Category Archives: Eating Adventures

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Food in Spain Part 3 of 5 — Logroño

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Despite being the largest city in the Rioja wine region of Spain, Logroño receives little love in my Rick Steves guide book.  On page 312, Steves writes dismissively, “Just before the skippable big city of Logroño, you’ll cross the Ebro River.”

Ouch.

What did Steves not like? The  relaxed big/little city vibe ? The charming shops and markets in the city center?  The narrow streets populated by incredible pintxo bars?  My god, did he miss the pintxo bars??

This wall art says it all.  The wording translates to, “El Camino de Santiago (the pilgrimage route to Santiago) is made by stages.” Only, the “E” is crossed out.  “Is made by tapas” is right!

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Carlos lives in Logroño, and he introduced us to his home city by promising us the best tortilla we’d have during our time together. Tortilla is a staple in Spain, a cross between an omelet and a frittata, with potatoes and onions, and sometimes peppers.

He was right. This was the best tortilla we would eat the entire trip. The fluffiness and creaminess, combined with a dollop of spicy red pepper sauce, took the tortilla to another level. I spent the rest of the trip searching out tortilla, but none compared to this one.

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This mercado was right near our hotel.  Meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, canned goods, and did I mention meats?

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A sight that I would never tire of — hanging jamón.  I wondered if I could cram one into my travel bag.

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Carlos took us to the market so that he could load up on food items. We were going on a picnic!

Not far outside of Logroño is the walled village of Laguardia (not to be confused with NYC’s disgusting airport).  It sits majestically high up on a hill, overlooking the Rioja vineyards.

On this Monday, the village was practically devoid of tourists. We had the view all to ourselves, and what a view it was.

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We couldn’t stop oohing and aahing, and I distinctly remember Clive remarking that he would remember this view on the dark, cold winter days back in England.

Meanwhile, Carlos was setting up our picnic at a nearby table.

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That’s jamón and assorted meats, olives, marinated artichokes, roasted red peppers, hunks of manchego cheeses and crusty bread. Out of frame are multiple bottles of red wine.

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I fixed myself a plate.

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One of the best food experiences of my life.  Sitting up on that sunny hill with a great group of people, eating this food, drinking wine and admiring the stunning view…  it just doesn’t get much better for me than that.

The car-free streets of Laguardia are made for strolling.

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Saw these a few times — sets of bright red dried chile peppers hanging on walls.

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Another jaw-dropping view, from the clock tower.

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Pastries in a shop window.

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Laguardia, what a beautiful, beautiful place.

Back in Logroño, we geared up for an authentic Logroño pintxo crawl, or as I think of it, where food lovers die and go to heaven.

Check out the narrow streets lined with pintxo bars.  Eating is done standing up. A bite here, a bite there, and then on to the next place.

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This is perhaps the most popular pinxto bar in Logroño.

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The bar has a singular focus; they cook mushrooms.

Seriously, that’s it.  Not several varieties either — basic button mushroom tops.

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Ah, but there’s the rub.  Sounds like a horrible business model, but when you can do one thing extraordinarily well, that can lead to huge success.

A two-man operation. One guy took the orders; the cook manned the mushrooms, grilling them a la plancha.

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He tended to the mushrooms with impressive intensity, flipping them when they were perfectly browned.  He gave them a healthy dowsing of olive oil,  flipped them again, and dowsed with more oil. Somewhere in there, garlic and tiny prawns made their way into the mushrooms cavities.

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The mushrooms were skewered and strategically placed atop bread, which soaked up the dripping garlicky oil like a sponge.

The oil was scaldingly hot; these mushrooms were a hazard to eat right off the plancha, and yet we couldn’t wolf them down them fast enough.

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Carlos said the line never stops at the mushroom bar, and I believe him.

From there it was on to the next stop.

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The specialty here was pulpo a la Gallega.

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This is how the octopus looked before it was cooked.

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And after — octopus sliced into small chunks, with olive oil, smoked paprika and crunchy rock salt.

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The soft texture was unlike any chewy octopus I’d ever eaten.  Delicate, and really, rather remarkable.

For a change of pace, we went for grilled meats on a stick at Tío Agus.

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You wouldn’t believe how great this place smelled. And our grilled pork skewers didn’t disappoint.

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“How uncivilized!” I thought. “Why are there dirty napkins and toothpicks all over the floor?”

