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Restaurants in Killeen serve up great food, comfort for soldiers

Just outside Fort Hood, Rancier Avenue offers diverse, delicious restaurants

Jeremy Schwartz
jschwartz@statesman.com

This is one in an occasional series about the Central Texas food scene outside Austin.

KILLEEN — It's lunchtime at the C&H Hawaiian Grill, and the neighborhood fixture is crowded with soldiers in camouflage tearing into steaming plates of slow-roasted meat and pork wrapped in taro leaves.

At the counter I order the kalua pork and a side order of raw ahi tuna called poke. The C&H doesn't look like much from the outside - the first time I drove past I thought it was an abandoned building - but inside the owners serve up deceptively glorious food. The poke, which comes in a plastic foam cup, was sublime: buttery smooth chunks of ahi, lightly marinated in sesame oil, green onions and shoya sauce. It's the kind of dish that would become a cult favorite in Austin and sell for $20 on South Congress Avenue. Here it costs $4.50.

The C&H sits just outside the east gate of Fort Hood on Rancier Avenue, a scrappy boulevard crowded with pawn shops, tattoo parlors and dry cleaners where soldiers can get their berets shaved and sculpted. You'd never know it from the jangle of signs and storefronts, but Rancier Avenue is home to more culinary gems than any single street has a right to claim. In a mile-long stretch, you can find Filipino, Korean, Caribbean, Puerto Rican and South Pacific food served in simple, order-at-the-counter style restaurants without a hint of pretense.

When I moved to Killeen temporarily in October to cover the trial of accused Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, friends and colleagues looked at me pityingly, convinced I was headed to a culinary wasteland of fast-food joints and national chains. But during a delay on the first morning of the hearing, a reporter with the Killeen Daily Herald passed me a cheat sheet of hidden treasures. Most of the restaurants on the list happened to sit on Rancier Avenue, and during the next few weeks I would eat my way down the road, tasting one unexpected treat after the next.

In many ways, the restaurants on Rancier are a reflection of the diversity at the 50,000-soldier Army post that dominates Killeen. Most have military ties: some are owned by former soldiers, others by parents or siblings of Fort Hood soldiers. All play a vital role in the fabric of Killeen. Chefs don't just serve up great food, they play the role of counselor, friend, and surrogate parent to soldiers far from home.

Island flavors

At Caribbean Delight, tucked into a strip mall next to the Jaded Dragon tattoo parlor, a large flag hangs over the counter leaving no doubt to provenance of aromatic trays beneath it: Trinidad and Tobago, islands just off the coast of Venezuela. I perused the menu and found a list of dishes I'd never seen before: bake and shark, stewed oxtail, curried goat. I settled on the roti, a traditional paper-thin bread pocket filled with curried potatoes, chickpeas and beef with a steady shot of spice.

Seema Ragbir said the roti her husband, Raj, cooks up are just like those from her homeland. "You would go to Trinidad and eat that on the street," she said.

I accompany the roti with a beef patty, another staple of the island that's an empanadalike flaky crust filled with spicy ground meat.

The Ragbirs opened Caribbean Delight in 2006 after they visited Raj Ragbir's brother, who was stationed at Fort Hood. The couple, believing there was opportunity in Killeen, left behind their 9 to 5 jobs in New Jersey. "There are a lot of island people at Fort Hood and we thought we could bring some diversity to this area," Seema Ragbir said.

So they started the restaurant, never imagining the kind of impact it would have on Fort Hood soldiers with roots in the Caribbean. "The island soldiers they love it. They come to sit and talk. I get calls and e-mails from Iraq. I send care packages with Caribbean preserves," she said. "When we opened, I didn't think it would be like this, but I began to realize that they're alone out here. They're so far from family and home-cooked meals. It's lonely for them."

Seema Ragbir said she often finds herself on the phone, reassuring anxious mothers in Barbados or the U.S. Virgin Islands. And she also invites homesick soldiers to her home. "I've become a counselor, a psychologist, everything. I'll tell them, `You're too young to get married!' " she said. "They're so young and so far from home."

After we chat, I kick myself for not ordering the oxtail, succulent pieces of meat hanging on the tailbone and perhaps the restaurant's most popular dish. "People on the island used to eat it because it was the most inexpensive cut of meat," she said laughing. "Now it's the most expensive."

Korean community

A couple blocks down the road, sits Koreana, one of several Korean restaurants in the Killeen area, where the Korean population numbers as high as 6,000, by the local newspaper's estimate. The city's thriving Korean community is a direct result of the U.S. Army's presence in South Korea: many soldiers returned from deployments to Korea with a new bride, and during the years the population has grown steadily. Today, signs in Korean dominate parts of downtown and Korean churches, beauty salons and video stores are a common sight.

Koreana owner Hyo Sun Tartaglia was working at a Korean restaurant on a U.S. Army post in Seoul when she met her husband, an American soldier. The couple moved to Killeen eight years ago, and in 2007, Tartaglia took over the Koreana. "The military really loves Korean food," Tartaglia said in heavily accented English.

