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Top-notch tuna sandwich: Seattle-area chefs offer tips for tuna salad, but your way is correct way

5 Photos
Chef Liz Kenyon from Manolin in Fremont prepares her version of their ultimate tuna salad sandwich, adding salt before stirring everything together on Wednesday, July 7, 2021.
Chef Liz Kenyon from Manolin in Fremont prepares her version of their ultimate tuna salad sandwich, adding salt before stirring everything together on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times/TNS) (Photos by Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — The tuna salad sandwich inspires such strong feelings that two fans filed a class-action lawsuit against Subway for how bad its version is, specifically alleging that said sandwich actually contains zero tuna. Some independent laboratory tests seem to show tuna is, in fact, present in Subway’s tuna salad sandwich. But other results have been inconclusive, perhaps due to the processing of the fish combined with the ensalading (technical term) of it diluting the tuna DNA. The fact that this is wending its way through our legal system feels like some end-times stuff.

We certainly all can agree a tuna salad sandwich starts with tuna. And while restaurants might dabble in fancier versions — at Seattle’s Old Salt at Manolin, chef Liz Kenyon uses local albacore loins confited in olive oil from (the great) Villa Jerada — here we’re talking about canned tuna, in its familiar puck-shaped tin. Mayonnaise is — it must be — another nonnegotiable, with the abomination that is Miracle Whip beneath consideration. From this point, however, we descend quickly into a morass, made more morassy by the feelings deeply rooted in childhood sense-memory that many people bring to the matter.

Shall pickles or a cousin thereof be incorporated for complementary flavor and textural contrast? What about, contrariwise, sweet relish, because somehow a cloying element is desirable with fish? (Sorry, but see Miracle Whip above, and also: Shudder.) Then there’s the matter of onion: essential or really altogether overpowering? Maybe celery, just to do some extra chopping for some reason? Extra herbs, just to complicate matters? On the sandwich as a whole, should lettuce and/or tomato be added as if tuna salad, correctly made, does not stand humbly yet magnificently on its own? What kind of bread, and to toast or not to toast (how is this even a question)?

But of course — of course — the way you like it is the only correct way, and also the reason the tuna salad sandwich made at home is the very best one. Have your sweet relish, you pervert! I make mine with olive-oil-packed tuna (extra richness), organic or Kewpie mayo (the latter even better because MSG), Dijon mustard (Amora is the world’s best), capers (Julia Child agrees!), grated Parmesan (for secret extra umami), a little salt, and a little pepper, with snipped-up chives a pleasing optional touch. Not-too-nice white bread like Franz buttermilk or nicer brioche both perform excellently (not toasted, need it be said). But — heretical though it may be — I like my tuna salad maybe very best on Saltines (assembled salty side facing down so it hits your tongue).

Following, please find The Very Best Way to Make a Tuna Salad Sandwich from five Seattle-area chefs. Turns out Kenyon likes her homemade stuff on crackers, too, and I might contemplate her idea of a squeeze of lemon. But, sweet pickles: agree to violently disagree. Holly Smith’s dash of hot sauce and Wayne Johnson’s celery salt are also under consideration. (Note that chef Johnson has here eschewed canned tuna — fair enough.)

Out of curiosity, I also asked everybody whether they call it a “tuna salad sandwich,” “tuna fish sandwich” or just “tuna sandwich,” and a half-dozen people can’t even agree on the name. (From my small sample size, this does not appear to be a regional thing; I have yet to harass a linguist about it. I’m on Team Tuna Fish Sandwich.)

One actual fact, if the National Fisheries Institute’s Tuna Council is to be believed: 52 percent of all canned tuna is used in sandwiches. That seems low, though, doesn’t it?

Liz Kenyon

Manolin, Rupee Bar and Old Salt, Seattle

I love tuna salad. When we go down to Oregon to my in-laws, we stock up on their house-canned tuna they make. It is the best. If you can it yourself, there is something that makes it just (expletive) perfect — excuse my language, but I am passionate about this. The juices and fat from the fish confit in the jar with a pinch of salt … nothing added but good, local fish and salt. Perfection.

At home, I mix the tuna with salt, mayo, extra sweet pickles (cucumber and, if they are in my fridge, pickled onions) and a squeeze of lemon. I like my tuna salad on nice sliced white bread — nothing fancy. But what really tickles me? Crackers! Anything from those tasty little rice crackers to Ritz crackers. Or lettuce cups or celery. Any type of small vessel.

