My parents raised us in a very “American Conservative” Jewish home. So on the spectrum of Jewy-ness, no matter how many Holocaust movies we watched, I guess you could say we were somewhere a little left of the middle. That means we belonged to a congregation made biannual trips to the synagogue on high holidays. We gathered with family and friends for Shabbat dinners, but only when we needed to impress someone more Jewish than us visiting from out of town. It was either that, or my mother needed an excuse to put her three little chubby cherubs in the new matching knit sweater vests she bought us at Nordstrom at the beginning of the season. We carpooled to Hebrew school with other Jews until we were Bar-Mitzvah’s and old enough in the eyes of God to be men, however hairless and prepubescent we were at 13 years old. My brothers and I spent our summers at the 52nd Street JCC, where I avoided playing in the pisch-filled kiddie pool, and got nightmares from seeing the 80 year old Russian men with their gray-haired testes drooping to the floor while they showered to get the chlorine off. We made mezuzahs out of popsicle sticks whenever we took an arts and crafts class, and we drank grape juice out of shot-glass sized Dixie cups whenever someone said the prayers for the wine.
As Jewish as that all makes my upbringing sound, we were bad Jews who never actually kept kosher. For as long as I can remember, we mixed milk and meat with cheeseburgers on the grill or fajita’s smothered in sour cream and a sprinkle of salty shredded jack cheese. In general we avoided bacon and pork (ironic I know!), but that faded pretty fast after my brother came home from a year abroad in Seville, Spain where, as he puts it, “I couldn’t make friends until I started eating jamon serrano.” Keeping a kosher home just wasn’t something my parents and their adventurous palates were willing to take on. For starters, it’s a ton of work keeping two sets of dishes (one for milk products and one for meat) separate at all times, and it’s a waste of water washing them in different sinks too. With three hungry, rambunctious, and growing boys, keeping kosher is certainly doable, but it doesn’t seem practical in the slightest. Besides, what soccer mom can compete with a backseat full of cleats kicking for McDonald’s cheeseburger happy meals and orange sodas. But the real kicker of course is the whole “no shellfish” thing, which between you, me, and the rest of the world…is the deal breaker here!
I love shellfish so much, mostly because it’s a protein that reminds me of rich creamy butter, but also because it has always had this air austerity that I love. An unattainable nature that screams “don’t you wish you could afford me,” which only makes me want it more. Don’t get me wrong, we had shrimp all the time; fresh or flash fried with some squid and octopus and a side of French fries. But scallops and lobster were less frequent delicacies. And both were just expensive enough that we knew my dad would only let us order them for special occasions. So lobster ended up becoming one of those “rare treats” we craved, and bragged about when we got it. And when we were too scared of getting shot down by my father’s frugality (I mean the guy never let us order diet sodas in restaurants) we had to be patient and strategic, waiting for those rare occasions to splurge with our mother, whose love for lobster– tails or claw it doesn’t matter—rivaled our own.
Which is why I went crazy eating as much of it as I could on a recent trip to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. From the first full day in Wellfleet, I was on the hunt for the best lobster roll on the Cape. Having no clue how long Cape Cod actually is, I decided to narrow the geographic scope of my search to the seafood shacks and lobster roll specials in or around Wellfleet. And to my surprise, while casting a smaller net, I still caught some delicious lobster rolls to sample. And now I’m scared to visit my doctor out of fear he’s going to want to do a routine cholesterol test, and I think my LDLs have spiked!
Best Lobster Rolls in Wellfleet
We first went to PJ’s Family Restaurant on US 6. It was clear from the full parking lot that PJ’s was a place worth stopping at, and since half the facility is devoted to serving hot fudge sundaes and soft serve ice cream, I figured it couldn’t be all that bad.
We spent a good 20 minutes trying to decipher the chalkboard menu, listing every shellfish you can imagine either served raw or fried and in a variety of portions and sizes. The chalkboard, by the way, seems to be the menu style of choice at most places on Cape Cod where you order through a square hole in a glass window.
Jonathan and I thought we’d be healthy and share the fried oyster belly and French fries plate, which was amazing, and a single lobster roll. Seriously, these were the best fried oyster bellies we had.
The lobster roll was simple and delicious. The chunks of lobster meat seemed large at first, but once we ordered a few more lobster rolls throughout the week, I realized PJ’s lobster was chopped a little more than most. I wasn’t bothered by that much, although it’s probably a way for them to stretch their lobster meat a little further per roll.
The bigger issue with chopping the lobster up into smaller chunks is that with increased surface area, a greater amount of mayonnaise will end up in each bite. So if you’re not a mayonnaise lover, you might need to ask for your lobster roll naked or dressed in golden delicious butter only. Regardless, I felt the lobster rolls at PJ’s were good. The bun was pretty standard and nothing special our out of the norm, a soft hot dog bun with the sides cut off and lightly grilled with butter—which is how they’re supposed to be. The bun did seem a little flimsy thought, which only made it a little challenging to pick up at first. Inside the bun was just a large scoop of lobster meat lightly tossed in mayo, and that was it. I enjoyed every bite I took and scowled at Jonathan while he ate his half.
