It’s mid-afternoon on a weekday in early April, a time when most Portland restaurants are quiet. At the Highroller Lobster Co., however, there’s a steady stream of visitors, excited expressions on their faces. Greeted with enthusiasm by Colin Mulcunry, they step up to the counter and gaze at the menu board hanging behind him. Will it be the traditional lobster roll on a locally made brioche bun? The cheese crisp lobster taco they saw on Thrillist? The lobster grilled cheese? As I am soon to discover, you can’t go wrong at Highroller. The food may be fun and casual, but the cooking is seriously spot-on.
Three summers ago, co-owners Baxter Key and Andy Gerry launched Highroller Lobster Co. with a food cart. Depending on the day, they hawked lobster and crab rolls at Bissell Brothers Brewing (first on Industrial Way, then at Thompson’s Point when the brewery moved) or Oxbow Blending and Bottling on Washington Avenue. Last year, they took the cart into the Old Port, parking it in front of the Custom House on Commercial Street. That’s when Thrillist came calling, filming the creation of what has become a fan favorite, the lobster taco with a crispy cheese shell. The Maine-Mexico hybrid was the result of a mistake; while making a lobster grilled cheese on the cart’s griddle, some of the cheese oozed out on to the flat top, forming a crispy wafer. “We played with the idea until we came up with the taco shell,” says Gerry.
Friends since they were students at South Portland High School, Gerry and Key have long been involved in food. Gerry worked at J’s Oyster and spent several years at Harbor Fish Market. “People would come into the market all the time and ask if we sold lobster rolls,” he says. “Considering what a big thing they are, there wasn’t anywhere in the Old Port that specialized in them.” After Key helped get a couple of other Portland food trucks up and running, he and Gerry decided to start their own cart, “to make the lobster roll that we wanted to eat,” Gerry says. That meant good bread—baked for them by Southside Bakery in South Portland—local lobster, and keeping the core menu limited. Highroller’s lobster rolls can be ordered warm or cold, and customized with a variety of sauces and add-ons, including lime mayo, lobster ghee, avocado, and bacon. “If you like lobster, you can have a different sandwich every day,” says Gerry.
The transition to brick and mortar came somewhat unexpectedly. Peter Bissell, co- owner of Bissell Brothers, had expressed interest in partnering with Gerry and Key on a Highroller Lobster Co. restaurant, but the timing wasn’t right. Then they heard about an ideal location on upper Exchange Street. “We said, ‘We need to do this, and we need to do it now,’ says Key. They opened the restaurant on December 1, 2017, having left the bones of the short-lived Portland Meatball Company intact while significantly livening up the space with their snappy fire-engine red and bright white color scheme. Behind the bar, a red letter board lists eight beers on tap from Bissell Brothers and other local breweries. On the shiny red tabletops, caddies made from the same wire used for lobster traps hold silverware and napkins.
Seated at a table in the window, I take my first bite of a Highroller lobster roll. I’ve ordered the lobster meat cold, drizzled with two of the homemade mayos—lime and red pepper. The buttery brioche bun, lightly toasted and warm, nearly makes me swoon. The lobster is tender and sweet—Gerry says they generally use a mixture of claw and knuckle meat—but it’s the bun that makes this an extraordinarily delicious rendition of a classic Maine sandwich. The same bun is used for the crab roll and the frankfurter, a red hot dog from Shields Meats in Kennebunk. “Southside had to hire more people so they could keep up with us,” says Gerry.
I’m skeptical at first, but the cheese crisp taco shell turns out to be an inspired vessel for lobster. Made with a blend of cheddar and swiss cheeses, the warm shell adds a salty, tangy crunch that complements the seafood. The surf and turf burger also wins me over. An especially tasty brisket burger is topped with cheese, lobster, and romaine lettuce on a potato bun also baked for Highroller at Southside Bakery. It’s served with my favorite kind of fries—thin and crispy—seasoned with Old Bay. “You gotta have an over-the- top item,” says Bissell, referring to the burger, which even without the lobster rivals any in the city.
Having made a big splash in just a few short months, Bissell, Gerry, and Key already have plans to expand. They’re taking over space next door previously occupied by a tattoo parlor, and installing a large patio out back. “It will be as big as this,” says Bissell, gesturing around the restaurant. He’s thinking of parking one of the two Highroller carts outside to lighten the load on the kitchen; the other one will spend the summer down on Commercial Street. Given the crowds Highroller Lobster Co. attracts now, it will surely be a busy summer in both locations. “We had people all winter who said they came to Maine for our lobster rolls,” says Gerry with a wide grin. “Baxter and I started this because we liked making food, and now we’re bringing people here.”