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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Columbia Eats: Blue Cactus Cafe

Few places are like the Blue Cactus Cafe in Columbia, SC. Just minutes from the University of South Carolina, the restaurant has been serving up authentic Korean cooking with a Southwest twist since the mid-90s.

The first thing you can't help noticing before hitting the menu is the unusual setup of the cafe. Set in almost a pueblo-like room, it certainly separates itself from the rest of the Five Points establishments from the get-go. The walls are littered with local artwork and fan mail from past years. A hot sauce cabinet divides the seating area with the kitchen front (all of which are of course available to any daring customers).

While the menu is loaded with a great variety of choices that includes southwest cooking to the Korean stir-frys and stews, there's no doubt that the first thing that came our group's mind the moment we sat down was the Bee Bim Bob. Covered with five different Korean vegetables and choice of meat along with a fried egg on top, it's the staple dish of the restaurant and a surefire choice anyone who is hungering for some authentic Korean. If you've never had it before, grab a spoonful of the red pepper paste given to you on the side with the dish and mix well!

Stir-frys like the Bee Bim Bob are definitely your best bet at Blue Cactus. Packed with veggies and served with a variety of special sauces, each and every one seems to the fit the bill every time I've come. For a stranger-then-average pick, the stir-fried squid comes loaded with the main item in a rich, spicy/sweet sauce. A very filling seafood choice for the adventure seeker. Anyone looking for a strong, spicy dish to liven the palette should look towards the Kim Chi items which definitely bring the heat. Be wary of the Pork and Kim Chi dish though: it packs an extremely loaded flavor that could overwhelm timid eaters. Kim Chi lovers will rejoice, but those looking for a more subtle dish should look elsewhere.

Vegetarians will find themselves knee deep in some of the best vegetarian food around. Almost every entree on the menu can be substituted with tofu, and there are even some vegetarian specialties on the list itself that would even peek the interest of meat-lovers. The stews are usually slightly lacking in my book. The mondo and rice cake stews in particular don't hit the spot the way the stir-frys do. For a powerful dish in the category though, once again look no further then the Kim Chi, the Kim Chi Stew that is, a spicy, savory dish that will surely warm you up on those rare winter days in Columbia. The pork is a nice addition if you are pining for some meat in the dish. For anyone looking to steer away from the usual rice entrees and something a bit cooler then a stew, the clear noodle stir fry is a unique choice that will satisfy both one's curiosity and stomach. Another one of those textury kind of meals, it's basically a gloppy pile of noodles stir-fried with tons of veggies. Trust me when I say it is better then the description sounds!

The appetizers pack some interesting choices, the standout surely being the Korean dumplings. Deep-fried wontons stuffed with cabbage, beef, and onions, they make for a fantastic start to any meal. Definitely take them over the krab puffs if you had to choose. Light eaters looking for a quick bite may even be satisfied with just an order of these. The Kim Bob is other star of the show. Basically a poor man's sushi, these vegetarian bites are a great way to keep things light without having to sacrifice any satisfaction. The Kim Chi plate was a bit of a disappointment as you could get the same with the Bee Bim Bob, but those looking just to sample can definitely do so here.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Blue Cactus
Atmosphere: Pure crazy casual between the Mexican/Korean mix.
Cost: Fair. $7-10.
Try: The Bee Bim Bob for the heads-on cultural experience.
Don't: Plan on going for the stews.
Quality is in their amazing stir-fries.
Consider: A cup of green bean ice cream on the way out.
A mellow touch after a great meal.
Expect: A long wait. Blue Cactus is serious about slow cooking folks.

The Final Verdict
Blue Cactus is easily one of the my favorite restaurants in Columbia, and one of the best in the USC area. Featuring a menu full of traditional favorites from both sides of the family-owned restaurant, everyone who comes is sure to find something that suits their tastes. Those willing to go for the more authentic dishes should surely get their hands on the Bee Bim Bob if they haven't yet. Those not interested in straying too far from the border can enjoy their just as authentic and delicious southwest entrees. Make sure you bring lots of change for the parking meter if you plan to eat in though. They are devoted members of the slow-cook movement, and will take all the time they need to get your order just right. Make sure you also keep tabs on their website if you plan to eat there since they often close for family vacations, especially during the summer and winter breaks at USC.

Blue Cactus Cafe on Urbanspoon


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