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Gone fishing for the perfect tuna melt

I left my heart in Cherry Hill, N.J.

When my wife and I moved from Philadelphia to Nashua in 2003, we reluctantly parted ways with a tuna melt served at the Silver Diner in that South Jersey suburb. Once every week or so during our Philly years, we would make a pilgrimage eastward across the Ben Franklin Bridge, drawn by this sublime concoction of tuna adorned with diced pickles and scant mayonnaise, a firm tomato slice, tangy cheddar cheese, and sharp sourdough bread.

My passion for tuna melts is a funny thing. I didn't grow up eating them, discovering them only in adulthood with an ardor that reached fever pitch during my late 20s. They became comfort food incarnate; when a rough day at work left me feeling that the City of Brotherly Love was anything but, my beloved tuna melt could set everything right again.

Alas, when we moved to New England, I learned the cruel lesson that not all tuna melts are created equal. And, frankly, an inferior tuna melt is doubly offensive: Given that they are not particularly healthful, if you splurge, it had better be worth all those calories and fat.

Tuna-melt infractions are many and varied. Some are weighed down by a surfeit of gloppy mayonnaise; others skimp on the tuna, while still others become 10-napkin meals because they are overstuffed (a hearty half-inch-thick layer is ideal, in my book). Sometimes the tuna salad interior isn't warmed thoroughly during cooking, producing a sandwich oddly reminiscent of unheated leftovers.

Many tuna melts lack cheese with a sufficiently assertive flavor, while others could benefit from pickles, tomato slices, diced celery, or just about anything that might impart a degree of crunch. Some are served on bread that's entirely too soggy with butter. And, finally, some get the bread itself all wrong, opting for a wimpy white or a cloying whole-grain rather than a simple, bold sourdough.

It's taken me three long years to compile a short list of local tuna melts that are worth traveling for. Meet a few entries from my personal tuna melt hall of fame.

Just up the road from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire, the tuna melt at Airport Diner ($6.99, 2280 Brown Ave., Manchester, 603-623-5040) is probably the closest I have found to that iconic New Jersey sandwich.

The flavors of the tuna and Swiss cheese are both assertive, and tomato slices and finely diced celery add the requisite crunch. What really makes this sandwich, though, is its grilled Parmesan bread, which adds wonderful depth of cheesy flavor and takes on a gorgeous golden hue when cooked. Oblong slices of this bread are huge enough that the sandwich sometimes comes cut into thirds rather than the usual halves, all but guaranteeing that you'll depart with a doggy bag (happily, this is a sandwich that tastes wonderful reheated the next day).

The excellent fries that accompany, along with a great selection of malts and milkshakes and tremendous '50s diner ambience, are a bonus.

At just $4.50, the tuna melt at Dream Diner in Tyngsborough (384 Middlesex Road, 978-649-7097) is no-frills but, with a bit of dressing up, quite tasty.

Skip the standard American cheese, which is wishy-washy and yields an insipid sandwich, in favor of the available cheddar, which packs a bit of bite. This tuna melt doesn't come with any crisp vegetable fillings to punch up the crunch; ask for a tomato slice or pickles, small additions that work wonders for any tuna melt.

Leave it to Cambridge to invent a pair of tuna melts with panache.

A tuna melt served at Hi-Rise Bread ($8.75, 56 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-492-3003) breaks the mold most deliciously. Inexplicably called RBC Power 10, this high-end tuna melt features water-packed tuna, Canadian cheddar, tarragon mayonnaise, red onion, and bread and butter pickles on rye. The hints of tarragon and paper-thin red onion slices help tame the sweetness of the pickles, and the overall balance of flavors and textures is outstanding.

The full-size sandwich is gargantuan; unless you've been felling trees all day, opt for it as a half-sandwich ($4.50) instead.

Across Harvard Square, the tuna melt at Grafton Street ($8.95, 1230 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-497-0400) is probably the closest to a ``healthy" tuna melt I've ever eaten.

Served on thick, crispy slabs of wheat bread and with almost imperceptible mayonnaise, this sandwich has a slightly sweet flavor from the nutty bread and the diced pickles and onions mixed with the tuna. Unidentifiable chopped herbs add visual (if not gustatory) pizazz, and the available side of mixed greens in a light dressing adds to the healthful feel.

Honorable mention for the meatiest tuna melt goes to MaryAnn's Diner ($5.95, 29 E. Broadway, Derry, N.H., 603-434-5785) for its sandwich called the Barracuda, which comes stuffed with an enormous (yet tidily cohesive) wad of tuna. For those wanting to go the whole nine yards with their comfort foods, the ``potato puffs" offered as a side with MaryAnn's sandwiches are the selfsame tater tots wolfed down by 6-year-olds everywhere.

Honors for the crispiest tuna melt go to Joey's Diner ($7.49, 1 Craftsman Lane, Amherst, N.H., 603-577-8955), which also gives the Airport Diner a run for its money with its cool retro-diner decor. I can't imagine how they get the bread so crunchy, but the end result is worth every ounce of fat. Joey's tuna melt isn't on the regular menu (it was a special the day I visited), but the waitress assured me that it could be had at any time.

Oh, and if your travels ever take you to Cherry Hill, N.J., stop by the Silver Diner on Route 38, right across from the mall, and give the tuna melt my regards.

Where's the best place to find a tuna melt? Send your nominees to boston.com/northwesttalk.

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