Tater Tot Poutine. That’s right, I said it. This menu item, served at JJ’s Snack Shack in Rockport, is as appropriate a lead-in for a review of the restaurant as any. Why? It’s a good barometer; your overall opinion of JJ’s is probably going to run in parallel to your gut reaction to that phrase. In a bastardized twist on French Canadian junk food, JJ’s serves a version of poutine made from the leftover potato pulp scraped from the mechanical gears at the Ore-Ida french fry factory, shaped into balls and deep fried until golden brown, topped with microwaved Gravy Master gravy, a ladle of piping hot processed, pasteurized movie theater nacho cheese, and finished with a shake of dried parsley flakes. If this idea sounds like a horrible, nauseating culinary crime that no thinking, feeling, sane person would ever perpetrate on their insides, this isn’t the review for you. Skip this one, and go read about, I dunno, the ongoing hand-wringing over California’s ban on the serving of foie gras in restaurants. We won’t have hurt feelings. If, however, the idea of Tater Tot Poutine has you scrambling to find your wallet and your car keys, you’ll find a lot to like at JJ’s Snack Shack.
I first noticed JJ’s Snack Shack, a small, unassuming food trailer on the side of Route 1 in Rockport, overlooking Penobscot Bay, on an afternoon drive out to Camden. A chalkboard sign perched out front advertised the day’s special: Lobster rolls. Ho hum, right? In Midcoast Maine at this time of year, a lobster roll special is hardly an unusual sight, as everyone with access to working refrigeration and a tub of Hellmann’s is hawking some version of the classic Maine sandwich to the annual influx of Summer tourists. What made this lobster roll stand out, though, was the unusual preparation. Instead of being mixed with mayonnaise into a cool lobster salad, the special at JJ’s that day was made with deep-fried knuckle and claw meat, served on a traditional butter-griddled roll. I made a silent vow to return as soon as possible.
The menu at JJ’s Snack Shack is much larger than you would expect from such a tiny food trailer. Though the “Shack” offers the requisite selection of fried Maine seafood, the bulk of the menu is devoted to specialty hot dogs and hamburgers, each a creative twist on American classic takeout fare. There’s “The Italiano,” a 1/4 pound Hummel Brothers hot dog grilled and topped with sauteed peppers, tomato sauce, and grated Parmesan. Or “The Lucy Pimento,” a six-ounce Angus hamburger patty stuffed with American cheese and finished with a spread of pimento cheese on a griddled bun. Each creation is more wildly over-the-top than the next, reading like the back-page doodles of a stoned teenager in culinary school. There’s not much in the way of seating; a picnic table being blasted by the sun seemed to be the only option, with most customers taking their orders to go.
Though the deep-fried knuckle-and-claw lobster roll that I had spotted earlier in the week no longer seemed to be available, a quick chat with the proprietor put me back on the right track. JJ (the man himself!) is wonderfully friendly and polite, a larger-than-life personality bursting out of a tiny food trailer, his forearms spattered with grease burns. After I explained the deep-fried special I had seen previously, he agreed to make it for me, even though it wasn’t on the menu that day: A traditional New England-style split top hot dog bun, filled to overflowing with deep fried chunks of lobster meat. JJ suggested topping it with drawn butter, but I (somewhat arbitrarily) drew the line here; I wanted a deep-fried lobster sandwich, but I wanted it topped with mayonnaise, not butter. After all, I had my health to consider.
The resulting sandwich, a $9.95 bit of mad scientist lunacy, was absolutely delicious. Purists will argue that deep frying something as delicately, sweetly flavored as lobster is a waste of the precious meat, and to those critics I say, “Thank you for letting me have your portion of deep fried lobster.” The batter-and-fry completely changes the flavor and texture of the lobster meat, transforming it into tiny, crunchy nuggets of pure ocean flavor. It’s certainly much too decadent and rich for everyday eating, but it is well worth experiencing at least once in your life.
We also tried the “Tijuana Danger Dog,” a $5.45 Hummel hot dog wrapped in bacon, grilled, and topped with homemade pico de gallo and jalapenos. The hot dog itself was was outstanding, with the crisp bacon and the hot dog’s natural casing lending plenty of snap. I wasn’t crazy about the raw green peppers in the pico de gallo, but the diced jalapeno and tomatoes brought plenty of heat and additional flavor.
The winner of the day was the “Hot and Jucy,” a $5.95 hamburger stuffed with American cheese and pickled jalapeno slices, topped with more American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and ketchup. It was the ultimate junk food burger, with plenty of char on the outside of the hamburger patty, and loaded with melty cheese. The bun had a difficult time standing up to the onslaught of toppings, mostly disintegrating by the time the burger was finished, but we didn’t care.
What about that Tater Tot Poutine? It’s kind of outrageous, in how lowbrow and terrible it is for you. It’s an aggressive assault on your cardiovascular system, a closed-fist strike to your decades-long cultivation of good taste and refinement, that may not be for everyone. And it’s stunningly, gleefully delicious. It’s an attitude about food that permeates much of the menu; it doesn’t have to be serious, and it doesn’t have to be made from locally-sourced grass-fed opera-singing piglets or chanterelle mushrooms foraged from the foothills of the Camden Snow Bowl. Sometimes, a burger is just a burger, and if you’re going to be eating junk food, it might as well be as creative, carefully prepared, and well thought-out as the food being served at JJ’s Snack Shack. Unlike the mass-produced garbage served by sulky teenagers at the drive-through, a burger or a hot dog from JJ’s is consistently fresh, high quality, made with real ingredients (nacho cheese notwithstanding), and cooked to order, at a price point not unlike what you’d expect from a fast food restaurant. A few days to recover on the elliptical machine, and I’ll be back for more.