You'd think the Culinary Institute of America has a secret class called "How to Elevate Comfort Classics and Charge More for Them." Over here is Major Food Group, convincing us that we should be paying $2 for bagels and $21 for Caesar salads. Over there is David Chang, making a (legitimate) case for $17 ramen. Everything is fair game for deconstructing, reconstructing, and improving, even if we never thought it needed improvement in the first place (try that Caesar, trust me). So it's surprising that a staple of growing up in America has remained shackled to its blue collar roots: the tuna sandwich.
And although the same could be said about the humble bologna and cheese, or the classic peanut butter and jelly, you don't see the prime components of those classics commanding top dollar at swank raw fish joints. Isn't a spicy maguro roll, after all, simply a tuna sandwich in leaner clothes – mashed flesh, mayo, spicy, and starch?
But while gourmands have decided to let overpriced burgers and fried chicken into the country club (for better or for worse), the tuna sandwich, too frequently made with a commodity fish that resembles skinless, flavorless chicken breast, is still tin foil material. It's the shortest straw selection when divvying up the contents of a summertime cooler. It's the first thing I ate after a kidney surgery – nothing else was left in the hospital commissary at 1 a.m. It's the Bart Simpson of sandwiches, an eternally stunted 10-year-old held back in the fourth grade.
That's not to say there haven't been intelligent riffs. As a waiter in the early aughts, I remember serving "sushi grade tuna" (the obnoxious catchphrase du jour) seared rare on a roll with tapenade. As a Columbia grad student, I fell in love with the arugula topped tuna panini at Radio Perfecto (now closed) in Morningside Heights. And as a professional critic, I'll happen upon a baguette slathered with high-quality Sicilian tuna every now and then — the kind of olive-oil drenched flesh that's as pink as sun-kissed skin.
But still. Such fin fish largess hasn't pervaded our collective culinary consciousness the way dry-aged burgers and kale salads have. We don't socialize photos of them the way we do for a bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll (New Yorkers insist on Instagramming photos of Eggslut mere hours after arriving in Los Angeles). We don't debate versions that include or exclude mayonnaise the way we do with lobster rolls (for the record: Connecticut-style with butter beats Maine-style with mayo). Seek advice with the food writing community, of which I'm a longstanding member, and you'll have an easier time learning about a good Japanese breakfast in New York than a good tuna sandwich.
I won't deign to say I know the best place for a tuna sandwich in New York. Something tells me the classic Italian version with black olives and onions at Defonte's in Red Hook ranks near the top. And I'm sure Robert Sietsema knows a few places in the Bronx that do it right. But for now, let me say this: the chief offering at Breads Bakery is nearly unparalleled.
Essentially, you have the components of a Nicoise salad mixed together with a few North African flourishes.
The name of the sandwich is the Tunisian. The components are simple: dark tuna – as rich and oily as mackerel – hard boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, black olives, sliced tomatoes, and confit lemon on soft focaccia slicked with a crimson harissa. Essentially, you have the components of a Nicoise salad mixed together with a few North African flourishes. The citrus and spice play key roles here, the former subduing the tuna's maritime tang with its bright fragrance, the latter imparting a lingering, warming finish.
But the real key to the Tunisian is temperature. The masterful creation, even though it's prepared ahead of time, isn't stored in a refrigerator, the death trap of sandwiches at Maison Kayser, Pret a Manger and elsewhere. Breads Bakery, even at its Bryant Park kiosk, is one of the few establishments to take advantage of of a Department of Health rule that allows "cold" food to be held above 41 degrees Fahrenheit for a few hours as long as strict labeling and logging requirements are met. This is why you'll notice the "use by date" on the sandwiches include a specific time, rather than a specific day of the week. It costs more to serve food this way; it can't be returned to cold storage under this DOH rule, meaning any un-purchased items need to be discarded. But it makes a heck of a difference.
So there you go. The Tunisian sandwich at Breads is nothing revolutionary, it's just perfect. It packs enough nourishment to keep a hungry office worker fed until dinner. It boasts the clarity of ingredients one might expect from Wildair or another in vogue venue. And even though it's an axiomatic argument in favor of the upscale tuna sandwich – a smart way to let a regal fish become a luxurious sandwich the way society already allows a fancy steak to become a $33 burger – this is when I tell you that The Tunisian costs just $10.83 after tax. Right on.