By Jeff Mays
HARLEM— When they were kids growing up on the Lower East Side, Dave Hom and Dave Chan didn't venture uptown much.
"I drove past the Apollo Theater once," Chan 34, said. "I never even really went to Midtown."
But when they were looking for a place to open up their new Hawaiian and Japanese Barbecue restaurant, Makana, East Harlem seemed like a logical choice. Rents are lower than in Central Harlem and the restaurant seemed like it would stand out.
"This area is saturated with a lot of pizza, Cuchifrito and Chinese takeout joints," Hom said. "We wanted to bring sushi and variety to a neighborhood where there isn't a lot."
That is beginning to change in East Harlem. In December, a group of restaurants banded together to put together a "Taste Trolley" tour of 18 East Harlem eateries. The cuisine ranged from Mexican to a steakhouse.
"As the population and face of the community has changed, we have seen a mushrooming of various eateries," said Kevin Walters, head of the East Harlem Restaurant and Bar Association and owner of Creole, which is located on Third Avenue between East 118th and East 119th streets.
Still, Walters estimates that 97 percent of his customers come from outside of the neighborhood.
"When we opened 7 years ago we thought there was an opportunity to be a big fish in a little bowl. We're still waiting for the community to catch up to us," said Walters.
Since opening in August, Makana, situated in a former Chinese takeout storefront on First Avenue between East 115th and East 116th streets, still gets the occasional customer looking for chicken wings and fried rice. But they've offered those customers familiar dishes like barbecue ribs and chicken teriyaki.
That has led Hom and Chan to gradually begin introducing their customers to Hawaiian treats such as Spam Musubi — seasoned rice with Spam on top wrapped in seaweed. Chan calls it the "peanut butter and jelly of Hawaii." Loco Moco, white rice topped with a hamburger patty and a fried egg, is another Hawaiian favorite.
Boris Roques, a 23-year-old from Paris who recently moved to New York, stopped by one afternoon because roommates and friends recommended the restaurant.
"If you like Mexican food it's perfect here. It's hard to find the variety of food here like downtown," Roques said. "Everybody is talking about this place because it shows the type of variety we could have in the future."
Hom and Chan have always wanted to work together. Both spent time living out West — Hom in California and Chan in Seattle — where Japanese and Hawaiian cuisine is more common. After a career in marketing, Chan decided to return to the family business — his family has owned a Chinese takeout restaurant for 30 years. Hom comes to the restaurant field after working in marketing.
The pair keep things light at the restaurant, constantly joking about needing dates. Hom is the straight man and Chan is the comedian.
"It's great to come into a new neighborhood and ask what's missing and how can we add value," Hom said.
"Actually, we got into this for the ladies," Chan said.
Makana is Chan's third restaurant. In addition to the family takeout, more than three years ago he opened L.E.S. Sushi on Grand Street.
Chan said opening Makana has been similar to his experience with L.E.S. Sushi.
"We just felt that East Harlem had that energy like the Lower East side," said Chan. "We looked at this venture sort of like surfing; you want to get in when the wave is developing."