The next day we stopped at Moby Dick’s Seafood Restaurant, which was just another minute or two down US 6 and on the other side of the road from PJ’s.
Since it was a weekday at lunchtime, and the season was on the verge of starting, the place wasn’t too crowded. This gave us a chance to marvel at the collection of nautical crap they have decorating every inch of exposed wall and ceiling inside. Clearly, another great place to take the family for your seafood desires.
We ordered a sampling of various things: raw oysters, a bag of steamed mussels, a cup of New England clam chowder, the fried combo plate and of course, a lobster roll.
The clam chowder wasn’t memorable. So that’s all I’ll say about that.
The oysters were delicious, and since they were Wellfleet oysters from about a mile away, you can expect them to be fresh and delicious. I found Wellfleet oysters to have that perfect balance between sweet and briny. They are a little “creamy,” which is a quality I usually dislike, but I didn’t mind it in these.
The bag of mussels was good. They steamed them and served them with some clarified butter for dipping. Since I’m used to having mussels in some sort of flavored broth or soup, it was nice to enjoy the mollusks without the taste bud distraction.
The fried plate extravaganza was sort of a nostalgic guilty pleasure. It’s very similar to something my brothers and I used to order from Anthony’s Fish Grotto on the San Diego bay. The shrimp, haddock, and scallops are fried in the lightest dusting of flour so you really get to enjoy the seafood without all the fuss of a goopy batter. The oysters have a little more of a crust, but I welcome that considering their lack of structure otherwise.
And now to the lobster roll, which in my opinion is the best we had in Wellfleet. The lobster chunks were large and practically unadulterated with too much butter or mayonnaise. The lobster roll bun was practically the same as what we had at PJ’s, but with a leaf of lettuce to help prevent the bun from soaking up any moisture from the lobster meat, it prevented the bread from getting soggy and hard to manhandle. And seeing a little green in the dish makes it feel like a healthier choice anyways.
Over the next few days, Jonathan insisted that we take a break from lobster rolls, which is why we ended up just steaming whole live lobsters for dinner at the house we rented instead. But on our final day in town, we stopped by the Beachcomber overlooking an overcast coastline with the approach of rain off in the distance. The Beachcomber is all about the outside patio decorated with plastic patio furniture and umbrellas so you don’t get sunburned while you eat. The oyster bar is setup out there as well and it’s fun to watch the chef shuck oysters with rapid ease. This is a great place to take your teens (younger kids would be fine too), but it’s more of a beer with lunch and rock n roll type place. Apparently Jonathan’s Aunt got wasted a few years back and got thrown out of the place for almost getting into a fight….which is probably not something that could happen at PJ’s or Moby Dick’s.
Against his better judgment, and my suggestion, Jonathan ordered the ahi tuna burger, which (as you can tell from the photo below) isn’t anything but ground ahi tuna meat formed into a patty. It was dry and had no flavor at all, which is why it comes with a spicy aioli to drown it in.
Jonathan’s sister made a wise choice with the fried haddock, since it’s one of the locally caught fish types that Cape Cod is best known for. The fish was flaky and light. The breading wasn’t greasy or overpowering, and when she couldn’t finish it, I was more than happy to step in and take over.
I ordered my last lobster roll of the week, and to be honest, was not impressed. The Eastham mussels I got were amazing. Again, they were fresh, having traveled all the way from Eastham, the township next door, to Wellfleet. They were steamed in a white wine and garlic sauce like I’m used to, but the broth was really strong with flavor, and the perfect pool for dunking French fries in.
But back to the Beachcomber lobster roll and all it’s shortcomings. The chunks of lobster meat were large, so there wasn’t an issue of there being too much mayo in each bite, but in this case, it’s possible it could have used a little more flavor than what was imparted by the sprinkle of paprika (or old bay seasoning) they did put on it. The lobster meat was just bland. As if it had been poached, outside the shell, in water and then rinsed off before making it onto the bun. They did use the “layer of lettuce” technique, which I liked, but come on guys, iceberg lettuce…really? No nutritional value, and its weak in both color and taste.
In summary, I spent a week on Cape Cod enjoying a bounty of shellfish, fish, and soft serve ice cream. I was amazed at how plentiful the lobster is, and how inexpensive and easy it is to get practically anywhere you go—even at the drive-in movie theater! Of the places we ventured to in Wellfleet, the lobster rolls at Moby Dick’s on US 6 were the best. I do think the advice someone gave me about the best lobster rolls coming from the most ramshackle shacks is probably true! I guess next time, I’ll use that as my barometer.