Food & Drink

The Great Tuna Melt Investigation

You love tuna melts (everyone) or you hate them (Dan Savage). We ate every single one in Seattle (almost). Here is what happened.

The Great Tuna Melt Investigation

Tripper Dungan

Elliott Bay Cafe (103 S Main St, 682-6664; 1521 10th Ave, 436-8482)

What could possibly justify $11 for a tuna melt? I put this question to readers of Slog, The Stranger's blog, after venturing out one day in search of that mysteriously satisfying combination of fish, mayonnaise, melted cheese, and bread (sounds disgusting, right? But isn't!) to find that at Elliott Bay Cafe, a tuna melt costs more than any other sandwich on the menu.

"You wuz robbed," said one Slog commenter. "Nothing justifies $12.10 [with tax] for a tuna melt." Others suggested it might be worth the cost if the sandwich came sprinkled with gold flecks, or with booze and a cab voucher, or garnished with a $10 bill.

The people behind the counter explained it this way: St. Jude's albacore tuna, canned by a Seattle family + fancy rustic Italian bread (exact provenance unknown) + "American cheddar" (exact provenance also unknown) = $12.10, please.

To which I say: Please. The tuna was thoughtfully made (capers, red onion, and herbs mixed in) and mercifully light on the mayonnaise, but the cheese wasn't fully melted, the bread-to-tuna ratio was all out of whack due to the rustic Italian's overwhelming sense of self-importance, and, again, $12.10. If you are going to drag my beloved tuna melt out of the under-$10 category—an act that kinda constitutes a crime against the basic, cheap goodness of tuna melts—then you had better fancy it up real, real nice. Gold flecks at a minimum. ELI SANDERS

Burgermaster (

Now, $6.99 for a tuna melt—that seems closer to the truth of the matter. Burgermaster serves up albacore on grilled dill rye with melted Schreiber cheddar and tomato slices. It's an honest, no-frills sandwich. Yes, it is greasy. Yes, the amount of mayonnaise involved makes it something of an aquatic event. Yes, it is delicious. (For $9.87, it comes with fries and a drink. I suggest the comically warm Burgermaster iced tea. "Oh, we make hot iced tea," the manager explained.) ELI SANDERS

Pamela's Fine Foods (607 Stewart St, 623-2347)

The tuna melt is a sandwich in conflict. On one side of its civil war is the mashed-up fish meat suspended in mayonnaise, which holds viscosity only in its native cool temperatures. At the other vanguard is the warm melted cheese, which threatens to cool upon contact with its cold cousin. One of these forces must win. Depending on the strategy, this battle can result in cool, coagulated cheese or warm, runny mayo. An epicurean general must decide whose side she's on. Pamela has chosen the side of melted cheddar and a finely blended tuna salad that becomes warm enough to barely break the emulsion of both the mayonnaise and the cheese. Serving it on crunchy, toasted eight-grain wheat with a tart tomato wheel, our general has made a bold, respectable choice ($7.49). DOMINIC HOLDEN

Columbia City Ale House (4914 Rainier Ave S, 723-5123)

Wedged in that commerce-dense stretch of Rainier Avenue that functions as Columbia City's de facto downtown, Columbia City Ale House is a ridiculously lovable brewpub with a celebrated tuna melt. What makes this melt special: roasted green chili, featured prominently enough to earn top billing and imbuing the sandwich with a spicy kick that works miracles in offsetting the inherent iffiness of the whole fish-in-warm-mayonnaise thing. If only the bread could keep up. As it is, the buttery crisp-grilled sourdough slices work mostly as a bland framing crouton for the green-chili-and-albacore explosion within. It's $11, but served with your choice of Tim's chips or astonishingly good potato salad spiked with pickled vegetables. DAVID SCHMADER

5 Point Cafe (415 Cedar St, 448-9993)

To begin with, the idea of a tuna melt is unsophisticated. You grill this: two slices of white bread, cheddar cheese, mayo, and tuna. When the grilling is done, you eat this sandwich; after the eating is done, you forget about this sandwich. The only interesting thing in a tuna melt is the minced stuff that's mixed with the tuna—onions, celery, and pickles. These bits of banal vegetable offer the occasional crunch while eating. For reasons that only the creator of the cosmos could know, there is a crack of pleasure in each crunch, particularly when it happens in the premolar area of the teeth. The tuna melt at the 5 Point Cafe is $9, comes with greasy fries, and is everything you would expect from this type of sandwich. The cheese, tuna (the veggies in the tuna), and thick slices of white bread are plain. Nothing stands out. Nothing leaps at you. Everything stays in its place. But could you imagine an exciting tuna melt? A tuna melt that is mind-blowing? Not in a million years. Sushi can be exciting, not a tuna melt. CHARLES MUDEDE

