Eric and Nicole Chang welcome guests to their new Moena Cafe. Photos by Randy T. Fujimori
Moena Cafe opens in Koko Marina
By Simplicio Paragas
Husband-and-wife restaurateurs are not uncommon. But the story of Eric and Nicole Chang is one that’s tragic and triumphant all at once. The couple had already known each other for the past seven years when Eric’s first wife, Lori, of four years suddenly passed away due to a heart condition. At the time, Eric was working as a chef at the Moana Surfrider and father to young twin boys and a daughter. The demands of his job soon forced the 41-year-old Kailua native to pursue a new direction in order to spend time with his kids and to seek grief counseling.
“Nicole’s dad is a church elder and I turned to him for help after Lori died,” Eric says. “My kids already knew Nicole since we all go to the same church and she started to mentor my daughter Mia.”
Eric and Nicole would eventually become romantically involved, but not before Nicole sought the blessing from Lori’s mom. While dating, Nicole had mentioned to Eric that she and her friend once played with the idea of opening their own restaurant in 2009. However, Nicole shelved the idea because she quipped she didn’t know how to cook professionally nor did she know any chefs.
“But now I’m married to one,” Nicole beams. “So I asked him if he wanted to open a restaurant and to think about it; but I told him he had to be 110 percent into it.”
On May 22, Eric and Nicole opened Moena Café in Koko Marina, occupying the former Papa John’s space. It’s hard to imagine that pizza ovens and a walk-up counter once filled this room, which was completely remodeled by Eric, with Nicole in charge of the interior design. Its modern and contemporary vibe has East Oahu residents already flocking to the restaurant that’s open only for breakfast and lunch.
“I already lost so much time with the kids,” Eric says. “This way, I’m here by 6:30 in the morning and home by 3 in the afternoon.”
For a community that can be finicky about restaurants, Moena Café is a welcomed new addition to the dining scene. While Moena’s breakfast prices may be slightly higher than its competitors, the quality of food and portions more than make up for the difference in cost. At $10.95, the eggs Benedict doesn’t merely consist of a thin slice of Canadian bacon but comes instead with an inch-thick slab of hickory-smoked ham, topped with an over-easy egg and smothered in a velvety Hollandaise sauce.
Order a regular stack of pancakes ($9.95) and you’ll be hard pressed to finish the two giant discs that blanket the entire plate, in addition to a side of your choice of breakfast meat. Not yet printed on the regular menu, the banana-and-chantilly flapjacks could be served as a dessert rather than a morning entrée; they’re not cloyingly sweet but sugary enough to make you feel a little guilty.
Already a favorite among patrons, the loco moco ($13.95) receives a new iteration by substituting tender braised short ribs for the traditional hamburger patty. It’s a gourmet version that some restaurants will probably want to copy. Omelets, too, receive more of an epicurean treatment, such as with the Nova Scotia ($12.75), which is crammed with smoked salmon, onions, cheese and tomatoes.
Waffles, French toast, and fruity and savory crepes round off the breakfast side of the menu, which is served all day long. For lunch, choose from an assortment of sandwiches, paninis, salads and such house specialties as “MC” Mac-N-Cheese ($9), lox and bagel ($10.95) and a homemade teriyaki burger ($12.95).
“Moena in Hawaiian means peace, tranquil,” Nicole explains. “That’s where we are in our lives right now after experiencing so much pain and tragedy.”
Moena Café, 7192 Kalanianaole Hwy., Koko Marina, 888.7716. Open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.