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.
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
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 (www.wholefoodsmarket.com)
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