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Then I learned an essential component of pintxo culture: Everything gets tossed on the floor!  I guess the restaurants would rather not handle a mess of soiled napkins and toothpicks on the counter, finding it easier to sweep everything up in one swoop.

When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. And boy is it liberating. Took me a while to feel comfortable throwing my garbage onto the floor like a spoiled child, but I adapted. By the end of the trip, I was chucking toothpicks with the best of them.

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Here we were at our next pintxo bar.

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For delectable kebobs of grilled shrimp and pineapple.

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Grilled fruit is criminally underrated. Who knew pineapple paired so well with shrimp?

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Piping hot patatas bravas in a spicy sauce and garlic aioli.

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We finished the crawl lounging outside at a restaurant table late into the night, with a proper Spanish digestif and complimentary potato chips.

The next day we headed to the outskirts of Logroño for a collective highlight of the trip, a private tour at the Ontañon winery.

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The winery was amazing, a mixture of great wine, history and beautiful art in a striking setting.

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Jesús, the tour guide, was ideally suited for his job.  A handsome guy with tremendous flair when he spoke (damn could the dude roll an “R”), and palpable passion for Ontañon’s winery, Jesús had charisma up the wazoo.

We were all at rapt attention as he told us about the history of the winery and took us on a tour of the facility.

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A whole lot of bottles of wine right there, ready to be labeled.

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I forget the exact story, but the owners of Ontañon had been friends with a well respected local artist, and he provided them with the artwork and sculpture which were displayed throughout the winery.

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I liked this one of Bacchus appearing  just a tad tipsy.

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Jesús set us up with a wine tasting, paired with cheese and quince paste.

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Penny got friendly with this oversized bottle.

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Jesús poured wine on the counter to show us the different color intensities. Doesn’t the splotch on the right look like the United States?

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Thank you Jesús for an unforgettable experience!  And you better believe I’ll be keeping a lookout for Ontañon wine in the U.S.

Carlos told us that while people think paella when they think of Spain, it’s really a dish more common in southern Spain than northern. But, he did find us a restaurant in Logroño that made a proper seafood paella.

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With a cheesecake dessert, and more wine.  Did I mention we had just come from a winery?

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For round two of our pintxo crawl, I started with the tuna belly with peppers and onions, and marinated beans and anchovies.

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Oh my lord, the pork cheek.

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So tender, it practically flaked away with one touch of the fork.  It was so good, I distinctly remember making Clive order one of them.

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I may have also made an embarrassing fuss about the seared hunk of primo tuna.

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Another mushroom spot! With a different style — shiitakes sliced thin and grilled with generous amounts of olive oil and garlic.

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I couldn’t resist going back to Tío Agus for a grilled chorizo.

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Have I written yet how inexpensive all this food and drink was? Just a couple euros per pintxo.  And glasses of wine for about $1.30 euros — that’s around $1.60 U.S. dollars!  It actually made me sad that I could never have a food experience like this in the States.

The “happy ending.”

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A glass of cava.

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And chocolate-covered fruit.

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Then back to sitting outside, chatting and laughing the night away with another round of digestifs.

Rick Steves, I believe you missed the boat on Logroño.

Next: San Sebastián

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Food in Spain Part 2 of 5 — Pamplona

Pamplona!  Let’s run with the bulls!  Er, maybe not.  I’m all for experiencing local culture, but that’s one tradition I think I’ll sit out.

A few facts about the Running of the Bulls that I learned during our visit:

– The running of the bulls takes place each morning at 8am during the week of Fiesta de San Fermin in July. I always thought it was just a single day. What’s even more amazing is that all those nuts who join in are doing it first thing in the morning!  I’m barely able to lift the toilet seat at 8am, let alone run alongside stampeding bulls who could potentially kill me.

– The actual running takes only  4-5 minutes.  The bulls surge up the hill into Pamplona’s old city and wind their way through the narrow streets until they reach the historic bullring.

– Some sections of streets in the old city were re-surfaced a few years back with a special non-slip cobblestone.  I can’t remember if this was to prevent the bulls from slipping, or the humans.

But enough bull-talk.

As we walked from our hotel toward the old city, we passed this.

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That’s a 24-hour bread vending machine. You pop your money in, and a baguette comes out.  Greatest idea ever.  Who doesn’t get the occasional hankering for bread at 3am?

Up the hill into old city, and this is the view.

