One Dish: Top of the Block’s Tuna Melt Is a Lunch Classic Perfected | One Dish | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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One Dish: Top of the Block’s Tuna Melt Is a Lunch Classic Perfected


Published June 6, 2023 at 2:12 p.m.
Updated June 7, 2023 at 10:02 a.m.

Top of the Block tuna melt - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • Top of the Block tuna melt

Tucking into a tuna sandwich always brings me back. When I was growing up in suburban Detroit, a favorite outing with my mom included a shopping trip to Bonwit Teller department store and lunch at the nearby Sanders Confectionery soda fountain. I always ordered the tuna melt and a vanilla milkshake. When my friends and I were teens with our own transportation, our go-to lunch spots had to include a top-notch tuna melt on the menu.

Wherever I have lived since, I look for a place with a decent tuna melt to serve as my default lunch — a destination at least once a week. And by "decent," I mean this: tuna salad on the dry side, never wet with mayonnaise; a zesty embellishment, such as chopped pickle or red onion; a quality cheese that can stand up to the tuna (often cheddar, but Swiss makes a viable melt, too); and bread grilled to a light crunch, not too greasy. Lettuce and tomato are appreciated but not crucial.

In Vermont, I've found the lunch I'm looking for at Top of the Block Sandwich Shop on Burlington's Church Street. Top of the Block makes a bunch of great sandwiches — chicken salad, the Italian sub and the Morgan, a Jewish deli-style Reuben variation with turkey, Swiss, coleslaw and Thousand Island dressing. But as much as I like those and the rotating specials, the $10 tuna melt beckons nearly every time.

The primary reason is the banana peppers. They add the perfect tang to Top of the Block's tuna, which also contains shredded carrot and a layer of red onion. Those flavors weave together to elevate the tuna, which doesn't drown in mayo.

The tuna melt comes in a choice of wrap, pressed on a grill to soften the cheese inside a crispy shell. Any other bread is offered as an option, too, and the sandwich is also excellent on classic wheat. The deli gets its loaves from Stewart's Bakery in Williston, according to Top of the Block owner Whitney Smith.

Whitney Smith - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • Whitney Smith

Smith wasn't surprised to hear that the banana peppers put the sandwich over the top for me. "That's my favorite thing to add to a sandwich," she said. "They're crunchy. They're zingy, not overly spicy."

Smith worked at Top of the Block briefly about 15 years ago under its original owner, Bart Thomas, who opened the sandwich shop in 1997. She left to work in public health until 2019, when Thomas asked her to become his business partner and "retirement plan," she said. Last year, around Top of the Block's 25th anniversary, Thomas stepped away and left Smith as sole owner.

Her secret for a stellar sandwich? "It's all about distribution," Smith said. "You want a little bit of each thing in every bite."

The deli occupies one counter and a small kitchen, sandwiched between kru Coffee and Danform Shoes. The few tables in the building's atrium make for a mediocre dining atmosphere, but in the summer an outdoor patio offers great people watching on Church Street.

Most important for late-day eaters like me, Top of the Block is open for lunch until 4 p.m., unlike many other Burlington sandwich spots. If I'm starving at 3 p.m. when I finally leave my desk, I can always get my favorite fix nearby — along with a touch of warm tuna memories.

"One Dish" is a series that samples a single menu item — new, classic or fleeting — at a Vermont restaurant or other food venue. Know of a great plate we should feature? Drop us a line: [email protected].

The original print version of this article was headlined "Talking Tuna | Top of the Block's melt is a lunch classic perfected"

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