Bell Tokyo

Customers wait in line at the Bell Tokyo food truck in Belton.

BELTON — It’s a traditional Japanese food that even those who like their steak and potatoes can enjoy.

That is the goal of a new Japanese food truck, Bell Tokyo, that has set up shop at 502 E. Central Ave. in Belton. The food truck serves traditional dishes such as ramen, karaage and gyuudon.

Owners Thomas and Laarni Bounds both lived in Japan for years, loving the food, and have wanted to bring that food to people in Bell County.

Thomas, who served three tours in the Army, said he wanted to show people who enjoyed meat and potatoes could still find something they liked in Japanese cooking.

“Even being a steak and potatoes kind of person like myself, it is a good chance that you are going to enjoy what it is that we serve here,” Thomas said. “And it is not going to be something that you have to break the bank to get. We wanted it to be something that tastes great and, in a sense, even nutritious.”

A Bell County native, Thomas fell in love with Japanese cooking after he was stationed there for three years, something he was originally nervous about since he doesn’t like fish.

Thomas met his wife, Laarni, while he was in the country, with her being with him when he was at Camp Zama and cooking many traditional dishes. When Thomas was transferred to Fort Polk in Louisiana, he told his wife they needed to get prepared to make many of the dishes they were used to since they would be hard to find in the U.S.

The couple said their suspicions were proven true upon coming back, often finding disappointing restaurants and few traditional ingredients.

This lack of good, traditional Japanese food was the spark that made the couple know they should open their own restaurant and start saving money.

After Thomas was discharged from the Army due to an injured knee, the couple returned to Japan for a few months before moving to Killeen. It was during this time that Laarni, who had a history of working at restaurants in Japan, went to the Tochigi Japanese Academy and learned how to make ramen.

“We were waking up at 3 a.m. and had to go over to the kitchen,” Laarni said. “I was the only woman because the others gave up. It was only three days learning but it was hard work. I learned to make tonkatsu, miso and soy sauce.”

The couple continued to save up money after moving to Killeen, with Thomas working odd jobs until he was laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After receiving word that the layoff was permanent, the couple decided to take the leap and move forward in making their restaurant dream a reality. The two were forced to change the concept from a restaurant to a food truck after they were unable to get a business loan from banks with the coronavirus still going on.

Thomas said he worked for months setting up the interior of the business’s custom trailer, saving what money he could, and finished in September.

“Since we were in Louisiana, we knew we wanted to make this happen, but years into the making it took a pandemic to finally make us realize we need to get started here,” Thomas said. “At this point, it is like we either sink or swim. With a big ambition, and an almost non-existent budget, we strove to try and make this happen.”

Since opening at the start of October, the couple said they have seen their amount of customers grow rapidly, to the point of selling out of certain items most days.

Laarni said the business has attracted both locals and those from as far as Waco and Austin, with many Japanese natives and those who spent time in Japan saying the food reminded them of the country.

The business’s most popular dish is the freshly made ramen that is currently only sold on Saturdays due to the amount of work required to make it. Thomas said on most days he wakes up at 6:45 a.m. and works until about 1 a.m., preparing ingredients and cleaning dishes.

“What keeps us going and what keeps us motivated is the amount of customers that week,” Thomas said. “We would like to serve ramen every day but (the truck) is so small we can’t have our regular menu and ramen at the same time.”

While the couple is continuing to tweak their menu to make it easier to serve food from their truck, they are already planning on opening a physical location once they are able to get the business loan for it.