Like a lot of women in Central Texas, I imagine, I once dated a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, the lifeblood of the military city of Killeen. On most weekends during our short courtship, he'd visit me in Austin, where we'd frequent the live-music venues on Sixth Street and along Guadalupe, the road that parallels the UT campus. On a few occasions, though, I made the one-hour trip to the base. This was a few years before Operation Desert Storm and many years before 9-11, and security concerns weren't the same as they are now. So on one night when he had guard duty at one of the post's motor pools, I accompanied him. I assume this was allowed but can't be certain. Regardless, no one stopped us. And so I have a rather surreal and oddly romantic memory of a warm night curled up on an armored tank, watching the stars.
On visits to Austin, he'd claim there wasn't much to do in Killeen. And so years later, I was surprised to read a story in the Austin American-Statesman about the wealth of interesting restaurants (Hawaiian! Korean! Puerto Rican! Trinidadian!) found along Rancier Avenue, an artery named "Tank Destroyer Boulevard" as it enters the Fort. I'm an adventurous eater, and fortunately my husband, Randy, usually cooperates amiably. And since last Saturday was free, we made the short trek to Killeen to explore.
The Fort is a big place and dominates the city: The official website of Fort Hood breaks down some demographics and illustrates the cultural and economic impact of the Fort's population. According to the Comptroller's office, the Fort has an estimated $10 billion impact on the Texas economy. With some 70,000 men and women living on post (27,000 of whom are in the military) and a total supported population numbering almost 400,000, Fort Hood is the largest active-duty armored post in the US Armed Services.
According to what I've read on the Internet and elsewhere, Killeen's 8,000-strong Korean population is the result of the military's presence in that country in the 1950s; when US servicemen returned to Killeen after the war, some brought new wives with them, and the community began to grow. So I wasn't surprised to see numerous Korean noodle houses and barbecue joints along Rancier Avenue. And it turns out that because there's a significant population of Pacific Islanders in Killeen (some of whom were in the service and others who wound up here after visiting relatives or friends in the service), restaurants popped up to cater to their tastes, as well.
Rancier itself, now lined with a dizzying number of barber shops, pawn shops, and military surplus stores, must have been a happening strip in the 1950s and 1960s, when the post's population exploded. Many of the buildings still have vestiges of mid-Century architecture, but the majority look worse for wear and tear. We drove around a bit, chatting about Elvis Presley's stint here in 1958, wondering if soldiers still had to dry-clean and press their uniforms, and debating which restaurant to try first.
I had read that the C & H Hawaiian Grill offered a raw-tuna dish called poke, which was served in a Styrofoam cup but still rivaled sashimi dishes at served high-end sushi places in Austin, so we headed there first. Turns out the owners, Cora and Hensan Timo, opened the grill in 2004 when their sons were stationed at Fort Hood.
Since it was around 3 o'clock, the place wasn't overly busy; we ordered a few things at the counter and shared the small dining room with a few uniformed soldiers and their families. I loved the poke, which is raw ahi (tuna) marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, and green onion, but Randy thought the sesame flavor overpowered the fish. We both enjoyed the Kalua Pork with cabbage (a large portion of smoked and roasted pulled pork served with white rice), but in our opinion the most unusual dish we ordered was the Samoan plate, a combination of barbecued ribs, Polish sausage, teriyaki chicken, and a side of chicken-y, slippery noodles. The Timos know their way around a barbecue pit! We were offered a choice of bananas cooked in coconut milk or rice, and we chose the banana, which was definitely different, starchy yet a bit sweet.
We popped into a pawn shop and a surplus store, dropped by Partin's Jamaican Bakery and Grill to pick up a menu for next time (paki-crusted plantains! Jamming jerk patties! Yabba-braised tilapia! Sambo oxtail!), then swung by the Caribbean grill for some to-go fare from Trinidad-Tobago. Faced with a selection of such savory items as stewed chicken, oxtail, fried shark, and Indian-inspired roti, we chose an order of curried goat and another order of jerk chicken. When we were asked, "How hot can you eat it?" I responded, "Hot enough to make our scalps sweat." The server behind the counter raised an eyebrow and squirted copious amounts of some secret ingredient into our to-go-boxes.
As we returned to Austin, the aroma in the car made my stomach growl. Later that night as we dug into leftovers, our scalps sweating and our taste-buds firing on all cylinders, we made plans for another culinary adventure in Killeen. After all, we've only scratched the surface.