Korean Restaurant in Killeen Serves Up Nostalgia for Patrons
Think Killeen, Texas, and the U.S. Army post Fort Hood probably comes to mind.
The military facility was created in 1942, and it's been the town's most defining feature. But as millions of soldiers have flowed in and out of Fort Hood over the years, an interesting food culture has sprouted outside its gates.
Killeen has about eight Korean restaurants. Many Koreans open up food service businesses like these, though some run barbershops advertising military shaves, and or work as tailors offering uniform alterations.
Koreans make up the largest subpopulation of Asians in Killeen. More than 2,000 Koreans live in the town, so having a choice of restaurants that serve authentic Korean food is a comfort to this community. Many on base at Fort Hood love this food too, and at the restaurant Koreana, they get more than a meal. OwnerHyosunTartaglia treats soldiers like family.
"She’s had some customers actually come and see her before they see their parents when they came back from overseas," says her husband William Tartaglia.
William says bonds run so deep between the soldiers and his wife, losing a customer can be heart-wrenching for Hyosun.
"Military people go to Iraq, and I miss a lot of my customers," she says. "Some of them go to war and don’t come back. That’s something that’s too hard."
After wiping a tear, she smiles again when asked about her customers' favorite dishes. Those who’ve served in Korea are the ones who can handle her spicy dishes, like tookbaeki, she says.
The soup has noodles, vegetables and bulgogi — thinly sliced marinated beef or pork. A lot of diners order bibimbap, which comes in a large bowl with neatly placed, colorful mounds of items like diced carrots, cucumbers and seaweed. Steamed rice goes on top, under a fried egg and spicy chili sauce.
Korean food is how the Tartaglias met. In South Korea, Hyosun was working at a KATUSA snack bar at Camp Humphreys for Koreans who work alongside American soldiers. One of William's friends, Steve, ate there a lot.
"He just thought, I guess, that we would be good together," William says, chuckling.
Steve kept nagging them to have lunch with each other until they got fed up. They agreed to meet so they could get him off their backs and they could go on with their lives.
"Obviously it didn’t work out that way," he says. "We’ve been together almost 18 years now."
William is retired now, and he helps buy fish for Hyosun in Dallas, and vegetables in Austin. And sometimes he goes a few miles away to the big Korean supermarket in town: O Mart.
O Mart has a photo department, a food court and a shop where you can buy rice cookers or special kimchi refrigerators.
When O Mart’s owner, Hosaeng Yu, is asked to showcase the store's most popular product, he walks directly to the kimchi section. Kimchi is spicy pickled cabbage, and it’s Korea’s national dish.
Yu says Koreans eat kimchi "anytime."
"Breakfast and lunch and dinner, too," Yu says. "If they don't eat kimchi in two or three days they're going to find the kimchi."
Back at HyosunTartaglia's restaurant Koreana, Capt. JavitaFacionsays she’s addicted to kimchi, though she’s never served in Korea. Fellow soldiers she works with introduced her to it.
"What I'm eating here, it used to remind me of being in Korea, but now I just associate it with my family and our special moments."
"Since they’ve gone and they’ve talked about it so much, I guess you could say I’m hooked on Korean food, because I love kimchi now," Facion says, laughing. "So, every time we come to lunch, I get the kimchi fried rice."
Troy Shoafis a fan of Korean barbecue. At Korean restaurants, you grill the thin slices of meat at your own table. Shoaf started eating Korean food when he was in the Army and went to Seoul.
"What I’m eating here, it used to remind me of being in Korea, but now I just associate it with being with my family and our special moments," Shoaf says.
At lunch, military customers pack the restaurant. Come dinner time, though, you’re more likely to find Koreans sharing a family meal.
"My name is Miae. Last name is Puyun. It’s Korean name."
She’s the wife of a pastor at a Korean-American church. She says the food at Koreana is just as good as anything made back home, which in this instance actually doesn't make her feel better.
"I miss home...I realize the food is making me more homesick," she says. "But it's getting better."
But Puyun says she and her family came here to serve the many Koreans and Korean-Americans in Killeen, and so she eats this food often in her adopted "home away from home."