A Shore Thing — Butch’s Lobster Shack brings a taste of Maine to Midland Avenue
Special to the Daily
Butch’s Lobster Shack
122 Midland Ave.
(Phillips 66 gas station)
Thursday-Sunday, noon-9:30 p.m.
Cash or check only
“We’re going to New England!” I exclaim, peeling out of Aspen with a new buddy riding shotgun. A recent East Coast transplant like myself, he looks at me warily. “Don’t worry,” I assure him. “We’ll arrive in less than an hour.”
I’ve promised him a succulent seafood lunch that will transport him to the shore. What I haven’t mentioned: I don’t have access to a private jet. But I do have a plan. And so I can only smirk as we zoom past the airport on Highway 82.
One might assume that scoring an authentic lobster roll in the Roaring Fork Valley — some 2,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean — is like finding a message in a bottle adrift at sea. But longtime locals know where to best enjoy the quintessential seaside snack: Butch’s Lobster Shack, which has been stationed in downtown Basalt for the past 10 summers. Just as Bostonians seek solace in the warm sands, cool breezes and unlimited lobster feasts of southern Maine, for some Aspenites a trip downvalley to Butch’s is a summer rite of passage.
When I pull into the parking lot of the Phillips 66 gas station, my captive appears even more confused. Then he spies it: a tiny red-and-white shack that looks like it should be sited on Cape Cod rather than here along Midland Avenue.
It’s Friday at 1:30 p.m., and the place is bustling. Soon enough, two stools are free and we slide up to the counter. Seeing other patrons clinking bottles, we order a round of beers.
“You gotta go next door for that,” says our hostess Jody, pointing to Jimbo’s Liquor’s across the parking lot. In a minute we return to our perches, tallboys in tow. Between sips, we slurp briny oysters that landed in Colorado by way of North Carolina just hours ago. Heat waves shimmy from the scorched asphalt, but we stay cool beneath the bar’s awning.
Finally, Jody pushes twin paper boats toward us. Inside each is a charred-edge, buttered bun, topped with a whole Romaine leaf and a glossy mound of pink lobster meat flecked with fresh dill and bound with just enough mayo to hold it all together.
“Goddamn, that’s good,” my sidekick says between mouthfuls. It’s true. I chomp down on crispy, crunchy, creamy layers, close my eyes, and imagine the call of seagulls in place of purring motor vehicles. In that moment, we could be on the beach. We could be back home.
Captain Butch Darden works his magic on many other fruits of the sea: steamer clams, belly clams, shrimp, scallops, calamari. He flash-fries codfish and chips, Baja-style fish tacos and crab cakes; simmers stockpots of clam chowder and seafood bisque; and, of course, steams whole lobsters weighing up to 2 pounds. Darden’s preparations are refreshingly simple, highlighting the fresh catch he receives two of the four days Butch’s is open. Other fare include onion rings, fried ’shrooms, and the Landlubbers Cheeseburg Basket, made with beef from a small farm down the road. It’s popular with picky kids, perhaps more so with parents at just $10, including fries and coleslaw. Darden’s favorite creation pays tribute to a former Aspen restaurateur now making waves in Nantucket: Shannon’s Shrimp, which are dipped in egg and sautéed in a smooth garlic-white wine cream sauce.
“This is New England food,” Darden says proudly. “Shore food.”
Darden has been slinging shellfish since 1979, when the owner of The Tippler — that watering hole, then located at the foot of Aspen Mountain — agreed to let him open an oyster bar during ski season.
“I went to the Butcher’s Block, bought four dozen oysters, an oyster knife, lemons, and cocktail sauce, and practiced opening oysters,” the soft-spoken Darden says with an easy laugh. It was a hit. Over the next four summers, he returned to his native Massachusetts to work a two-month gig as a lobster diver in Provincetown. Back in Aspen with a newfound reverence for the crustaceans, he began expanding his repertoire. Eight winters later he upgraded to a 600-square-foot tent at the Grand Aspen Hotel. But it wasn’t until Darden moved his oyster bar to the Timberline Restaurant in Snowmass in 1992 that his current mobile lobster bar — a 100-square-foot craft custom-built by a carpenter in Parachute and outfitted with a full kitchen, gas, plumbing, and electricity — was born.
“I’d bring it to Basalt on Fridays and Saturdays, sell lobsters and shrimp,” Darden says. When business in Snowmass ebbed dramatically, Darden jumped ship. But his seasonal lobster shack survives.
“It doesn’t make a lot of money, but it’s a social thing,” Darden says. He surveys a gaggle of regulars who’ve gathered at café tables here on the grassy lawn.
“It’s a labor of love,” Darden maintains. “Last couple of years, I wasn’t sure I was gonna do this anymore.” He pauses, and then smiles at the sight of diners tucking happily into his roadside fare. “But it’s comin’ back.”
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