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Dry Idea: The story behind Maui's favorite noodle dish, Sam Sato's dry mein

Sam Sato's dry mein is one of the most beloved comfort food dishes on Maui.

We thought we were early for lunch. It was 9 a.m., after all.

But by the time we walked up to the entrance of Sam Sato’s, an unpretentious, old-time restaurant in Wailuku’s industrial area, a crowd of hungry patrons were already gathered, names written on a little yellow pad at the takeout window. Waiting to get in. Stomachs growling.

Of course, we fell into line, too. We wanted noodles. And no other noodles on Maui would do. We were hungry for Sam Sato’s famous dry mein—a bowl of seasoned saimin-like noodles that, for more decades than many residents can remember, has been a Maui comfort-food favorite.

A dish largely unique to Maui, a version of dry mein can be found on the menus of dozens of eateries there. Many believe, however, that Sam Sato’s is tops.

“When you’re on Maui, you gotta eat here,” an Oahu construction worker, on island for just the day, said to me as we waited to get in. “This place is the best.”

The history of Sam Sato’s is one of much movement, all of it on Maui. It was in 1933 that second-generation Japanese-American plantation worker Sam Sato, with his wife, Gladys, first opened a little restaurant bearing his name in Spreckelsville, a sugar-plantation camp on the road between Kahului and Paia. Success followed and the Satos moved the restaurant two more times—to Puunene, in 1963, and Happy Valley Village in Wailuku in the 1980s—before settling in its current Wailuku location in 1993.

Dry mein made its first Sam Sato’s menu appearance while the restaurant was in Puunene, created by one of the kitchen’s Chinese cooks. The dish is now easily the restaurant’s bestseller, its combination of al dente noodles, bits of char siu pork, bean sprouts and cut green onions the epitome of local comfort-food simplicity at its best.

“Sometimes, on a busy day, we use 350 pounds of noodles,” said Kirk Toma, Sam’s 34-year-old grandson, who now manages the restaurant. “That’s a lot of noodles.”

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Check out these related HawaiiMagazine.com posts:
How to make Hawaii-style saimin broth (and mail order Hawaii noodles on the Mainland)
HAWAII Magazine’s "75 Places to Eat Like A Local": Noodles
Char's Chopsticks: Little Village in Chinatown

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