| Pacific Daily News
Six months before the pandemic, Christian Graham, a new college graduate, opened up Smack’n Guamanian Grill in San Diego.
Then the pandemic hit. Sales plummeted, and Graham laid off 20% of his staff.
A father to a 1 year old, Graham brainstormed creative ways to bring in business. The 24-year-old decided to create a produce a music video.
“It’s just another day at Smack’n you know what it is,” Graham raps in the music video. “I’m the same boss serving up a new dish.”
Eventually, word spread. Graham said the restaurant’s Instagram page gained hundreds of followers. Sales at the restaurant jumped up by 30% consistently over a two-week period, Graham said.
Customers from hundreds of miles away have driven out to taste the CHamoru dishes.
“We had people drive down from Las Vegas this past week, even though they have CHamoru food in Las Vegas,” Graham said.
As a former DJ and audio engineer, Graham wanted to merge his musical background and writing passion “to reinforce what I am trying to do with my business and show how young, vibrant, and energetic we are,” Graham said.
“We are not just cooks and cashiers. We like to have fun and express ourselves,” Graham said.
Grew up around CHamoru cuisine
Born in San Diego, Graham has spent his life around CHamoru cuisine. His late grandmother, Rosa Sudo Mesa, started a bakery in Yona, and his mother was born and raised in the same village before she moved to the states in 1970.
“My father passed away when I was young, so I tended to stay with my mom’s side of the family,” Graham, who is half CHamoru, said.
For more than a quarter of the year, Graham’s grandmother flew from Guam and stayed in San Diego, California.
“My grandmother would come during summer breaks from elementary all the way to high school,” Graham said.
On break, Graham spent most of his time with his brother and grandmother.
“I am still not even half of what she throws down, but she made bomb CHamoru food,” Graham said.
Started Smack’n one year after college graduation
Once Graham graduated from San Diego State University in 2018, he worked as the project manager of LPL Financial.
“I ended up going into the corporate world shortly before the restaurant because I had a daughter along the way,” Graham said.
In pursuit of financial security, Graham ended up disliking his job.
“I have been more entrepreneurial and never worked for anybody else for four years prior to going into the corporate position,” Graham said.
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In 2019, he quit the corporate role to start a family-owned business, Smack’n, which stands for Sudo Mesa Authentic CHamoru Kitchen. Sudo honors Graham’s grandmother, and Mesa pays tribute to his grandfather.
“I wanted to do something for our family, and I know my grandmother would have wanted it to happen, but she was not familiar with opening up a family back here” Graham said.
Graham opened up the restaurant in Mira Mesa, California — his hometown.
“I learned everything I know from my grandmother, my aunties and my mom,” Graham said.
CHamoru food popular in Mira Mesa
Islanders of all ethnicities populate Mira Mesa, Graham said. CHamoru cuisine remains a popular option, despite its infrequent appearances across the country — notably on the East Coast.
Smack’n remains the only CHamoru restaurant in the city for a 15-mile radius, Graham said.
“We wanted to be right in the Mira Mesa area where I grew up, so we can have our niche here and not too much competition with the CHamoru restaurants around us,” Graham said.
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South of Smack’n, four or five CHamoru restaurants exist, Graham said. North of the business, one restaurant 25 miles away sells the same cuisine.
“If you go south of us, that’s where all the islanders you can think of settle down,” Graham said with a laugh. He pointed out that CHamorus and Samoans live in the area.
The restaurant, which sits near the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, also attracts servicemen who may have traveled or been stationed on Guam.
“Everyone that comes through Smack’n is more so considered extended family from us,” Graham said. “We take pride in bringing them in, housing them, and spending quality time even though we are a predominantly take out restaurant. “
Fast-paced San Diego opposite of a relaxed island lifestyle
Unlike a relaxed lifestyle on Guam, the pace of life in San Diego region has compelled Graham and his restaurant team to limit the menu options, unless they offer specials for Lent or winter months in which they serve corn soup, kadu, or tinaktak.
Throughout the year, barbecue is the staple food, Graham said. Given the sunny city, “we wanted something quick to take out so people can get back to work.”
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Graham focuses on keeping the food authentic to how his grandmother taught him.
“I have never been to Guam, but for more than a quarter of a year, my grandmother was here teaching me all the recipes that she took part in,” Graham said.
His daughter Aaliyah-Jade, a little over a year old, has developed an affinity for the CHamoru cuisine.
“Ever since she could eat regular solid food, she was eating chicken kelaguen, red rice and pork ribs,” Graham said.
“Her favorite was kadu before she could eat solid food,” Graham added.