It’s the beautiful Carla. Fresh from her frou-frou session at Diane’s salon (“Diane is the only person in this world who understands my coiffure needs, darling”) here on the Emerald Isle of Coronado.
That’s the good news.
The bad news? Carla’s sitting at the patio of this new Maine Lobster place. Put the word “lobster” in front of anything and you know your bucks are going to flow out like a receding tide.
Carla sees my face. “Give it a chance, darling! They’ve just opened. And they have sandwich deals. We can do this. And you haven’t even said if you like it.”
Oh, man. The hairdo. Actually, it’s in a sort of ponytail. First time ever. She looks kinda girlish, French, under the red umbrella. Plus, have to admit, this place does look interesting. A corner café. Patios on two sides. Just a block east of busy Orange Avenue. But it feels leafy, sunny, breezy, quiet, chatty, old-school.
“‘Lobster West,’” says Carla, reading from the paper menu. “Meaning what? East Coast lobsters but served on the West Coast?”
“Fresh Maine seafood,” says the blurb. “Our lobsters are sustainably fished and overnighted to us to ensure their freshness.”
“Uh, yes. I guess these ain’t California lobsters,” I say. “Explains the prices.”
Because the main item, lobster in a roll, is $14.95. Then you can “size it up” with 50 percent more lobster for an extra seven bucks. That’s $21.95. For a roll? Scallops are $12.95 (size them up for $6), crab’s $11.95 ($4), and shrimp’s $9.95 ($3). You can get them “Maine style,” chilled seafood on warm bread, or “Connecticut style,” with warm seafood on warm bread. There’s a lobster grilled-cheese sandwich ($11.95, with melted Havarti cheese, tomatoes, tarragon) and, for dieters, lobster paleo-style, on lettuce, with a cup of Maryland crab soup, for $17.95. And for an extra $3, you can add two sides: baked beans, coleslaw or chips.
“Oh, look,” says Carla. “Maine Feast for Two combo. Only $40.95.”
“Yeah. Right,” I say. But I see you get a lot. A lobster roll, a crab roll, and a shrimp roll, all cut in half for sharing, plus four sides. Or just the rolls for $34.95. They also do a couple of salads: lobster tail ($17.95) and crab cake ($16.95).
They have soups, too. Like lobster bisque. “Fresh, rich Maine lobster, puréed into a light cream and broth base, with a hint of sherry.” Also New England clam chowder and Maryland crab soup. Bisque costs $8.50 for a bowl, $6.50 for a cup, and $4 for a “scoop.” Actually, they’re all cardboard containers.
“Know the difference between bisque and chowder?” I ask Carla.
“Bisque’s smooth, chowder’s thick and chunky, loaded with, like, clams. Right?” she says. “Come on, man. Choose. We can diet for the next couple of days. Don’t worry.”
She sets the pace. Chooses the lobster grilled-cheese, plus a cup of clam chowder (“hand-shucked, New England clams in a cream chowder, chock full of potatoes and sautéed onions”) and an iced tea ($2.50). I go for the lobster roll and just water. And we get baked beans and cole slaw as sides ($3).
The star of the meal? No contest. Carla’s lobster grilled-cheese. She graciously allows me to have at one of her two slices. Quantity-wise, it don’t look like much, but taste is delicious. Has a sweet-savory tarragon umami thing going on, along with your basic thrill of grilled bread and melted cheese.
My lobster roll has an herby topping. I mean, I’m not going delirious like Bill, the gent next door. “Maine lobster,” he sighs. “This is the best. I’m from Rhode Island. There’s a difference.”
“From what?” I ask.
“This and your Pacific lobster. Maine lobster’s sweeter. Tenderer. West Coast lobster can be downright chewy.”
Huh. When Chad Taggart, one of the family that opened this place, comes checking on customers, I have to ask him about that.
“He’s right. The waters off Maine are just colder,” he says. “Colder the water, harder the lobster’s shell, sweeter, more tender the meat.”
Turns out Chad’s a graduate in environmental sciences. Says he took a lot of trouble to make sure about the sustainability side of the lobster trade. “Our family’s from New Jersey, originally. We’d always go up to Maine for vacations. And the thing about it — still — is that you can feel totally isolated up there. It’s wild. And the lobsters are truly wild. These aren’t farmed.”
So, when Chad, his mom, his sister, her husband all came west, they were soon missing this kind of food and, next thing, they’re opening Lobster West in Encinitas. Three years ago. Coronado is their first expansion.
We’re chomping away.
“The only thing makes me feel bad,” says Carla, “is these creatures, lobsters, they’re intelligent. They can live to be 100 if we’d just let them.”
I notice an ancient wood-and-wire lobster pot on the wall inside.
“Actually, seven out of ten lobsters go into traps, eat the bait, and escape,” I say. Found that factoid online. “So, maybe we’re only eating the dumb ones. Raising their average IQ.”
The sun’s finally dropping somewhere behind the Hotel Del. There’s a sudden cool.
“Ave atque vale, sol!” exclaims Carla, raising her glass of iced tea. “Hail and farewell, sun! Catullus. Roman poet, right?”
“Uh, I guess.” I’m impressed. That Carla. She makes our average IQ look really good.
“Come on, let’s twist again, like we did last summer,” goes the sound system.
Then the check comes. Uh, including tip, $48.
“Ouch,” I say. “Hail and farewell, dinero.”
“But aren’t I worth it?” Carla purrs.
1033 B Avenue #102, Coronado
Lobster West Specialty Seafood Rolls
Hours: 11 a.m.–8 p.m. daily; Friday, Saturday till 9 p.m.
Prices: Lobster roll, $14.95; scallop roll, $12.95; crab roll, $11.95; shrimp roll, $9.95; lobster grilled-cheese sandwich, $11.95; lobster paleo (on lettuce, with cup of Maryland crab soup), $17.95; sides (e.g., baked beans, coleslaw, chips), $3 for two; Maine Feast for Two combo (lobster roll, crab roll, shrimp roll, plus four sides), $40.95 (rolls only, $34.95); lobster bisque, $8.50 (bowl), $6.50 (cup), $4 (“scoop” — small cup); lobster tail salad, $17.95; crab cake salad, $16.95
Buses: 901, 904
Nearest bus stops: Orange Avenue and B Street, Coronado