Close your eyes and imagine you’re in Maui. Maybe you conjure up a beach with turquoise waters and a surfboard; or some badly behaved people from this year’s hit HBO series White Lotus. If you’re thinking food, you might cast your mind to fresh poke, or a plate lunch.
What you probably do not think of is a molten grilled cheese stuffed with meaty sloppy joe. But the over-the-top sandwich, known as a flying saucer because of its round shape, is beloved by locals on on Maui and also Kauai.
Flying saucers are such a local specialty that Sheldon Simeon had never heard of them growing up on the Big Island. It wasn’t until he hopped islands that he discovered the sandwich. Now they’re featured in his cookbook Cook Real Hawai’i that he wrote with Garrett Snyder (Clarkson Potter; $35).
The book is a gorgeous trip all around the archipelago, making for great armchair travel if you aren’t on the move these days. Simeon, a Top Chef finalist and owner of the outrageously good lunch food spot Tin Roof Maui, combines diverse influences from Chinese and Filipino to Portuguese in his cooking. Recipes tell stories of Hawaiian classics including spam musubi and the classic noodle dish saimin as well as shoyu sugar steak which has its roots in the staple sugarcane crops.
Flying saucers are a less expected entry. “Very few local dishes involve American cheese, which is somewhat surprising given our affection for canned meats and picnic condiments,” writes Simeon in the book. The sandwich is an exception. He describes it “as the glorious love child of a sloppy Joe and a grilled cheese: tomatoey beef goulash and Kraft Singles squished between two slices of white bread, then grill-pressed over an open fire until melty and toasty.”
There’s an inter-island rivalry between ownership of the sandwich. “It is from Kauai, but Maui has taken it over, it’s our pride and joy” says Simeon. He got his first taste of one at the Maui Country Fair, where people lined up before the stand even opened. “It’s crazy,” he says. “They’re delicious, but really it’s about the nostalgia. Your grandparents have stories about standing in line. Some aren’t perfect, they still have crust on it. Each one is different, but you love it.”
And they are delicious. The filling is simple, as a sloppy Joe-style filling should be: ground meat mixed with sautéed onions and garlic and a few other vegetables, cooked in a chile-spiced oil that adds a layer of heat. Tomato paste and canned cream of mushroom soup—yes, it’s still around—add to the good natured gloppiness of it. That filling is piled into American cheese covered bread rounds and fried until golden so the cheesy is a melty salty contrast to the saucy meat. Eat it as hot as you can stand it.
One thing that defines true flying saucers is their shape. They’re typically made with a contraption called a Toas-Tite pie iron from the 1940s which press the filled sandwiches into rounds to be toasted over a fire. If you don’t want to make the investment, Simeon recommends cutting the bread into a round (you can use a large ramekin or mug as a guide) and pan-frying as we do below. They’re pretty much guaranteed to be imperfectly shaped, and none the less tasty for it.
The following recipe is adapted from Cook Real Hawai’i, by Sheldon Simeon and Garrett Snyder.
Maui Flying Saucers
Makes 8 Sandwiches
2 Tbsp. neutral oil
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
Half tsp. crushed chili flakes, preferably kochugaru (Korean chili flakes)
1 lb. ground beef (80/20)
1 cup diced yellow onion
1 cup diced celery
Half cup diced carrots
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
Half a (10.5-ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 Tbsp. Lawry’s chili seasoning mix or other chili mix
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Salted butter, at room temperature
16 slices white bread, crusts removed and trimmed into rounds (see Note)
16 slices American cheese
In a large, nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and chili flakes and cook until the garlic starts to brown, about 1 minute. Add the beef and cook until browned, then stir in the onion, celery, and carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion and carrots soften, 12 to 15 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Stir in the mushroom soup and seasoning mix. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for a few minutes until fully incorporated. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Transfer the meat mixture to a bowl and rinse and dry the skillet.
Heat the skillet over medium heat. Generously butter one side of each slice of bread. Place 2 slices of bread, butter-side down, in the skillet and top each with 1 slice of cheese. Spoon ¼ to 1/3 cup of the meat mixture onto one piece of bread and top it with the other. Cook, squishing the sandwich down gently but firmly with a spatula, until the bread is well browned on both sides and the cheese is gooey, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Repeat with the remaining sandwiches. Keep the finished ones warm in a low oven or eat right away.