I was allergic to shellfish for almost two decades of my life. The last time I went to a crab house I exited in an ambulance. This, at 8 or so, turned me off to the spectrum of pale, strange-looking crustaceans and mollusks that people treasure. On top of this aversion, my brother Nick, a dude I have downed grasshoppers and Chinese oxtail with, always claimed shellfish was good but overrated. For these reasons, I never thought much about scallops, shrimp, lobster, and the rest.
About five years ago, I was assigned a cover story I couldn’t turn down. The story required me to eat all kinds seafood up and down a stretch of the East Coast. At one shack dating to the early 20th century, I caved and curiously ate some crab and shrimp (Epipen on hand).
Today, I eat every variety of shellfish I can find. I also subscribe to my brother’s belief that shellfish is overrated, especially when one factors in price. Crab for $26 a tin? I’ll take a porterhouse, please. Live lobsters that cost $30 per shiny carapace and, boiled or grilled, are mostly shell anyway? I can buy 10 pounds of good pasta for that price. That early American prisoners used to whine about lobster rations, claiming such food was cruel, never seemed to me an elastic stretch.
But sometimes shellfish lives up to its reputation. Sometimes I’ve eaten brodetto (an Italian seafood stew), a dish like my grandmother’s baked scallops and sausage, or the right oyster at the right time on the right summer day. And those times, I get it.
The Maine Lobster Lady food truck here in the Valley can provide that kind of sterling shellfish moment.
Legally named Diana Santospago, the lobster lady’s New England-style rolls outshine the sum of their parts brilliantly. Lobster, butter, and bread sounds like a simple meal out of Dickens, but, treated right, the ingredients evolve into something higher.
Same with Santospago’s fried clam belly sandwiches.
“We hand-bread and fry them the way they do at the shacks on the coast of Maine,” Santospago says. Santospago grew up off the coast of Maine, on the small island of Isle au Haut.
Her seafood comes from Maine. She breads clam bellies (whole clams rather than fried strips) in “Clam Fry,” a cornflour-based product used in New England. The clams take a plunge in hot oil. They emerge hot, crisp, and golden. Santospago lines them on a roll bigger than your typical New England-style roll, one baked at a secret spot in Arizona. These rolls have schizophrenic personalities, sporting veneers of hardness on the outside and softness within. Brushing them with butter before toasting not only accentuates these characteristics, but warms things up, brings out toasty notes, and raises the humble roll to its full potential as vehicle for the star: those saline North Atlantic bivalves.
The hot clams burst in your mouth. Each one is a micro gush of marine goodness. Lemon provides a nice clean counterpoint; herbed aioli brings new textures and a silky foil. There may not be a lighter fried sandwich around.
Santospago’s lobster roll is as good. It skews one-dimensional, toward unchecked softness given that the lobster meat isn’t fried. Opting for hot butter on your lobster meat makes the sandwich better if not wholly in conformity with what the Platonic lobster roll is. Another trick that changes the game, Santospago says, is that she spurns tail meat, using just meat from lobster claws.
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“I think that once you cook a lobster and take the tail meat, once it cools off, lobster tail tightens up and becomes tougher,” she says. “If we’re serving that chilled, I feel it’s too chewy.”
Her lobster meat also comes from the knuckle, the joint just before the claw. Many lobster fanatics share Santospago’s claw-and-knuckle preference.
The lobster lady has other tricks and refinements that elevate what I and centuries-dead prisoners consider to be a bland meat. With sourcing and skill and some magic — like ditching clarified butter for butter clouded with milk solids, like keeping a spacious, immaculate truck — the Lobstah Lady can convert the shellfish skeptic into an ephemeral believer.
The Maine Lobster Lady. Food Truck (check the Lobster Lady's website for location info); 207-669-2751.
November 1 to May 31 only. Hours vary.