Luke’s Butters Up Union Station Diners
Summering in New England has never been easier.
First, head over to Union Station. Stroll past the delay-addled Amtrak agents and unwieldy luggage-juggling travelers. Promenade out to the open-air “market” courtyard. And then plant yourself in front of the new(ish) Luke’s Lobster stand.
The New York-based seafood operation first sailed into town in 2011, dropping anchor in Penn Quarter (624 E St. NW) that spring. The lobstah love has since spread to full-service shops in the ’burbs (7129 Bethesda Lane, Bethesda, Md.) and Georgetown (1211 Potomac St. NW).
The company finally found its way to the heavily trafficked slab of concrete just outside D.C.’s bustling commuter rail depot this May, opening up a grab-and-go shack specializing in its lemon-butter doused sandwiches.
Ben Conniff, vice president of Luke’s, said the original plan for the satellite spot was to try and lure in some of the breakfast crowd.
That experiment only lasted about a week.
“[Customers] weren’t looking for seafood in the morning. … So we decided to focus on the things that people have loved us for from the beginning and let the people known for breakfast handle breakfast,” he said of the failed attempt at honing in on neighboring Au Bon Pain’s and Le Pain Quotidien’s bread and butter.
The remaining carte is offered, per one of the on-site attendants, to hungry passersby from 10(ish) in the morning until 7 at night, Mondays through Fridays.
Seafood lovers can indulge in made-to-order lobster, shredded Jonah crab or shrimp rolls filled with crustaceans traditionally plucked from Maine’s coastal waters. That’s not the case this year, due to a shortage of shrimp.
“In those cases, we get shrimp from the MSC-certified sustainable Canadian shrimp fishery,” Conniff explained — though the company website pledges that “when the scientists and fishermen agree that it’s sustainable to fish Maine shrimp again, we will be the first to put it back on the menu.”
Fans of the brick-and-mortar shops will likely be saddened to hear that there are no regional brews (nary a tangy Sea Dog Brewing Co. Blueberry Wheat Ale or crisp Raven Beer Pendulum Pilsner in sight), hearty chowders (plain clam delivers mouthfuls of savory onion and velvety heavy cream; shrimp and corn features dulcet golden niblets, tender potatoes and seasoned little swimmers) or tasty extras (ready-to-eat Jonah crab claws are alternately sweet and just a tad briny, dutifully paying testament to the sunken depths from which they were raised) to be had.
Then again, you don’t need much else once the seafood stuffed-entrees start rolling out.
Each of the featured rolls is prepared in much the same manner: The server fishes a six-inch Country Kitchen bun from the bag, slides it across a spinning wheel slicked with dressing and grills it on an adjoining griddle. He then carefully spoons each portion of pre-steamed, then chilled shellfish into the split roll and drizzles each with a generous squirt of lemon-spiked drawn butter.
The end result: No filler. Subtle spicing. All seafood.
The lobster roll is all business. Massive chunks of rich, delicious claw meat luxuriated in citrus butter flood every bite. There are trace amounts of salt. And a hint of fresh garlic peeks through. But the sweet flesh of our formerly heavily armored friend leads each gustatory charge.
And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
“That’s better than that [Red Hook] truck. It was less mayonnaise-y,” one colleague said after chomping down on Luke’s lightly dressed creation. Another lunch companion quickly seconded the motion, declaring Luke’s version more lobsterrific than others he’d shelled out big bucks for before.
To be fair, the Red Hook Lobster Pound truck’s roll is a completely different animal.
Their Maine-style lobster roll, which is comparably priced ($15), looks deceptively fuller than Luke’s — mainly because the bottom is padded with shredded lettuce. The liberally seasoned claw meat, sporting a paprika-laced, Old Bay-style spice medley, rides up top, along with slivers of zesty spring onion. The lettuce is, at times, overwhelming, invading each bite with heavily mayoed, watery greens, an accompaniment the mildly-sweet-but-plenty-meaty lobster does not require. I do, however, enjoy the peppery character and added crunch the embedded celery brings to the table.
Luke’s crab roll took a second to get used to, given that us Mid-Atlantic types have been born and bred on jumbo lump meat pulled straight from the Chesapeake Bay. The Jonah crab is very finely shredded — though I encountered two bits of resilient shell in one sandwich — but still completely satisfying. The meat is light and buttery, the bread fluffy and warm.
Luke’s shrimp roll could actually use a little added oomph; one companion found it bland, whereas I enjoyed the undercurrent of garlic and abundance of chewy shrimp.
One of the operators of Luke’s Union Station stand said they expect to keep feeding folks seafood through mid-October.
The aide suggested they’ve already seen an uptick in business leading into every weekend. “As the weather gets warmer, it’s picking up a bit, too,” he said of the seasonal jolt the crew has come to know and love.
Conniff, too, sounds committed to growing his market share. Just don’t expect him to take to the streets — as the company has done in New York with its mobile unit, “Nauti” — anytime soon.
“Why should you have to check Twitter to figure out whether or not you’re having a lobster roll for lunch today?” Conniff asked. “When you want us, you know where to find us.”
Food Court is an ongoing series of semi-regular spot checks of new and evolving eateries with ties to Capitol Hill.
Luke’s Lobster: 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE; lukeslobster.com
Average entree: less than $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday. Check other D.C.-Metro locations for prices and times.