rolls Can Brooklyn Eat?

Twenty-four purveyors shelling out 1,200 rolls apiece. That’s a lotta lobster. Here’s what happened when the lobster-roll rumble came to town

Probable claws: Of course, a lobster-roll extravaganza must have its mascots (Photos by Arden Phillips)

How do you like your buns?

Buttered? Toasted? Soft ’n’ squishy? Potato brioche or foccacia? Crusted with “everything” seasoning? Dense and toothsome or light as a summer breeze?

Figure that out and then let’s talk toppings. Lemon mayo, perhaps? Sesame? Fennel, celery, chives, dill, parsley, Old Bay? Your sandwich can be an Eden of accoutrements, if you want it to be.

But then the most pressing question of all: How do you like your lobster? Poached in Kerrygold butter? Brown butter? Garlic butter? Regular butter? No butter? Warm? Chilled? Dressed with basil pesto and whipped burrata or swaddled in black truffle oil? The world is your lobster.

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The rolls were dainty enough that participants could try a whole lot of them

If you thought there was only one way to make a lobster roll, you, like me, are a dummy. There are at least 24 ways, as evidenced by Tasting Table’s annual Lobster Rumble, a friendly competition between the best shellfish slingers in the country. Last night, they came from Washington D.C., they came from Maine, they came from, well, Brooklyn, to take over the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint and stuff silly these lobster fanatics (and people who gravitate to an open bar).

Did I go to this event knowing I would be seduced, cajoled, eventually stricken by a dull stomachache from consuming so much lobster? Did I anticipate there would be 1,200 people there, some of whom traveled across the country, to prove their lobster-roll obsession? Did I know that I possessed a second stomach devoted entirely to brioche? No, dear reader, I did not. Because, clearly, I know very little about lobster.

Tasting Table’s thrown this event for seven years, though this is the first time it’s descended on Brooklyn—and it brought out the crowds. (Disclosure: I’m a frequent writer and editor for Tasting Table.) 

lobster rolls

Vendors at the rumble came all the way from California and Maine. A dozen were hometown merchants

Clustered around high-top tables, strangers compared notes. “You try Claw Daddy’s?” “Not yet, you get to Luke’s?” One Tasting Table reader tells me she saw the Rumble announcement in her inbox. So she asked her husband, “You wanna go to Brooklyn and eat lobster rolls?” He said sure. So they flew from San Francisco for a long weekend. After their lobster feast, they planned to hit up Gramercy Tavern the next day.

They didn’t feel out of place at the event, she said. Not too old. Because here, in the cavernous expo center, the humble lobster roll is the great equalizer. “It’s the perfect highbrow-lowbrow food,” said my friend Ravi, who also flies out from San Francisco for the rumble every year. People who aren’t going to order lobster at, say, the dining room at Gramercy Tavern can still enjoy the indulgence of the beachside version. But squint and the whole thing has the casualness of a hot dog.

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Full-transparency cooking: diners could watch their rolls being expertly assembled

Perhaps that’s what drew so many repeat customers to try offerings from recognizable names like Burger & Lobster, Quality Eats, the Mermaid Inn, and Brooklyn’s own The Crabby Shack and Red Hook Lobster Pound. What’s prohibitively expensive elsewhere (and there was drama at the summer’s start of a *gasp* possible lobster shortage) becomes an all-you-can-eat crustacean orgy.

The sheer volume is enough to turn the least discerning palate into Pete Wells. My first roll was fantastic. (They were all bite-sized, by the way, no full-length monsters here.) But four sandwiches in and I started muttering about mayo viscosity and the integrity of buns.

Perhaps I should be easier on these hard-working folks. Take the Maine Lobster Lady, who outlined the challenges of feeding so many Brooklynites. “We live on an island,” she says to me. “We had to schlep all the rolls to the island, cut them, then schlep them back, and then get them here to New York—and that’s just the buns!”

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Extra points for presentation: casual yet precise with the garnish

Later, I see a couple sitting at a picnic table with the full two dozen from the night displayed in front of them, a beautiful assembly line of cholesterol.

The entire show reminded me of Las Vegas buffets. (Caesar’s Bacchanal is the best in that city, by the way.) Quantity typically trumps quality in these events, but what happens when you’re given both? You keep eating.

There were other tools for distraction—open bars serving Nolet’s gin cocktails, a photo booth with a working swing (pump your legs 4,000 times and perhaps you’ll burn off one roll), a VIP lounge with more booze and servers outfitted with oyster shuckers on their person. A voting wall where guests deposited poker chips for their favorite stand.

From savory to sweet: so many choices on the “dessert deck”

There were also people running around in lobster costumes. Or perhaps I was having a fever dream. I do remember spending quality time at the “dessert deck.” “Cut the savory with the sweet and you can keep eating,” one person told me. Strawberry shortcake ice cream from Ice and Vice, cookie dough sundaes from DŌ, red-velvet treats from Georgetown Cupcake, salty chocolate chess pie from Petee’s (who coincidentally just opened their first Brooklyn pie outpost).

Finally, after a few hours of marathon gorging, it was time for the big reveal. A team of editors who tasted them all crowned their favorite: a cheddar popover version with chive blossoms from SaltBrick Tavern, which lives in our very own Downtown Brooklyn!

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And then the Fan Favorite. The crowd hushed, butter glistening on their lips. We had all worked so hard for this moment. We had tasted, chewed, swallowed so much. Finally, the moment of truth. The winner is … the Maine Lobster Lady! Cue “We Are the Champions.” Taking to the mic, she said, “I can’t tell you how much we appreciate this … us little country mouses in the big-ass city!” As she raised her claw of victory, for a brief moment, she became the most famous lobster lady in all of Brooklyn.

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In a world of “humbled” winners, the Lobster Lady was suitably exultant (Photo courtesy the Lobster Lady, via Instagram)

And I remember her roll. It was incredible.

Moments later, I emerged from the rumble a different person. Wiser, contemplative, critical. And an epic failure—I tried only 13 of 24 rolls before tapping out. But I did learn I like my lobster warm with butter on a simple toasted roll. No spices. No fireworks. Because you don’t have to be fancy to love a lobster roll. You can be yourself. Just don’t forget the napkins.

Kara Cutruzzula is a writer living in Fort Greene. Her articles, essays, and plays can be found here.