TK Yamada, who spent more than a decade working and roasting for other cafés, now has his own spot with an extraordinarily pleasant lānai.
How Flying Saucers from Kaua‘i and Maui Landed on O‘ahu
If you dream of sloppy joes and gooey cheese grilled between buttery white bread, Saucer King is worth tracking down.
You know when you eat something and, snap! You’re taken back to hanabata days? Well, a recent bite of a flying saucer sandwich transported me to childhood summer lunches where my sisters and I grilled homemade pizza pockets in our mom’s cast iron sandwich maker.
So even though technically I’ve never had a Kaua‘i or Maui-style flying saucer, Saucer King’s piping hot sandwiches ($5 for one, $13 for three) are instantly recognizable as an old-school throwback. “There’s a debate on where it originated, Maui or Kaua‘i. I don’t have the answer,” says Saucer King’s Gilbert Fune. “I grew up eating flying saucers at the Maui County Fair where my dad’s club, an organization for disabled American veterans, would make hundreds of these as their annual fundraiser. My recipe is from how they used to make it.”
According to Fune, “a flying saucer sandwich has a sloppy joe filling inside two slices of bread that’s heated up in a Toas-tite.” What’s a Toas-tite? Per Fune and Google, it’s a handheld pie iron that, placed on a flaming hot grill with said white bread and sloppy joe filling, seals in the goodness and creates the signature concentric ring pattern. Making flying saucers became Fune’s full-time work after he lost his hospitality industry job to the pandemic last year. When he couldn’t find the sandwiches on O‘ahu, he started making them for family and friends. They were a hit, and Saucer King debuted as a kiosk at food events.
The meat of Fune’s saucers is a super savory, tangy blend of hamburger, tomato sauce, onions, salt, pepper and corn. Traditionally, the Maui version contains corn, the Kaua‘i saucer doesn’t. But the Wailuku local adds a slice of cheese, a Kaua‘i fixing the Valley Isle ignores. And the bread! Cloud-like white slices from La Tour Bakehouse get slathered with butter and crisped up in—you guessed it—a Toas-tite. They hug the meaty-cheesy mix and keep it gooey and warm. Just like the perfect cookie, the edges of the bread are crunchy and the middle is soft and chewy. Weirdly, the slices are not oily. At. All. I love that. The crusts are cut off to keep the flying saucer shape. Keiki will love that. “We do try to reuse the leftover pieces,” Fune notes. “My friend who is a baker has made bread pudding ($4) that we sell.” Everyone will love that.
I tip off a Kaua‘i-born colleague, who checks out Saucer King and weighs in. “I’ve been chasing these things like a real fanatic, this fleeting memory of a taste from small kid times. These are better on every technical level,” says James Nakamura, HONOLULU Magazine’s creative director. “Better filling, better bread, better cheese. The Kaua‘i bon dance versions were made of cheaper, thinner, more porous Love’s white bread. A bit lighter and crisper. And the meat filling was basically beef, ketchup, shoyu and Kraft cheese singles.” Nakamura lists other versions he’s tried, from a now-closed café in Ele’ele, and Maui chef Sheldon Simeon’s version with beef goulash and Tillamook cheddar. And now, Saucer King. “These are really good. If I were to travel back in time and try the original version, they probably wouldn’t compare and the memory would be ruined. But it’s all about the future now. I hope more of these pop up.”
Fune plans to add pizza and s’mores saucers to his menu (I’m doing my happy shimmying food dance). For now, while they test out recipes, he and his team are trying to keep up with demand for the OG saucers they sell at food truck events and farmer’s markets. At Pearl Country Club’s Night Market last week, there was a waiting list with about nine names in front of me and a small crowd hanging around. The crew can make 12 at a time, each one taking eight minutes, and people like me buy several at a time. The backside of Saucer King’s chalkboard menu says, “Sold out, sorry.”
Luckily, I snag mine before the flip of the sign. Thanks to Saucer King, I’m not only a believer, I’m definitely a fan of flying saucers.
This Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Island Craves Food & Craft Pop Up at Waikele Premium Outlets and from 4 to 8 p.m. at Windward Mall, and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Aloha Stadium, @saucerking808