Tasty Crust, Home of Maui’s ‘World Famous Pancakes!’
More than a thrifty local diner, Tasty Crust is a third-generation Wailuku institution
For nearly 65 years, Tasty Crust has been a home away from home for Wailuku residents. A no-frills diner on a semi-industrial street a few minutes walk from the Main and Market Street town center, Tasty Crust is a haven of familiarity. While much of Maui has moved with the times, threatening to burst at the seams as millions of tourists rove the island, hardly a thing has changed at the home of Mauiʻs “world famous pancakes!”
Curtis Takaoka, the 68-year-old owner of the well-loved local food restaurant, is a slight, soft-spoken man with a warm smile and a bristly mustache. He wears a thin gold chain around his neck bearing a diminutive Buddhist symbol that hangs beneath his collar. Takaoka has been meaning to retire, but just like his mom and dad, who came in every day until they were 69 and 72, he ends up finding his way back to the familiar smells of fresh coffee, pancakes, and greasy spam sizzling on the flattop.
Tasty Crust has always been known for its pancakes, but it wasn’t until the late 80’s, when windsurfers from Europe flocked to Maui, that Takaoka added “world” to the “famous pancakes” sign. “We had a lot of customers from Asia and the U.S. but we didn’t have many Europeans. Then European windsurfers started coming in for breakfast before going off to Hoʻokipa and we thought ʻnow we can say we’re world-famous!’”
Many diners have inquired and theorized about the “secret ingredient” in the pancakes—7Up is a favorite guess— but Takaoka says the recipe is a standard mix of flour, milk, butter, eggs, and salt. “It isnʻt about secret ingredients,” he insists, “it’s about who is making it—it’s all in the hand.” He admits the restaurant has used the same brands “forever” and that when cooks “tried to switch it up, they always went back to the tried and true. It makes a difference.” As far as recipes go, his philosophy is to “keep it simple and make sure the flavor is good, that’s all you gotta worry about.”
In 1957, when he was three, Takaokaʻs parents moved from Oahu to Maui to take over the restaurant, which the second owners were selling. Takaoka says the restaurant first opened in the early 1940s, but he wasn’t sure when exactly. His parents changed very little when they took over. “In the late 50s, a few years after my dad bought the restaurant, customers who hadn’t been by in years would come in and say, ʻWow! this place never changes.’”
Takaoka recognized that the comfort regulars felt at his family’s restaurant went beyond the “comfort food” itself. Their comfort hinged on the invariability of the world within Tasty Crust’s pale blue walls: the wood laminate countertops, deep booths, steel-blue stools fixed in a perfect row, and the collection of firetruck-red sticker machines at the door.
The most important measure of dependability, of course, has been the menu. “Every time I even think about redoing the menu, I get nothing but complaints,” Takaoka said. Tasty Crust regulars are so regular that “changes kinda throw them off, it’s like losing a friend or something!” he laughed.
And so, the menu today deviates very little from the menu devised by his mother and the “aunties” who were cooking at Tasty Crust in 1957. To be a “local restaurant” Takaoka says, “you gotta have hamburger steak and roast pork, and you have to have saimin and barbecue or teriyaki. Those dishes have been here forever because it’s what people have been eating forever” in Hawaiʻi.”
Takaoka’s grandfather and great uncle were Japanese migrants who worked in the sugar plantations. He remembers stories from his grandfather about the lunas (white overseers) who tried to sow discord between the different migrant groups to disempower workers. He says the lunas’ efforts were in vain once, “intermarriages started happening and everybody mixed. We’re a mix—and I think local food is just that.”
In keeping with Hawaiʻi’s culture of once-rebellious intermarriage, Takaoka married the granddaughter of Portuguese migrant workers. His wife, Naomi, passed away in August of 2020, and she is deeply missed in the restaurant where they worked together for what Takaoka says was the better half of his life. “She was the one who kept everybody in line, and I really need to thank her for that,” he said. “And she worked hard, she worked everyday with me.”
Their daughter Tammy, 47, sets a steaming bowl of saimin on the table in front of her father; “Naomi,” is tattooed down her forearm in buoyant cursive. Tammy’s brother, Brandon, 39, works in the kitchen, and her son, who is in college, is working front-of-house part-time with Tammy for now. It is decidedly a family affair.
