The summer when I was 19, I went on my first road trip, through northern New England and Quebec with my college roommates. We watched the sun come up at West Quoddy Head, Me., curiously enough the easternmost point in the United States in spite of its name. Then we drove down the coast along U.S. 1, stopping in Ogunquit, a resort town where I paid $100 on five live lobsters, one for every member of my family. That was by far the most money I had ever spent on food, and the guy packed them in ice-filled Styrofoam so they would survive the 10-hour trip back to Long Island. That’s a lot of driving for one day, but I had no margin of error, since I had five more shifts at a dying neighborhood bar-and-grill that had launched my 14-year food-service career (and wheezed its last breath only a week later).
That was almost 20 years ago. But that lobster, transported across five states and eaten in the last bit of twilight under on a muggy August evening, has always stayed with me. I even remember the Friendly’s Wattamelon Roll we had for dessert.
I wouldn’t say I got misty-eyed with nostalgia eating at Luke’s Lobster in SoMa, but they’re certainly doing justice to the idea of a Maine lobster roll over there. Inside the auspicious Bourdette Building, the only commercial structure of its scale to have survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, Luke’s knows how to toast the bun so that it’s warm enough to stand out in relief from the cold lobster but not so warm as to heat the meat.
A lobster roll really is perfection, and to spirit them across the continent and still have the meat taste so fresh, Luke’s is basically treating their product as if it were a medical cooler containing a donated kidney. Plus, as Luke’s chief development officer Bryan Holden told SF Weekly over the summer, lobster rolls are even better with a lager, a kolsch, or an Allagash white. I’ve been on an extended Sober January for almost six weeks, and while I had a single glass of Champagne as part of a toast, Luke’s was the one time where I really felt like my life was utterly incomplete without a beer. I had a Maine Root blueberry soda on two visits, which was dry enough to feel like an acceptable compromise.
Luke’s is fast-casual in spirit — you pays your money then you takes your little number holder, and the food comes out within minutes — but otherwise really pushing the limits of that category. Sixteen dollars for a lobster roll is fancy-normal, but then there’s the Dungeness crab roll, a seasonal special.
When you order one with a small cup of soup and a soda, then add tax and a polite tip, it comes to $44.
Five years ago or so, I wrote that an $18 sandwich was among the most overpriced things in San Francisco. Now here’s a roll that’ll set you back two-and-a-half times as much. Yet I didn’t find myself taking umbrage on behalf of humanity over it. Is it something I’d order again? Probably not for a very long time. It’s a serious treat, and even then, it’s not a treat for everyone. But Luke’s is honest about it. This crab roll isn’t buttered with foie gras or larded up with Tsar Nicoulai caviar or impastoed with gold flakes like some celebrate-your-big-promotion-with-me hamburger for douchebags. It may not be a gutbuster like an El Farolito chorizo super-burrito, and, just to beat a dead horse a little further, it’s a lot pricier than Woodhouse Fish Co.’s crab roll or even Mister Jiu’s, too. But eating it will cause time to dilate like the best things do.
You come very close to taking a bite only to course-correct and take a bite half that size, because the way the buttery, faintly saline Dungeness crabmeat almost fans out is too wondrous not to savor. Yes, it costs the same amount as a night of heavy drinking, but upon eating one it’s hard not to conclude that that’s an appropriate price.
Plus, Luke’s has happy hour deals and combo meals that are more than fair. A Luke’s Trio ($19) contains a half-portion of a lobster roll, a Jonah crab roll, and a shrimp roll. The $42 “For the Crew of Two” consists of two trios, plus two sides and two drinks. There are other suitable-for-regular-people’s-regular-lunches options, like the Jonah crab roll ($17 for a combo, which includes a side and a drink), to which you can add a bowl of lobster corn chowder that contains a decent amount of lobster. The very lightly salted fries are golden-crisp like McDonald’s at their finest, only made from potatoes and not some composite material of aggregated potatoids. If you want a moment of mini opulence, the half-lobster tail ($6) with drawn butter is four bites’ worth of the best thing you can pull from the sea, almost with the clarity of a Hama Hama oyster.
I’m going back to Luke’s once I’m drinking again.
Luke’s Lobster, 92 Second St., 415-483-1580, lukeslobster.com