Grim's (1512 11th Ave, 324-7467)

I love tuna melts so much that I'm pretty sure I was a tuna melt in a past life (and also a cannibal), so I can find something to enjoy about almost any pile of melty, fishy cheese goop. That said, the Albacore Melt at Grim's ($7.25) is less than ideal. First of all, it is open-faced. What?! How am I supposed to wrap my fingers around that!? Second of all, its chosen cheese is smoked mozzarella—a notoriously shitty melter!—which immediately upon cooling takes on a sweaty, plasticky sheen. Boo. Third of all, the dill relish wants to be tangier to offset the mayonnaise. Obv! Lucky for you and Grim's and the universe and cheese's good name, there is an obvious solution. Just skip the tuna and go straight for the grilled cheese—truffled leek with herbs and Havarti "on sliced Giuseppe" (poor Giuseppe!)—and your sandwich-seeking will not be in vain. LINDY WEST

Lecosho (89 University St, 623-2101)

The tuna melt at Lecosho costs $12. It comes with soup of the day (local/seasonal, naturally) or a lovely little salad (with pepitas!), a tranquil room (halfway up the Harbor Steps), a cushy banquette (ask!), a cloth napkin (thick, white), tastes of two kinds of rosé (though then you should probably buy a glass, $7, you will not regret it), and a compliment on your intelligence ("Good choice," you are assured quietly). The sandwich is on potato bread (grilled to buttery-toasty, just strong enough to hold together) with house-poached albacore tuna (spicy with "mama's mustard pickle relish") and Gruyère leaking out the sides (not too sharp, not too mild, melts like a dream) and peppery arugula AND pickled red onions. Also, it is large; I could eat only half. It may cost twice as much as other tuna melts, but it's approximately 17 times better. BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT

Whole Foods (

It takes concerted effort to make a Whole Foods tuna melt ($6.56) taste like anything more than a sun-spoiled tuna sandwich. The problem is the tuna—the "Mediterranean" mixture it serves (even the counterperson didn't know what kind of tuna it is) is beyond bland and has the texture of waterlogged hair. To make it edible, pile on the fixings—I recommend pickles, arugula, Havarti cheese, roasted bell pepper, and horseradish aioli on a chewy baguette, grilled until all the flavors fuse together. The end result is like putting a party hat on a boring friend—you can dress it up okay, but you might still want to bring a book. CIENNA MADRID

Grand Central Bakery (1616 Eastlake Ave E, 957-9505; 214 First Ave S, 622-3644)

The Tuna Tosti is eminently affordable at $7.50, but the sack lunch ($9.50), which comes with a bag of Tim's chips and one of Grand Central's ridiculous, huge fresh-baked cookies, is a bargain. (Try to stick to the beautiful Pioneer Square location; the Eastlake GC is unremarkable in the same big-windows-and-concrete way every Eastlake ground-floor retail restaurant is unremarkable.) Grand Central's bread grills exceptionally well—it goes from rich and airy to pleasantly dense—and the tuna is well seasoned, with capers and fresh chive. The one problem with the Tosti is that it's too wet inside; one bite in, you've got mayonnaise and tuna slopping everywhere over the plate, including—bummer!—on top of that peanut butter cookie you're saving for the end. But besides the mess, this is practically a perfect bag lunch. PAUL CONSTANT

Hi Spot Cafe (1410 34th Ave, 325-7905)

A tuna melt isn't my first choice of sandwich, but this one is mighty tasty. Call me converted. It's made with white albacore tuna mixed with just the right amount of mayo, onions, and capers—good tuna salad always includes something salty and sour—tucked into a grilled Macrina herb roll, with melted cheddar and sliced roma tomato. I was initially wary of the roll, fearful of sea-biscuit toughness, but it was soft yet decidedly unsoggy, with a hint of herbs. For your $10.75, you also get soup, salad, potato salad, or potato chips (the best complement to any sandwich). Hi Spot is in a charming old house, and I ate out on the airy patio surrounded by flowers and greenery—just right. GILLIAN ANDERSON