Recently, Takaoka sat Tammy and Brandon down and told them it was time for them to learn the ropes, and fast, because his drive has been waning since Naomi passed away. “For 40 years, all the time I was putting in was in preparation for us to retire and spend time together. Now that she’s gone, that purpose is gone too,” he said.
Tammy, the oldest of four, says she too hopes to keep the business in the family. “Obviously we have a legacy,” she said. I know many mom and pop businesses donʻt survive, but hopefully my brother and I can make it work and keep it a mom and pop business while incorporating some modern day technology. When Brandon wanted to get a POS system for the restaurant, Takaoka was against it. “My dad is very old-school,” Tammy said. “In his way of thinking—a pen and paper works just as well.”
The menu, however, will not receive a 21st-century upgrade, Tammy says. “There arenʻt a lot of places on Maui where you can come in and have breakfast, lunch and dinner served to you anytime of the day. It’s tried and true. People come in for luncheon meat—nowhere else on Maui serves luncheon meat for breakfast, or fresh corned beef, or even liver and bacon—they are fan-favorites.” The only concession will be, perhaps, the addition of the three things customers ask for most often: avocado, spinach, and Dr Pepper.
While standard breakfasts at hip cafes in Paia and Kihei inch towards $20 a plate, Takaoka prioritizes keeping his prices as low as he can so that, “anyone can come in—and bring their family in—and have a meal, and it’s affordable.”
Tasty Crust’s prices haven’t gone up in two years, but Takaoka says that soon, they’ll have to. Wages and the cost of ingredients have gone up, takeout containers (used increasingly during the pandemic) add expense, and 75 percent of checks are paid by card now, adding transaction fees.
In the ‘60s, the basic breakfast at Tasty Crust was 35 cents. Now, it is $7.50. “The community has supported me all these years, so I have a deep sense of obligation towards the community, and I think one of the best ways to try to return what the support is by keeping my prices as low as I can,” Takaoka said.
“We’re not gonna make anything fancy, but you know we’re gonna get something to fill you up and get you on your way,” he remarked. “We sell a heck of a lot of Spam and Vienna Sausage!”
The diners at Tasty Crust represent the neighborhood it is a part of: working class families taking a night off from cooking at home, construction workers guzzling down an icy coke during their lunch break, seniors on a budget (some of whom come in three to four times a week). Prices align with them, not with tourists and newcomers with money to spend on a $14 acai bowl whenever they please. Now and then tourists do stop by.
A few years ago, the late culinary icon Anthony Bourdain stopped in while filming an episode of his critically acclaimed food show “Parts Unknown” in Hawaiʻi. “He just popped in, sat right there,” Takaoka said, pointing to a blue stool by the condiment racks. “We got some recognition after that, some tourists came in and asked where he sat, what he ordered.”
Decades ago, the cook who supposedly invented the loco moco at Cafe 100 in 1949 came in and ordered Tasty Crust’s iteration of his signature dish. “He said ours was good!” Takaoka recalled, a touch of pride in his voice.
Takaoka eats at Tasty Crust every day. His go-to is a bowl of saimin with a hamburger on the side, a pairing that pulls from the Chinese, Japanese, and American elements of Hawaiʻi fare. Other migrant groups from the mid-twentieth century who shaped local food are represented on the menu in items like Korean ribs and Portuguese sausage.
Despite having loyal regulars and being “world famous,” Takaoka says that COVID has taken a toll at Tasty Crust. The majority of the staff have worked there for 12-14 years. Some of them were able to depend on unemployment during the major downturns, others stayed on full time, and a handful of staff worked part-time on top of unemployment.
At first the mandates presented another complication, but Tammy said that with them, many elderly regulars who hadn’t been by in months started trickling in again. “It was wonderful, my older customers were coming in, my local people who we couldn’t survive without. For a while nobody was coming in, and I said, ‘thank god for you guys!’”
“The pandemic turned everything upside-down,” Takaoka said. “We have been trying to adapt on almost a weekly basis.” From supply chain issues to changing mandates on masks, operating capacity, and now vaccinations, the humble Wailuku restaurant has weathered the hardest parts of the pandemic thus far.
Now more than ever, in a time of unprecedented disruption and uncertainty, Maui locals need their comfort food.