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Some of the buildings need structural support, so they’ve erected these.  Hmm. That doesn’t seem like a long-term solution.

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Lunch, our first pintxo experience!

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I asked Carlos the difference between tapas and pintxos, and he explained it as tapas referring more to small plates, and pintxos as individual-sized portions that have been skewered with a stick, or “pinched.”

Essentially when you go to a pintxo bar, the pinxtos are displayed on the counter, and you select whatever you’d like. It’s an ideal way to graze and sample the offerings at multiple stops.

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The only downside is that you end up feeling like a kid in a candy store who wants to try everything!

A common pintxo sight — olives, anchovies and green beans, swimming in luxurious Spanish olive oil.  It’s a combo that just works.

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Wine and Coke come together in this drink called Kalimotxo. Unusual. Probably wouldn’t order it again, but not bad.

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I settled in with a cod croqueta, grilled zucchini and bacon sandwich, and boquerones and peppers on  bread.

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You don’t see much meat in a cone in the  States.

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We walked off our lunch during the afternoon, taking in the sights.

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Around mid-afternoon we stopped in at Café Bar Gaucho for a snack. Mine was a piquillo pepper stuffed with cod.

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I began to understand the wonderful rhythm of Spain and pintxos: walk a bit, eat a bit, walk a bit, eat a bit. Drink wine. Repeat.

Exhausted from all the eating and walking, we plopped ourselves down in the late afternoon at Café Iruña, where Ernest Hemingway himself frequented back in the day. (Hemingway made Pamplona famous with The Sun Also Rises.)

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A bottle of wine, people-watching and a view of Plaza del Castillo. One of us marveled, “I could think of worse ways to spend an afternoon.”

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The pinxto bars really come alive at night, with people streaming in and crowding around the pinxtos.  At Bar Gaucho the two employees behind the counter were a whirl of motion, taking orders, heating up pintxos, pouring wine, sorting out bills… I don’t know how they kept it together during the chaos, but somehow they did.

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At one point it sounded like one particularly loud female customer was arguing with one of the ladies behind the counter, but in the end we decided it was more an animated conversation than an argument.

I lost track of pictures at this point, so you’ll have to take my word for it that our group had pintxos and wine flying all over the place.  When we finally tracked down the bill (no one in Spain seems in any rush to have you actually pay), I did a double-take. That can’t be right, I thought.  The bill seemed way too low considering how much we ate and drank.  This would become a common theme throughout the trip.

The finishing touch was a cone of natas con billetes ice cream near the plaza.

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Pamplona… if you’re going to visit for the bulls, stay for the food!

Next: Logroño

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Food in Spain Part 1 of 5 — Barcelona

It’s almost impossible to write a blog post about food in Spain. There are only so many superlatives,  and only so many times that one can write the word ‘delicious.’

But I’m going to try.  I’m going to try to point out most of what I ate during a northern Spain tour that included Barcelona, Pamplona, Logroño, San Sebastian and Madrid.  There will be five blog posts, with Barcelona being the first. (And the shortest, since we spent the least amount of time there.)

There’ll be the requisite gushing, and I’ll try not to break down while writing this and sobbing, Why??? Why can’t I go back to Spain right now???

First things first.  If you love food and are thinking of visiting Spain, I highly recommend looking into traveling with Intrepid Travel and searching out the tour leader, Carlos.  The man has a passion for food, and when he realized how much the other six of us in the group loved food as well, his eyes lit up and he became positively giddy. He started making mental plans of all the local places he would take us.

So, Barcelona. Limited time, but I did spend a few hours walking around and immediately observed the Spanish obsession with jamón, their renowned hams. You could barely walk a block without seeing some form of jamón in a store window.

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I also saw small restaurants with these types of menus all around the city. This seems to be the Spanish version of fast food — sub sandwiches with fillings like manchego, chorizo, anchovies, tuna and olives, hot dogs, etc.

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And then there was this. I suppose even in a great food city, there’s a demand for shitty pizza.

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For dinner, Carlos took us on a walk past the Sants train station. Looked like your typical modern cityscape. Suddenly, we veered left down a small set of stairs, and it was as though we had entered a different time and a different city.  The quaint, narrow streets and older-style architecture led to this open plaza, where people were dining outside and enjoying the mild late-October air.

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This was our first night together as a group. We put our trust in Carlos and let him do the ordering.

