In a Category of Its Own
The Blue Cactus Cafe
(Clockwise, from top) Kim Bob, Bee Bim Bob, Blue Cactus #2 with tofu and peanut sauce, Kim-Chi Plate.
Photography by Robert Clark
Being “arrogantly slow” usually isn’t something on which a restaurant prides itself. But at The Blue Cactus Café at 2002 Greene St. in Columbia, that proclamation is boldly printed on the t-shirts worn by the family who owns and operates it. This unique Columbia treasure is an active participant in the Slow Food movement. The antithesis of fast food, Slow Food is more labor intensive, takes longer to prepare and can be more expensive than what you can pick up at the drive-thru. But restaurants like The Blue Cactus take pride in the quality of their food rather than its convenience.
Originally from Kansas, Lloyd Reese served in the U.S. Army for 21 years, including stints in Korea in the 1960s and 1980s. He eventually made a home in Columbia with Mary, his wife, and their three children. In 1994, he bought all of the necessary equipment for running a restaurant and opened The Blue Cactus Café. “The day I turned on the open sign was the first day I ever worked in a restaurant,” Lloyd admits. “If you don’t know you can’t do something, you can do anything.”
Faded postcards are taped to a map covered with pins where visitors have marked their hometowns – a testament to the length of time The Blue Cactus Café has been in business. The café’s employees are Lloyd, Mary and Julie, their daughter. Bryan, their son, Joshua, their grandson, and P. H. Kim, Lloyd’s sister-in-law, help out part-time. But that’s really all they need to serve their customers authentic, healthy Korean food.
On any given day, Julie can be seen standing over the ice cream case telling first time customers how The Blue Cactus got its name. It is quite a history lesson. The British “Blue Lancer” Regiment was trapped during the Korean War in a desolate valley in southern Korea. When the U.S. Army later set up a base there, the Americans called it the Blue Lancer Valley. Later, the First Brigade 12th Calvary, originally from the southwestern United States, was stationed there. On their Calvary insignia was a cactus. A lieutenant colonel who had just arrived in the valley started the “Blue Cacti, Sir” salute. Lloyd spent his time in Korea in the same valley, and he met Mary there at a coffee shop where she was working. “It took her six months to even notice me,” he says.
The cuisine at the Blue Cactus reflects the name’s heritage. The menu boasts a combination of Tex-Mex dishes as well as authentic Korean favorites, like the popular Bee Bim Bob. The large bowl of steamed rice and Korean vegetables topped with a meat and optional fried egg is a staple at The Blue Cactus. Others go for even simpler dishes. “I always get the Bul Go Gee. It’s so simple but really flavorful,” says Liz Good, a student at USC. “When I go to the Blue Cactus, that’s what I’m getting. There’s no other option. That’s why I go there.”
Lloyd recommends the spicy pork, but tofu is also a great choice. A couple of menu items use tofu as the main ingredient because he thinks it’s important to have options for vegans and vegetarians. “The ingredients list on imitation meat items made of tofu may read like the back of a paint can, but real tofu can be used as a substitute for meat on many dishes and is an item we love to cook with,” he says. “As a matter of fact, if I don’t like it, we don’t cook it.” Lloyd’s creativity in the kitchen has resulted in some original dishes, like Spanish Chicken and Thai Style Curry Chicken.
The café’s unique menu options have attracted people from all over. Although Lloyd knows most customers by their first name, he’s used to seeing new faces. “We attract everyone here,” he says. “From crusty punks to Supreme Court justices to actors to college professors and students. You never know what you’re going to get here.”
Ten years ago, Julie started collecting postcards that were sent to the Blue Cactus from traveling visitors, including one from Lloyd and Mary’s niece, who sent a unique postcard while traveling in the Congo. “She addressed us on the card as the World Famous Blue Cactus Café,” Lloyd says. “The postal service verified it, so that makes it official.”
It hardly needed to be verified by an official agency. The Blue Cactus has regulars from all walks of life and all corners of the world. Even a Puerto Rican salsa band that travels the United States performing always makes a point to stop in if they are passing through South Carolina. Other regulars include a South African journalist, Pixar executives and Tibetan Buddhist monks. C. Neil Scott, a local regular, says that the food is the common denominator. “They just have a diverse menu and great prices,” he says. In fact, the last time the menu prices were increased was three years ago, but before that, prices had been the same for 14 years.
In a time where the economy is affecting most local businesses, the Blue Cactus Café has remained stable. Lloyd attributes that success to people concentrating more on quality of food instead of cheaper, more convenient options. “The basics always taste better,” he says. Each order is prepared individually for each customer, and there is no freezing and reheating or cooking in an assembly line. Even though this increases the wait time for customers, no one seems to mind after they taste the food. Well, almost no one. “A young reporter wrote a review once and said we wouldn’t last because we took too long to get the food out,” Lloyd says. “That was 14 years ago.”
Even though Lloyd works an average of 80 hours a week, he doesn’t foresee retiring any time soon. “I try not to think about what 80 hours a week converts to as an hourly wage,” he says. He says the ideal situation would be for Julie to take over when he retires so he can have a 10-acre garden. However, he doesn’t want his daughter to lose time with her own family just to run the restaurant. “It’s a lot of work,” he says. “Like our sign says, ‘Sorry we’re open, some days more than others.’”
The Blue Cactus Café is truly a treasure of Columbia. Everyone is sure to find a new favorite; try the red bean ice cream or the Ropa Vieja. And definitely consider a t-shirt since The Blue Cactus Café is, in fact, world famous!