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Comments (30) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Yep. Dan Savage was the only one to come out ahead. Tuna melts are fucking gross.
Posted by ctmcmull on June 8, 2011 at 1:11 PM · Report this
Grim's tuna melt is is reason I love tuna melts. It's the smoked mozzarella.
Posted by Varia on June 8, 2011 at 9:31 PM · Report this
schmacky 3
Lindy's disparagement of the open-faced tuna melt is completely off. It's actually the only way to make a tuna melt, because it enables you to melt the cheese on top (under a broiler) while still allowing the tuna mixture to remain cool and congealed.

To "barely break the emulsion of the mayo," as Dominic puts it, COMPLETELY RUINS the dish. Are you people actually fans of tuna melts in which the tuna salad has been warmed to the point where mayo runs out of it? Digusting!
Posted by schmacky on June 9, 2011 at 12:08 PM · Report this
Thank you for trying Lecosho - I can't second your tuna melt praise enough. Last time I had it there I had to stop myself from shouting. Not shouting anything in particular, it just made me wanna shout is all.
Posted by gloomy gus on June 9, 2011 at 12:13 PM · Report this
Sorry, 3. I think most tuna melt fans are OK with the emulsion breaking a bit. Comes with the territory if you want a sandwich that is warm all the way through. Or maybe this is one of those dividing lines where people on one side have no idea about the existence of the other?
Posted by RL is too lazy to log in on June 9, 2011 at 12:20 PM · Report this
hillpagan 6
The biggest tuna melt/tuna salad foible goes unaddressed: There can't be anything sweet in there or it's disgusting. I can't tell you how many beautiful tuna melts have gone miserably uneaten because of the misguided addition of sweet relish. Yuck.
Posted by hillpagan on June 9, 2011 at 12:53 PM · Report this
Garfield 7
Best and cheapest tuna sandwich in the city is at Mint Cafe on 2nd & Cherry. Amazing!
Posted by Garfield on June 9, 2011 at 1:25 PM · Report this
A. Birch Steen, Dan Savage and InfinitePest all agree on this topic.
Posted by InfinitePest on June 9, 2011 at 1:26 PM · Report this
Zebes 9
The illustration is amazing.
Posted by Zebes on June 9, 2011 at 1:59 PM · Report this
Feierabend located in South Lake Union will put a Tuna Melt every once in a while as a special item and it is amazing.
Posted by mooks79 on June 9, 2011 at 3:49 PM · Report this
11 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
Best tuna melt? The one i make in my own kitchen, damn right! And it doesn't cost me 12 bucks!
Posted by Sasquatch's cousin on June 10, 2011 at 1:21 AM · Report this
reverend dr dj riz 13
and since i'm a baptist, i'll put bacon on it. yes.. tuna melt with bacon.
Posted by reverend dr dj riz on June 10, 2011 at 10:05 AM · Report this
Sat'n 14
schmacky, may I point out that you are insane. A tuna melt is a sandwich, not a pizza. Sandwiches have bread on both sides. You might as well say that open-faced is the only way to make a grilled cheese. That wouldn't be a grilled cheese! That would be cheesy toast! A completely different thing! Same with tuna melts! A CHEESY TUNA TOAST IS NOT THE SAME AS A TUNA MELT!
Posted by Sat'n on June 10, 2011 at 11:18 AM · Report this
Eliza 15
I love a good tuna melt, but isn't tuna totally toxic these days? I mean if the FDA is telling you to limit your intake, what with all the pressure them must be getting from the fishing lobby, makes me wonder how bad it really is...
Posted by Eliza on June 10, 2011 at 11:57 AM · Report this
The best tuna melt is at Cafe Racer. Mmm....

