Very few local dishes involve American cheese, which is somewhat surprising given our affection for canned meats and picnic condiments. One notable exception is the flying saucer, a molten cheese-oozing grilled sandwich that you’ll see sold at local fairs and Obon festivals (street fairs in honor of a Japanese Buddhist holiday) on the islands of Kaua‘i and Maui.
Flying saucers can best be described 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, using a special circular press contraption called a Toas-Tite.
I’d never actually tried a flying saucer before the Maui County Fair, but when I went for the first time I noticed that the flying saucer booths had by far the longest lines. The hype was deserved. At Lineage, I put the beefy toasted sandwich on the menu as a thank you to my new home island and the Maui folks who had shown me so much aloha. Judging by how many we sold, I figure I might open a booth at next year’s fair.
You can find Toas-Tite sandwich grills, which were invented in the 1940s, for sale online, but at $30 they’re not exactly cheap (I splurged on, like, a dozen for the restaurant, yikes). Instead, trim the bread crust into a round and pan-fry the sandwich to achieve roughly the same effect.
MAKES 8 SANDWICHES
2 tablespoons neutral oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1⁄2 teaspoon kochugaru (Korean chili flakes) 1 pound ground beef (80/20)
1 cup diced yellow onion
1 cup diced celery
1⁄2 cup diced carrots
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Half a (101⁄2-ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 tablespoon Lawry’s chili seasoning mix Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper Salted butter, at room temperature
16 slices white bread, crusts removed and trimmed into rounds
16 slices American cheese
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and kochugaru and cook until the garlic starts to brown, 30 seconds to 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 and smell sweet, 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.
Preheat the oven to warm, or 200°F.
Heat the skillet over medium heat. 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 1⁄4 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, keeping the finished ones warm in the oven until ready to serve.