November 23, 2011

The Taste Bud: Tuna that doesn’t smell like cat food

As a kid, I saw tuna as nothing but a pungent, weird-looking meat that came in small round cans — or a cartoon creature named Charlie that looked and acted curiously like comedic entertainer Phil Silvers. Take your pick.

But then one day, years later, I noticed a tuna steak at a grocery store. It was deep red and looked delicious. But tuna steak? That can’t be good, can it? And how could tuna be referred to as something that is inherently cow-related?

Turns out I had a lot to learn. Canned tuna is an American staple that has been around for more than a century — people drown the stuff in mayonnaise and celery (and sometimes other things) to make tuna salad, and I always thought the added ingredients were just to cover up the gross, fishy flavor.

Then I discovered tuna steak. After that came maguro (tuna) sushi. And seared ahi. Yeah, they don’t taste anything like that stuff my mom used to feed me when I was a kid. And I’m here to tell you where you can get a really good tuna steak sandwich for cheap. But first, a bit more about our friend, the tuna.

Most of the tuna you’ll get in a can is yellowfin or skipjack, which are the more easy-to-find subspecies. The thing is, canned tuna may sit in a warehouse for a couple of months before it gets to the supermarket shelf. And once it is purchased, your mom may leave it in the cabinet for two more months before she runs out of peanut butter and opens that can of fish for your lunch.

Manufacturers know this, so canned tuna is precooked whole before it is processed. And then it is cleaned, separated and cooked again once inside the can. This process is necessary to kill bacteria, but it also sometimes causes the creation of a histamine that can give the canned tuna that “fishy” smell. (It can also cause you to get really, really sick, if the levels are high enough. Ay-yi-yi.)

And you no doubt already know all the mercury issues involved with tuna — especially albacore; mercury can cause all kinds of problems with the central nervous system, especially in unborn babies. (Really, Mom?)

On the other hand, tuna is a great source of low-calorie protein and even omega-3 fatty acids, which can do some really cool stuff for you, like help with growth, brain function and heart health. So there are far worse things you could eat. (Thanks, Mom!)

And so, back to the fresh tuna. If you get sushi-grade tuna or tuna steak, you are likely eating bluefin or yellowfin (ahi). The good news is that instead of sitting around for months getting gross, fresh tuna sits on ice awaiting your appetite and has a shelf life of a week or less. That means you’re skipping the double-cooking process and won’t get a piece of fish that smells like cat food.

And that’s where Spring Street Bar & Grill in the Clifton neighborhood comes in; I’ve been going there for years, and I’ve never had anything but a great experience with the tuna steak sandwich there. It is about an inch thick and always moist and flavorful. It also is served with a Cajun mayo that is made on the spot, and makes the sandwich all the more delicious (apply generously, and feel free to ask for extra Cajun).

On the advice of a friend, I began adding a slice of pepperjack cheese to the sandwich. Yeah, that’s where this sandwich takes the big leap — for about $7, you get a good-sized sandwich with a side item that not only has some good health benefits (cheese and mayo notwithstanding), but also challenges the taste buds.

I asked a bartender at Spring Street last time I had one of those delicious sandwiches if the tuna is marinated in anything special that makes it so moist and tasty.

“Nope,” he said. “Our cooks just know how to cook tuna.”

Fair enough. Shame that Mom never put one of those in my lunchbox — that might have opened my eyes a lot sooner. Meanwhile, thanks to Spring Street Bar & Grill, it gets tougher and tougher to eat tuna from a can — for obvious reasons.

Sorry, Charlie.