Would you eat lobster from McDonald’s? What once sounded like a weird thought experiment has become a real question since the chain started touting seasonal lobster rolls at certain New England locations two years ago. Made from previously frozen lobster, the offering manages to elicit terror in a way that the McFish, or any of McDonald’s other frozen foods do not. And yet, it’s back for a third summer, implying that someone, somewhere, is buying it. (McDonald's doesn't comment on sales numbers, but a spokesperson did tell us it's a "popular item" and a "seasonal favorite" in New England.) That very sentiment is how I found myself at a Madison, Connecticut Southbound I-95 rest stop at 10:00pm on a Sunday night, looking for lobster on my way home from a weekend in Newport, RI.
When I told my coworkers about this the next morning, they looked at me with visceral terror. “You ate that on a road trip?” my editor gasped, as if I had told her that I let the lobster roll sit on the dashboard in the summer heat for a few hours before diving in.
While I would not consider myself a lobster expert, I do enjoy the simple combination of lightly-dressed lobster inside a buttery, toasty roll. Served cold, it’s the perfect summer meal, taking lobster’s decadence and delicate flavor to a casual and approachable dish. Obviously, that is not exactly what I expected from the McDonald’s version. When I placed my order, I’ll have one lobster roll, and a #5 with a Diet Coke (the #5 addition shows just how little faith I had in this little experiment), the man behind the counter gave a nearly imperceptible look of surprise. I got the impression that not too many of my fellow road-trippers are peeling off the interstate craving cold lobster from a fast food joint — even if it only costs $8.99.
At first glance, the lobster roll wasn’t as horrifying as I had feared. In addition to a generous scoop of bite-sized bits of lobster, it was topped with a nearly-perfect piece of claw meat. Typically, seeing the most tender piece of the lobster laying so beautifully atop the mound of meat acts as a kind of guarantor of quality. It’s as if the person who assembled it for you knew to include the creme de la creme (meat de la meat?) of the crustacean — and, knowing of its value, made sure it was clearly visible.
One bite, however, quickly disabused me of any fleeting optimistic hopes for the sandwich that sat before me. The first flavor that hit me was an overwhelming fishiness. Whereas truly fresh lobster has a kind of subtle sweetness, this mostly had the sour taste that matches the smell of a fish market. It wasn’t so bad that I thought I might get sick while barreling down I-95 later, it just tasted more like a chewy, cheap fish sandwich, with none of the decadence of lobster. In other words, this lobster had been dead for a while, and keeping it frozen could only battle the ravages of time for so long.
Major crimes aside, there were a few other things to critique: there was way, way too much lettuce on the roll itself. It was a mix of leaf and shredded lettuce that managed to be both densely textured and bland without any of the appealing snap of good iceberg. Though, all things considered, more lettuce and less lobster per bite wasn’t exactly the worst thing in the world in this scenario.
The roll, like the rest of the dish, lacked any kind of buttery indulgence that normally marks a lobster roll. Rather than a classic, New-England style hotdog bun with soft sides that are perfect for buttering up, the McDonald's version was served on a kind of mini sub or hoagie roll. Based on a video of the menu item playing at the counter, the interior of the roll should have been buttered, but I couldn’t detect it. Despite standing at the counter to wait for my order, I was unable see deep enough into the kitchen to witness any machinations that may have occurred. The roll did appear to have been toasted, though a quick heating didn’t do much to improve the texture.
To make matters worse, the bun was also dry, a sin that could probably be levied at just about any fast food bread. The buns on a Big Mac or McChicken are a lot thinner and less objectionable than this styrofoam roll I was now gnawing my way through.
Mid-meal, a man walked up to us. “Oh my god,” he exclaimed after seeing the lobster roll laying out in the middle of the table after I had given up on the thing. “Is it good?!”
My friends, all happily munching on McChickens, pointed their fingers at me. I looked up at him bleakly.
“No. No, no, no,” I said, issuing my first public review of the lobster roll.
Which, I suppose, is really all you need to know. No. Just don’t. Really, you don’t have to. If you live in one of the New England states where it is available, you can already get a superior lobster roll almost anywhere else. Sure, there’s the, “But it’s only $8.99!” argument, but there is plenty of cheap seafood that should probably be avoided, like gas station sushi or all-you-can-eat mussels at a dive bar. If you don’t live somewhere where lobster rolls are a thing, and you’ve never tried one before, there is absolutely no good reason to make this your first time. To badly paraphrase abstinence-only speakers fighting the losing battle of keeping teens from taking their clothes off: True lobster waits.