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Crafting the perfect tuna melt

Tuna Melt

Growing up in a mainly Greek-American household, the notion of the diner or snack shop is not new to me.  My father and uncle owned two in their lives, and seemingly knew most of the others that existed all over my home city of Chicago. If you’re not exactly sure what I’m speaking of, picture the infamous Dancing Zorba’s in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

These venues were the ideal place to get a home-cooked meal without breaking the bank. Unfortunately, they are also a dying breed in this modern world of gourmet fast food, actual home cooking, and even less disposable income than we had in the past. While these snack shops are popular with the weekend breakfast crowd, too many are near empty the rest of the week.

Despite the slow extinction of these eateries, a number of famous dishes were born within their kitchens. They’re true blue bona fide all American meals too good to be forgotten to history. Today I want to focus on one sandwich most might overlook when viewing the vast menu of a snack shop, but it accidentally became one of my favorite sandwiches to make.

I give you...the Tuna Melt.

A legend born by an accident

If you’ve never tried a tuna melt in your life, then you’ve missed out. Your only excuses would be if you absolutely hate seafood, or loathe a grilled cheese. In all reality, that’s what a tuna melt is. A meeting of the notions of a tuna salad sandwich with a grilled cheese. Warm and crispy, with the succulent flavor of a good tuna salad, covered with gooey melted cheese.

In all the years I’ve eaten at diners and snack shops, I had honestly overlooked this sandwich. I love a good tuna salad, as well as a grilled cheese, but the burgers, club sandwiches, and omelettes always grabbed my attention. My encounter with the tuna melt happened on accident.

I was helping out at my father’s last restaurant, when a check for a tuna melt accidentally went through twice, thus I was stuck with an extra plate. Seeing as I had meal benefits, I ended up having the tuna melt for lunch (so it wouldn’t go to waste). I'll admit it was love at first bite, and I kicked myself for never trying a tuna melt sooner.

The actual story behind the sandwich is more least it is to me. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, many drugstores actually offered a simple lunch counter for those eating on the go. Supposedly at a Woolworth’s in Charleston, South Carolina, a grilled cheese was ordered, but upon accident, a bowl full of tuna salad spilled on top of the grilled cheese as it cooked.  The customer who ordered the grilled cheese tried the first tuna melt, loved it, and thus the legend was born.

While this is the shared canon of the tuna melt, I’m honestly skeptical. Usually a grilled cheese isn’t made “open face”, thus I’d question if this actually happened. I’d more believe the tuna melt simply came from experimentation, rather than accident, but I have no evidence to support this.

Crafting a tuna melt at home

Ingredients for a tuna melt

Regardless if you believe the legend or not, you can easily enjoy the crispy goodness of a tuna melt in your own kitchen. Granted one might think a hot sandwich with a creamy salad in it would be difficult to craft (I originally thought that), but it's actually a simple process. To start, you only need the basic ingredients:

  • Tuna salad
  • Two slices of bread
  • Butter, margarine, or oil
  • Two slices of American cheese (or any cheese you prefer)

The tuna salad is crucial, but I have you covered with the recipe my mother taught me long ago:

Basic Tuna Salad

Basic Tuna Salad


  • 3 cans (5 oz) of tuna, drained
  • 3-4 stalks of celery, diced small
  • 2 tbsp of dill relish
  • 5 tbsp of mayonnaise
  • Salt and pepper to taste


In a large bowl, combine the tuna and celery with the relish and mayonnaise. Stir thoroughly and season with salt and pepper (if needed).


Feel free to variate to your heart's content. You could add seasonings or herbs such as granulated garlic, dill, or even oregano. You could also add in onions or even spicy ideas like jalapeños with lime juice.

Healthy It Up

Use fat-free mayonnaise if you wish to make it "healthier". You could also use Greek yogurt if you're not into mayonnaise.

Serving Suggestions

Serve on bread for sandwiches, or on lettuce for a light salad.

Step 1: Prepare the bread

Brushing oil on bread for a tuna melt

Like you would for a grilled cheese, brush your bread with the butter, margarine, or any cooking oil that you choose to use.  You only need to brush one side of each slice.

Step 2: Assemble the sandwich halves

Assemble your tuna melt for cooking

Flip your bread slices over so the greased sides are facing down, then place a thin layer of tuna salad on each slice. Make sure to think in terms of the total amount of tuna salad you would put in a sandwich, only divided. You don’t want to overload your tuna melt.

Top each half with a slice of cheese and you’re ready for the stove.

Step 3: Grill your sandwich halves

Tuna melt in frying pan

On your stove, set up a frying pan (or skillet) on medium heat, and allow the pan to fully heat up. Carefully place your sandwich halves (oil side down) on the heat, and cook them until the bread is toasted and the cheese melted. When you’ve reached that point, then put the two halves together and serve.

Now you might wonder why one can’t assemble the whole sandwich and cook it together like a grilled cheese. The answer is simply in how quickly things can fall apart in trying to flip such a sandwich, with tuna salad oozing all over. Cooking them as halves ensures the sandwich holds together.

Alternate Method: Use a toaster oven

Tuna melt in toaster oven

If you happen to own a toaster oven, then you could easily make your tuna melt there, even bypassing the need to butter or oil the bread if you wish. Just take your two halves and toast them to perfection. Easy and just as delicious.

Tags: American, tuna, melt, salad, sandwich

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