I think I probably requested this though, seeing as how it’s one of my absolute favorites: pimientos de Padrón.  It’s a particular kind of Spanish pepper that’s pan-fried and sprinkled liberally with sea salt.  I could not get enough of these things, and neither could everyone else.

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An assortment of cured meats like jamón, mixed in with Spanish cheeses.

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Pan con tomate.  Crazy delicious (there’s that word!) and crusty bread that you first rub garlic cloves onto, followed by a juicy tomato.

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I couldn’t keep up with the pictures so I stopped trying, but we also tucked into boquerones (vinegared fresh anchovies), prawn croquettes, calamari, hummus and patatas bravas (fried potatoes with a tomato sauce and aioli). And of course there was wine. Lots of wine.

Stuffed and happy, we wandered back to our hotel.  We had learned a few things on our first night. One, Spaniards eat late. Lunch is late, and dinner is late, like starting past 9pm. And there’s no rush either. They take their time. Two, food and drink are markedly inexpensive compared with dining in the States.  More on that later, but I remember splitting the bill thinking, That’s it?  And three, wine is a way of life.  It accompanies practically every meal — as natural as having a glass of water.

I knew already that I would love Spain.

Next: Pamplona

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Hoppers and Other Goodies at the Asian Food Festival

Last Sunday, three friends and I loaded into my car for a drive to the Washington Buddhist Vihara on 16th St. — the location of the Asian Food Festival, sponsored by the Embassy of Sri Lanka. The vihara (monastery) is essentially a house in a residential neighborhood, and the festival was an intimate gathering in the front yard.

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We beelined over to the far right tent, where several women were manning trays of Sri Lankan dishes. The word that popped up a lot was “fish”;  there were fish items of all kinds: fish balls, fish sticks, fish pastries… as well as vegetarian pastries, spring rolls, dal, and desserts. It all looked tempting.

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I picked up an assortment of items, as you can see in this picture of half-eaten food. The fish balls were my favorite.

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My friends shared this platter of dal over noodles. When the noodles became a little dry, a nice man came over and poured on a fresh batch of dal. Now that’s good service!

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This spicy vegetarian pastry reminded me of an Indian samosa.

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Over in the left tent, a man was busily chopping up chicken, veggies and sauce for the chicken/vegetable kottu.

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On the doorway of the vihara, there was this sign:

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I’d seen it earlier and had no idea what it meant.  I’ve gotten back into tennis lately, and thought the sign was a reference to ball hoppers, the large baskets used to collect tennis balls. So shopping baskets? My friend Fay had another take — “I thought they meant ‘Shoppers’ but forgot the S.”

We were both way off. Hoppers are something else entirely, a Sri Lankan pancake. They’re super thin, like a cross between a pancake and a crepe. Down in the basement, people were eagerly snapping up the freshly made hoppers coming out of the kitchen.

Some hoppers were being served with an egg on top. Other people were dipping them into what looked like a red chili sambal.

“That’s too hot for you,” the server told us.

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Ahh, we may not be Sri Lankan, but she underestimated our tolerance for spice! We split an order of hoppers, and went back for the spicy chili mix, called lunu miris.

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It was certainly fiery, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Went beautifully with the paper-thin hoppers.

Once outside again, we indulged in a final treat with a crumbly dessert cookie.

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And that concluded our sampling of Sri Lankan cuisine. We had fun; it was an afternoon of good food, friendly people and a few firsts for all of us. Most importantly, I learned that in Sri Lanka, hoppers are not for tennis balls.

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First Lobster Roll of the Summer

As a person of the same name, I felt a certain obligation to patronize the Doug the Food Dude truck. How could I not? We Dougs have to stick together.

Doug the Food Dude was conveniently parked at Truckeroo on Friday.

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Here’s the lobster roll I ordered. (The line at the Red Hook Lobster Pound truck was just too long, so we gave Doug’s rolls a shot.)

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It was a decent attempt that didn’t quite come together. I could have gone without the spinach, sliced cucumber and diced onion, though they did add some nice crunch. The mushy and cold hot dog bun wasn’t ideal; maybe I’ve been spoiled by too many toasted and buttered buns. And the lobster itself was super salty. Not sure why it was necessary to add extra seasoning to naturally salty lobster meat.

Still, I appreciated the big chunks of fresh lobster and light touch of mayo. If Doug can refine his lobster roll with a few small tweaks, he’s got something.

All in all not a bad first lobster roll for the summer. And hopefully not the last!