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Lobster Q is a storefront in a strip mall off Route 111 that looks more like a truck stop, since the gas station is the main attraction. But if you look carefully (or use PigTrip and a GPS), you'll find it. Just inside the entry, the seafood case that was a mainstay of the previous operation has been replaced by a small bar. Around the corner is a small dining room with a large flat panel TV and an assortment of mostly aquatic art.
Lobster Q is first and foremost a New England seafood shack, with fried fish and clams the most frequently seen plates passing through the dining room. Without running through every permutation, I'll just say that just about every seafood item you'd expect of this type of joint is available on the far reaching menu. Barbecue is the new kid on the block (added in July 2010) and much narrower in scope: pork spare ribs, pulled pork and smoked kielbasa. Steak tips are a grilled item that can be combined with those three on 2- and 3-meat combos. Creative surf and turf specials, sometimes involving barbecue, hit the menu on weekends.
I spread an assortment of visits over a four-month span, hitting them on three weeknights, two Sunday nights and one Saturday afternoon, usually joined by one or more hearty barbecue compadres.
Chili: Lobster Q's "smoky beer barrel chili" is a very good, straightforward everyday chili, as long as you're not expecting a barbecue component and as long as you don't mind beans. There are three different beans to enhance contrast and flavor, and the assortment of onions, red and green pepper and stewed tomato pieces (less stewed tomato in recent visits) do likewise. The meat is standard ground beef, with no smoky aspect. The broth has that familiar chili powder flavor with nice heat, but no beer flavor implied by the name. Brisket is not yet on the menu, so perhaps a future inclusion may result in smoky scraps improving the chili downstream. Tried on several different visits, the chili's texture has varied drastically: sometimes there's plenty of thick, deep broth to accompany the meat; sometimes it's a tight ball of meat with little liquid.
Clam chowder: Thick, creamy and traditional with just a hint of sour.
Onion rings: These are the fairly thin, unwilting, crunchy batter style similar to what was served at Uncle Pete's (Revere MA), with a slightly more substantial batter. There's a hidden ingredient in there that makes these a little addictive.
Buffalo chicken tenders: Ordered on a whim, these were surprisingly good and fresh tasting, high quality meat. We ordered them hot and the heat was just right for me, with enough to make you take notice but not blow your head off. A real chile head might scoff at how mild the hot is.
Ribs: These have been the constant highlight, with good surface crust, plenty of crisped rub grit and flavor, a fresh feel, slightly pink meat, just enough fat, good moisture (sometimes with running juices) and good flavor inside and out. Rub level is high, smoke level is moderate and there's an interesting herbal quality to the rub that distinguishes it from anything I've had before. Served unsauced, they're good as is or with sauce added.
Kielbasa: Cut into long half links, the kielbasa has succeeded in both texture and flavor. There's a pleasing porkiness that's elevated a bit from the very light smoke. In spite of the decision to split it lengthwise, the juices have flowed at least conservatively. The juiciness quotient might be higher if served as shorter but unhalved link segments, and I'd love to try one of these uncut. On the most recent visit, the color was more pale and the flavor a bit muted, veering closer to hotdog territory.
Pulled pork: Lobster Q's pulled pork sandwich is served unsauced on a basic roll, with the piled-high pork pulled into big chunks bearing just a bit of bark and just a hint of smokiness. Color is monotone brown; flavor overall has been subtle to a fault on five different tries. More than adequate tenderness has had some accompanying steaminess and an obviously reheated feel. The pork consistently has what I call "turkey thigh" consistency, with about the same moistness level. I'd say the pork is the weakest link on Lobster Q's barbecue roster, but with some of the impressive sauce (served on the side) blended in, this has been at least workable.
Steak tips: Available as one of the options on 2- and 3-meat combos, these have been well seasoned and mostly tender (sometimes stringy) but on three out of four tries lacked the requisite inside/out texture contrast from a well charred exterior and buttery soft interior. They're just too pale. Flavor is pleasant, with a marinade that's as tangy as it is sweet, but it's not applied enough or assertive enough.
Barbecue sauces are served on the side and most of them are excellent. New England Sweet looks like a typical Kansas City style sweet brown sauce, but it's livened with maple. Carolina Lava is a spicy mustard-based sauce with a light sweetness as a backdrop, plenty of heat and lots of small chunky pieces of vegetables, herbs or whatever it is that gives it added oomph. Fat Franklin's, a sweet orange sauce, is the creation of a former chef and is no longer available. I'm split on the two most recent sauces. I like the Apple Cider sauce, which is thin, sweet and blends well with the pork. I'm not crazy about the Bold (not available on my last visit), which tastes like it has tons of Worcestershire (and a grab bag of random ingredients) in it but in fact has none.
Fairly basic cole slaw is a homemade rendition that's a compromise between creamy and tangy. Cucumber salad supplied thick-cut slices with skin on, retaining crunch after bathing in a sweet and sour condiment that had a good balance and a light kick. I'd like to see some more complementary flavors in there, but this was nice as is. Mac and cheese has varied from tight to loose and creamy, but has been consistently mild and garnished with crumbled Ritz crackers (amount and noticeability vary greatly) to add some saltiness and buttery richness. This isn't my preferred style, but not bad. As is somewhat customary at New Hampshire barbecue joints, chili is available as a side, and onion rings can be had for a $2 upgrade. Cornbread is sweet, often as moist as cookie dough and one of the very best of its breed. I often order extra as a dessert or as my next day's breakfast.
The Bottom Line
On a good day, Lobster Q's ribs are at least in the discussion with KC's Rib Shack and Goody Cole's for best in the area. The rest of Lobster Q's compact barbecue menu has succeeded in spots but needs some serious work in the areas of flavor, freshness and consistency. There's still plenty going for it—a deep (and well executed) old school seafood menu, an impressive non-mainstream beer list, some creative sauces and world class onion rings and cornbread—while it tries to carve out a barbecue identity.
Yelp reviews of Lobster Q
Urban Spoon reviews of Lobster Q