As far as the tuna being toxic? Well, they did a study during the Bush administration and determined that YES! it has too much mercury in it! When asked what should be done about it? Bush said, "eat less tuna".
I'm not making that up.
Posted by kutis on June 10, 2011 at 12:58 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 17
Canned tuna is so crazy cheap, there's no excuse for charging $12.10 for a tuna sandwich, I don't care how fancy pants it is. That said, I would never trust a bookstore cafe to have good, reasonably priced food.
Posted by keshmeshi on June 10, 2011 at 2:56 PM · Report this
Carlsss 18
As a lover of all things tuna, I must rule in favor of #14. Cheesy tuna toast is also really delicious, but the broiler method is not a proper tuna melt.

As a side note, Schmacky is not technically insane. What we're actually seeing in comment #3 is just a case of somebody being completely wrong about tuna melts. I used to think the same way, back in what I refer to as my "completely wrong about tuna melts" days.
Posted by Carlsss on June 10, 2011 at 3:44 PM · Report this
After reading the story, and the comments, I have to say that I do like me a tuna melt. Mercury, radio-iodine, and all.

However, I do limit myself to ONCE A MONTH at most! (Talking to you ladies)

I've had T-melts both good and bad... but if I have to have one (away from home), you know where I go? SUBWAY. Never pay more than $5 for your monthly dose of mercury.

Toast your Subway with cheddar and get tomatoes lettuce and cucumbers (or pickles, or both). Jalapenos work, too. I like the Honey Oat bread which is basically white bread pressed on instant oat meal.

Bottom line: This story wastes space. That, and you should save your monthly tuna (mercury exposure) for good tuna (sushi), and eat it raw.
Posted by gr8james on June 10, 2011 at 4:03 PM · Report this
razorclammer 20
Loved Dom's.
Posted by razorclammer on June 10, 2011 at 8:51 PM · Report this
Mrs. Norris 21
Tuna melts are good unless they contain either mayonnaise or sweet relish. Because any foods containing either of those two noxious substances are disgusting.
Posted by Mrs. Norris on June 11, 2011 at 8:35 PM · Report this
St. Jude's tuna (@Elliott Bay) runs $5-6 a can. It's harvested by one boat, the F/V St. Jude. They test their catch for mercury. So far, none detected. Would I pay $12 for a sandwich made with a can of St. Jude's? Probably not.

@Schmacky: Of course open-face is the best way to make a tuna melt.
Posted by WenG on June 12, 2011 at 1:16 PM · Report this
@15 Eliza, local albacore doesn’t seem to have mercury issues that other tuna has’s what is in the St Jude’s canned tuna at Elliot Bay and I’m guessing the fresh tuna at Lecosho is most likely local too

@17 keshmeshi .. tuna that is cheap is fished by slaves on big ships and is mercury laden .. the tuna at Locosho & Elliott Bay is neither ...

I say run to Locosho and treat yourself! Lovely people, nice food, support local as best you can
Posted by olive oyl on June 12, 2011 at 2:38 PM · Report this
Try the tuna melt at Lottie's in Columbia City.

I'm telling you this as a favor. It's gorgeous.
Posted by Charlie Mas on June 13, 2011 at 9:55 AM · Report this
A friend of mine in his poor days referred to tuna as "the holy food", ...hmmm...
For vegetarians, Cyberdogs, east of the convention center has a tasty version, a bit gloppy, but relatively true to the fishy/cheesy experience.
Posted by iamnumbersix on June 13, 2011 at 10:01 AM · Report this
Collin 26
Just had the Tuna Melt at Columbia City Ale House, and it was fantastic. I disagree with Schmader about the bread, though. The sourdough added some very pleasant tangyness to the sandwich.
Posted by Collin on June 13, 2011 at 11:30 AM · Report this
santababy 27
Open faced sandwiches are not sandwiches.

Tuna melts minus the mayo -- it exists, I swear!! -- are the most delicious thing ever.
Posted by santababy on June 14, 2011 at 11:24 AM · Report this
Eliza 28
@23 thanks for the info--I'll have to try it. Will be my first tuna in months...
Posted by Eliza on June 14, 2011 at 11:38 AM · Report this
rafaelblock 29
Epic fail: Missing out on Fare Start's Cafe @2100 where you can get a kick @ss tuna melt for $5.75 served on Macrina bread....mmmm! and you get served by some nice kids trying to better themselves!
Posted by rafaelblock on June 14, 2011 at 1:13 PM · Report this
What about the tuna melts at Noah's Bagel's? I lived on these during college!
Posted by ebjeeby on June 14, 2011 at 3:08 PM · Report this

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