Maine-ly Delicious at Maine-ly Sandwiches
Take a tour of the coastal-themed dining room and lobster-filled kitchen at Maine-ly Sandwiches in this week's slideshow.
What started out as a Friday special at Maine-ly Sandwiches is now on the menu every day by popular demand: a foot-long lobster roll, as fresh, hot and full of sweet claw meat as would be eaten inside a seafood shack in Maine.
You can smell the airy rolls baking when you walk in and the deliciously cozy scent of sizzling butter as the buns crisp up on the griddle. These buns are a crucial component in the construction of a lobster roll, which some claim is the simplest sandwich outside of a plain grilled cheese yet one of the most difficult to perfect.
The bread on a lobster roll should be light and delicate. Your mouth should never be overwhelmed by the flavor of flour but rather the ocean-bound sweetness of lobster meat. The roll should barely contain the lobster and its robust spectrum of colors from blushing white to petal pink to a furious red. And it should contain little more than enough mayonnaise and lemon juice to bind it together — yet it should never taste of mayo. Just that plump, barely briny lobster meat with a dash of salt and black pepper.
Maine-ly Sandwiches gets all these things right and more, and its signature lobster roll is no longer a Friday afternoon indulgence but a drive-worthy sandwich...no matter where you are in the city. It's not just that there aren't any other lobster rolls available on a regular basis in Houston — a fact that surprised owner Melvin "Buddy" Charity and encouraged him to make his sandwich a standard offering. The lobster roll here is simply that fabulous.
It's worth every inching molasses-flow of traffic on I-45 to get there. It's worth the confusing Google Maps directions, which may send you tearing around Greenspoint on a wild goose chase to find it the first time. (Hint: It's on the west side of the North Freeway, in a strip center that faces the southbound feeder for I-45.) And it's absolutely worth the $18 price tag, although a less expensive half-lobster roll can also be had for $9.
The lobster roll at Maine-ly Sandwiches is by far the most expensive sandwich the little family-run shop carries. In fact, most of its foot-long sandwiches range between $5 and $6 — whether turkey, roast beef, salami or grilled chicken — and can be made into a combo with a cup of homemade soup or a bag of chips plus a fountain drink for a few dollars more. It's ample evidence that small businesses absolutely can compete with the Subways of the world — and win.
I'd rather get a meatball sub with fresh marinara sauce, Provolone and crispy vegetables on top at Maine-ly Sandwiches than watch a sandwich trundle through a broiler at Quizno's while the guy behind the counter gapes at it listlessly and packages it carelessly. It may only be a $10 lunch when all is said and done, but getting it from a smiling face who calls my name out [correctly] and gets my order right every time makes a difference. And better to support a family-run business than a multinational chain.
Maine-ly Sandwiches allows you to do just that, which is even more amazing given the chain-saturated area near I-45 and Beltway 8. It offers a calm, spotless dining room with a beach house theme that's instantly soothing in both its cute charm and its warm atmosphere. It's easy to feel at home here, thanks in large part to its owner and his team — which includes Charity's son, Gabe, manning the counter most days, and a daughter who comes in between college courses to make the best Whoopie pie I've ever tasted. It's a rich chocolate hybrid of cake and cookie encasing a layer of airy vanilla frosting.
Charity hails originally from Biddeford, Maine, a classically New England town with nearly 400 years of history behind it. Although the lobster roll itself is a creation of a Connecticut restaurant, it's Maine that has really claimed a stake to the simple sandwich thanks to its thriving lobster industry, whose fishermen pulled a record 126 million pounds from the chilly waters last year alone.
Charity imports his lobster from his home state every week, and estimates that he goes through at least 18 cases of it for the lobster rolls. Not bad for a guy who recently retired to start a whole new life in the restaurant industry. Charity taught history at nearby Cy-Falls High School for 13 years before opening Maine-ly Seafood a little over five months ago. And in those five months, he's transformed a lackluster location next to a Budget Rent-a-Car — a location that's hosted at least two other failed sandwich shops — into a destination spot.
During my most recent lunchtime visit, I was pleased to see the ordering line stretch nearly to the front door. I was even more pleased to see that this crush of people didn't overwhelm the small kitchen, which got the food orders out as accustomed and with typical swiftness. Charity seems to evoke passion in his staff — whether they're related or otherwise — and this cheerful expedience only brightens the overall dining experience. If you weren't already happy when you walked in to the smell of freshly baked bread and warm butter, you'll be happy when you leave.
It occurred to me on the last visit that although I've eaten many a lobster roll in my life, I'd never eaten one from Maine. I had no true barometer, I thought, by which to gauge authenticity or make comparisons. I asked my dining companion to describe it to me — the entire sensory overload of it all — and what he laid out wasn't the expected, epic, rugged tale of lobster traps being deposited directly into hot buttered buns on a rocky New England coast.
Instead, it was a story about driving around aimlessly in search of this one particular shack on a wharf, which my friend claimed was about the same size as Maine-ly Sandwiches, and eating a lobster roll exactly like the one in front of us. It sounded, in short, like eating at Maine-ly Sandwiches — especially that first confused drive north to find the place amid the rush of traffic and the camouflage of identical beige strip malls that spill across Houston like an ocean.
And I realized that I didn't need a Maine story of my own in order to enjoy the lobster roll at Maine-ly Sandwiches. Authenticity is an artificial construction biased by our own personal histories and preferences and colored by our own affections and nostalgia. All that's important is that the lobster roll that Buddy Charity makes at Maine-ly Sandwiches is stupendous in its simplicity, attractive in its honest and straightforward construction, and far more delicious than the sum of its few, perfect parts.
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