REVIEW: Kilauea Military Camp – Cold War Cuisine
Nate Gaddis is a 17-year food industry veteran. He gives his frank assessments in the interests of honesty and improving Hawai’i Island’s culinary scene.
To come of age in the 1980s was to experience a hectic mix of innovative pop culture and empire-toppling political revolutions, all while living under varying levels of nuclear paranoia.
But while the movies and music of Generation X redefined the term “sensory overload” (a great name for an 80s rock band), the food was, on occasion, crap.
Star Wars, E.T., and Michael Bolton’s chest hair were all damned impressive, but Tuna Helper and Tofutti probably weren’t among the reasons Marty McFly was trying so hard to get back to 1985.
Welcome to KMC
With facilities that look like they were ripped off from the movie set of “Stripes“, Kilauea Military Camp, located in the Volcanoes National Park, offers members of the armed forces and the public a somewhat dated, yet cozy place to rest.
It also happens to provide the perfect opportunity to relive some of the best and worst foods that the late twentieth century had to offer.
Located in the facility’s bowling alley, the “10 pin grille” is no exception to this, with a greasy schmear of fast food classics like chili cheese fries, mini pizzas, and more. The fare is best described as pre-fab fresh, meaning, “frozen, but cooked to order.” Arrive with low expectations and your bowling shoes, and you’ll do just fine.
Nearby, KMC’s signature bar, the “Lava Lounge,” is like a tribute to the dark, hard-boiled dives of an 80s cop film. With lighting dim enough to make just about any companion look good, it’s not an ideal place to make sudden moves of any variety. But the beer is cold, and the booths are comfy, so settle right in and prepare to lose all depth perception.
Crater Rim Café: Relive The Wonder Years
As KMC’s premier dining facility, the Crater Rim Café serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner menus that will transport you right back to the days when Johnny Carson ruled late night TV, and Jay Leno was still hawking Doritos.
The Cafe’s lunch and dinner service offers a hybrid setup of fresh-cooked entrees and buffet-style sides. Just order up your protein of choice, then make your way down memory lane (i.e. the salad and potato bar) while the cooks fire up your entree.
On our first outing here, we started with the penultimate classic of 70s and 80s continental cuisine: New York steak and mushrooms ($21.95). No “grass-fed” or “free-range” mumbo jumbo here. The steak was lean, but perfectly cooked, while the mushrooms and onions were a tad oily, but otherwise fine.
Both the boneless short ribs ($15.95) and teriyaki chicken ($12.95) we tried featured a curiously flavored glaze that could best be described as a dated notion of what Asian cuisine tastes like. Bottled teriyaki sauce? Perhaps.
The pork chops we ordered next had a slightly crisp crust, and were good in that oily, old school cafeteria kind of way. You could do worse ($16.95).
Our sweet chili chicken ($13.95) arrived piping hot and crispy, drenched in a sweet/sour sauce that back in 1979, would have been downright exotic. The concept hasn’t aged well, but they execute it just fine.
Some foods though, are timeless. The blackened cajun salmon we had was spiced just right and cooked very nicely ($17.95). Paul Prudhomme would be proud.
Yep. Those are Baco-Bits.
While the entrees aren’t exactly trendy, the salad/potato bar concept at KMC is downright retro. And we love it.
With mounds of all-you-can-eat steamed potatoes and loads of processed condiments, we found ourselves abandoning all better instinct, and diving in forks-first in an attempt to briefly relive a more innocent era.
You see, back before smoking on airplanes was considered a bad idea, Americans didn’t think twice about nutritionally questionable concepts like bottled bacon, or aerosolized cheese. Why bother melting the stuff, when you could spray it onto your dinner from halfway across the room?
While KMC’s potato bar doesn’t equip diners with Cheese Whiz, it does offer up a never-ending supply of canned mushrooms, Baco-Bits, and an unidentifiable orange goop that we can only assume is meant to be of the “Nacho” variety.
The yellowish substance is tangy, salty, and possibly radioactive. Yet somehow, it beckons to us. Like so much of KMC itself, it represents an unintentional tribute to bygone foods and pastimes, all served up by a crew of thoroughly sweet cooks and hostesses.
One Last Stop
Wandering over to the arcade after our meal, we quickly found ourselves running in circles, rediscovering the joys of long-forgotten video game machines (Star Wars: the Arcade Game? Seriously?)
As we dropped our quarters in and trained our eyes toward the low-definition screens in front of us, a whirl of bleeps and bloops began pouring out of the speakers.
We stood transfixed, drinking in every pixel as the sights and sounds of yesteryear washed over us.
Long-forgotten friends reappeared… tiny digital characters, welcoming us back to our childhoods as warmly as Val Kilmer’s embrace of Tom Cruise at the end of Top Gun.*
This place is awesome.
*Author’s note: the display of affection referenced above has been analyzed and proven to be in fact, the manliest hug ever captured on film.
Kilauea Military Camp is located at 99-252 Crater Rim Dr, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI 96785. Phone: (808) 967-8333.
Hours for each facility at KMC vary. For full details, visit their website by clicking here.