Growing up my parents worked a lot … tuna salad was a staple. If there were leftovers, it was turned into tuna casserole. It’s one of those comfort foods for me. Quick and easy, an extra dose of mercury, and I am happy.

Melissa Miranda

of Musang, Seattle

I love tuna sandwiches. My love for them definitely came later in life — growing up Filipina, I didn’t really get the opportunity to eat it until I was older. But I love that it’s something so quick, simple and healthy to make. Skipping the bread altogether and eating it with tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers is also a delight!

1 can tuna, packed in water

Kewpie mayo


Red onions



Salt and pepper

Sometimes I like to add the Everything Bagel Seasoning from Trader Joe’s. I love it on brioche bread and also am down with Dave’s Killer Bread — any type.

Holly Smith

of Cafe Juanita, Kirkland

My mom’s tuna snack growing up was pretty great — she would open the can and then coat the top generously with Jane’s Krazy Mixed-Up Salt. Ate it straight from the tin. No idea if that seasoning mix still exists (Editor’s note: It does!) or what exactly was in it (“Salt, Herbs and Spices, Dehydrated Onion, Dehydrated Garlic,” so who knows?), but it had crunch and flavor and was pretty delicious, as far as I recall.

Key is to get the best fish you can — find one you love — oil-packed for sure. I enjoy different jars/tins, ranging from wild yellowtail to Bonito del Norte (skipjack, albacore, belly, loin …). If I have the really expensive stuff, then I simply flake onto a salad or veggies with great extra-virgin olive oil, smoked Maldon salt and maybe some olives.

Now for a sandwich, it’s Kewpie mayo, capers in large quantities, Dijon mustard, a bit of extra-virgin olive oil such as Laudemio, and sometimes celery. A dash or two of hot sauce, such as Tapatio, is always good. I tend to eat my tuna on salad greens more than not. I love it on a homemade or fabulous bakery-bought long-fermented sourdough or pain au levain — think Tartine-recipe, high-hydration bread with a caramelized crust and tons of flavor.

Wayne Johnson

of FareStart, Seattle

The tuna salad sandwich has been a part of our family since I can remember. My mom would do mayo, pickles (or relish) and chopped-up onions, and it was on white bread (I think Wonder Bread!). As we have become more conscious of where our food is coming from and how it is produced, the tuna salad sandwich has changed slightly.

The tuna salad: sustainably caught, slow-cooked wild yellowfin steaks with diced red onions, chopped pickles (very important), celery and Best Foods mayo, plus a shake of celery salt. The bread: Crust and Crumbs multigrain from our favorite food co-op, Skagit Valley Food Co-op in Mount Vernon. When we want to get fancy, it’s tuna salad between slices of Gouda on Crust & Crumb bread grilled with lightly salted butter (all things grilled in my book).

I guess the one thing that is the same is calling it a tuna salad sandwich.

David Gurewitz

of La Dive, Seattle

I grew up eating a lot of tuna salad. My dad would always make it, and his version is still my favorite. I don’t know his exact recipe, but there was hard-boiled egg in it, plus carrots and a lot of chopped pickle. Curiously, he hates mayo. (Like, he is legitimately repulsed by it. Loves tuna salad, though. He’s a strange guy.) Hence, mayo is the keystone of the whole operation. You’ve got to use enough so it won’t be dry, but a smidge too much and the whole thing is sunk. His rationale is a mess, but I find I agree with the results, and I employ the same strategy whenever I make tuna salad. (I apologize for a tuna salad recipe that is measured predominantly in grams. It seems so extra.)

Two 5-ounce cans tuna, drained very well of liquid

1 fillet anchovy (optional)

1 clove garlic

5 g capers

65 g celery, small dice

10 g (about 1) scallion, thinly sliced

10 g whole grain or Creole mustard

75 g mayo

Salt and black pepper, to taste

Sliced pickles and hard-boiled eggs (optional)

Potato chips

Finely chop the garlic with the anchovy and the capers (or crush together in a mortar with a pestle) — try to make a paste. Flake the tuna into a bowl with a fork or your hands until whatever texture satisfies you. Add the garlic/anchovy paste and the remaining ingredients, and mix well. The tuna salad tastes best if refrigerated for an hour or so before eating. Adding slices of pickle and hard-boiled egg is highly recommended (or, if you prefer, just chop some up and mix ‘em right in). Super bonus points if you put potato chips in the sandwich, but anyhow, it seems incomplete if there aren’t at least some on the side.