I swung by the Koreana one afternoon during the hearing and found a restaurant decorated with appealing bamboo dividers and filled with chatter from a table of Korean women and the quieter conversation of a few soldiers sitting in booths. Tartaglia, whose small stature belies a big personality, said her clientele is about half soldiers from Fort Hood and half Koreans from town. The restaurant plays a role for both. Older Korean women in their 70s and 80s, she explained, often long for their homeland and find comfort there. "Old women get lonely, homesick," she said. "They miss Korean food, talking. I want my customers to feel like family. They tell me their problems."

Soldiers also tell Tartaglia their problems and check in with her before they deploy and again when they come home. They call her when they get transferred from Fort Hood. Tartaglia said she has lost three regular customers in the war in Iraq. "I see them as children," she said. "It's also sad talking to soldiers that have lost their buddies. Sometimes military towns can be sad."

But more often, the Koreana is a happy place of excited chatter and good food. I ordered what Tartaglia said was the favorite of most of the military customers: the bibimbap, strips of deliciously seasoned beef, chili paste and vegetables on a bed of rice.

Her Korean customers have different tastes, Tartaglia said, and prefer the Korean fish soup, kimchi and steamed pork.

Love from Puerto Rico

The next day, my travels took me just a few storefronts west, to La Garita, a Puerto Rican restaurant. Without hesitation I ordered the Puerto Rican specialty of chicken and rice - arroz con pollo - which I topped off with some of the wickedly spicy green table salsa and a side of tostones, fried plantain strips. I also order some puerco frito, fried pork chunks, to munch on during breaks from the trial. The food is simple but delicious and fulfilled a craving for Puerto Rican food I had been carrying in Austin since I visited the island about 10 years ago.

Owners Hector Torres and Zulma Collado are both military veterans who met and later married when she was called up from the U.S. Army Reserves in Virginia following the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. "It's our love story," Collado joked as we chatted at the front counter.

They bought the restaurant just a year ago from its previous owner, and Collado said many of their customers are Fort Hood soldiers from Puerto Rico. The American territory provides a large number of soldiers to the Army given its size - more than 6,000 since 2003 by some estimates. In Puerto Rico, the role of native-born soldiers is the subject of some angst: many Puerto Ricans lament that while their countrymen can join (and are actively recruited into) the U.S. military, they can't vote for president.

Like nearly every Killeen restaurant and business, the owners of La Garita closely follow Fort Hood's deployment cycles. Business in Killeen often mirrors the troop flows. "When they go to Iraq, it gets slow," Collado said.

Hawaiian soul food

It might be unfair to rank, but the jewel of Rancier Avenue might well be the C&H Hawaiian Grill, which is so popular it has opened up a branch on Fort Hood proper. It can be an overwhelming place to be with an empty stomach. The menu is a fascinating mix of dishes from Hawaii and the owners' native American Samoa: crispy breaded chicken katsu, the moko loko, (a hamburger slathered with gravy and two fried eggs that's been called Hawaiian comfort food), and, of course, the house favorite, the kalua pork, smoked and roasted to melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. The restaurant serves heaping, soldier-sized portions that many customers use for lunch and dinner.

Cora and Hensan Timo opened the restaurant in 2004 when their two sons were stationed at Fort Hood. "I'm a baker and he likes to cook. We put it together," Cora Timo said. "It just took off. A lot of soldiers have been stationed in Hawaii so they know the food. It's no advertising, just word of mouth."

As parents of soldiers, they also are touched by war directly. On the day I visited, one of their sons was getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan. Cora Timo had been through this before - it was his fifth deployment - but it was still scary. Tears slipped down her face as she told me about the newborn he would be leaving behind. I put down my notebook and tried to reassure her, clumsy words from someone who doesn't really know what she was feeling. She dried her cheeks and told me more about her food.

As I made my way through these restaurants, I realized that no place in Killeen is far from the realities of war, and certainly not Rancier Avenue, in many ways the vibrant heart of this city.

jschwartz@statesman.com; 912-2942

Caribbean Delight

710 W. Rancier Ave.

254-554-2545

10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Stewed oxtail: $9.50

Beef roti: $8.99

La Garita

305 W. Rancier Ave.

254-628-208 0

11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays

Pernil (roasted pork): $8.75

Arroz con pollo (chicken and rice): $6.50 (Monday and Thursday only)

Koreana

205 W. Rancier Ave.

254-628-03 38

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays

Bibimbap: $8.95

Bulgogi: $7.95

(lunch prices)

C&H Hawaiian Grill

903 E. Rancier Ave.

254-554-7 755

10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p..m Mondays through Saturdays

Kalua Pork: $6.50

Poke (marinated raw ahi tuna): $4.50

Curried Goat

2 lb. lean goat meat

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. black pepper

1/2 cup chopped onion

2 tsp. minced garlic

3 Tbsp. Trinidad green seasoning

2 Tbsp. cooking oil

3 Tbsp. curry powder

2 bay leaves

11/2 cups hot water

Trim, wash and cut meat in bite size pieces. Stir and season well with salt, black pepper, onion, garlic and green seasoning. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Mix curry powder and bay leaves in 1/4 cup water; carefully add to hot oil and fry for 1 minute. Add meat and sauté for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to coat meat well with spice mixture. Add remaining water to meat and bring to a boil; cover and simmer on low heat until meat is tender. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6

- Caribbean Delight