Columbia is not at the white sand beaches, nor is it in the rolling foothills of the mountains, but smack dab in the middle of the state, and, I might add, the hottest most humid city with nary a breeze you will ever set foot in. (People from other Southern towns and Southeast Asian countries never believe that statement...until they've spent a summer there)
Really, there's no reason for you to go to or be in Columbia (I'm not dissing Columbia; all of my childhood and young adult memories are there, and I love them all), but if you ever do find yourself there, the following are my three favorite restaurants of all time, and, really, the only reason (besides family) that I return. I dream of these restaurants and their food -- all ethnic and all hole-in-the-wall/casual. Old location.
My absolute number one favorite restaurant in Columbia is Touch of India (link for address purposes only; ignore the poor reviews by people that have only been there once), a restaurant run by Devi, the sweetest woman ever. Devi and her family only serve Southern Indian dishes, and I have never eaten at an Indian restaurant that serves food as good as hers. Fresh and with love. I kick myself for not taking cooking classes with her, but I took all her food for granted. We would line up before she opened her doors at 11 (show up late, and it's gone) almost every Sunday for their small, but quality lunch buffet.
My favorites from the menu: mysore masala dosa, dahi puri, and cabbage (not on the menu, but cabbage will pop up occasionally as the veggie of the day).Sadly, I didn't make it to Touch of India this last go round, but that picture above is from a trip to her buffet the last time I was in town (buffet plates are never pretty). Since the last trip, she has moved her operation out of the most run-down, dismal, dead strip mall behind a dead strip mall you've ever seen to a brand new building. Yay! She worked for it. Next up is Bangkok, one of Columbia's first Thai restaurants that still sits in the same strip mall near Fort Jackson Army Base and does a bangin' take-out and sit-down lunch and dinner business. Same cooks, same servers (now with more gray hair!), same stains on the walls and carpet. Massaman curry...mmm.
There's nothing fancy about this place, but they dish out some good food. Is it better than your favorite Thai restaurant? Probably not. But it was my first, and I judge all Pad Thai and Massaman curry (my favorites) by their versions. Still, many people in Columbia love their dishes and proclaim them the best Thai, and that many people can't be wrong. I know I'm never wrong.Blue Cactus is probably the quirkiest restaurant in town, but is a must. You'd never know from the name or the outside of the restaurant that Blue Cactus serves Korean, Cuban, and Southwestern food. This restaurant is run by Lloyd (loves spicy food), who is a one-man show at the stove in their open kitchen; his wife (so quiet and cute, I've never caught her name) who brings her Korean expertise; and their daughter, Julie, who has been single-handedly waiting on your sorry ass since Blue Cactus opened in 1994. It's a family serving food they know and love, and doing it well.
Lloyd in his kitchen.
A few things to know before your first visit to Blue Cactus:
- Blue Cactus has a motto and its: Good food takes time...and we're real good! Lloyd is the only guy cooking, and his wife does the non-cooked dishes like kimbap and bibimbap, so if you go in at prime lunch time, you may be there for one and a half hours...or more! If you're in a hurry, go late in the afternoon, or just go when you have time. Oh, and so you don't waste more time, go to the register when you're done, and tell them what you ate; they don't bring you a check.
- Lloyd loves spicy food. Ask for it hot and it'll burn. There's a whole shelf of hot sauces if you'd like to try them...and bring him a bottle, too.
- Blue Cactus is not a traditional Korean restaurant. Don't go in expecting twenty complimentary banchan dishes. Kimchi is on the menu, if you want it.
- The Reese family is super nice (Julie even remembers my name and order after being gone for so long), but are not your bitches. Julie waits on you like she's a normal person (and like I would to if I were a server), so will roll her eyes if you ask her a stupid question. Remember Blue Cactus' motto? If you call the restaurant on your cell phone from your table to ask where your food is (true story), Lloyd will escort your ass out of his restaurant. It's sort of like Shopsin's in there, except I think Kenny Shopsin is missing a few screws and is unnecessarily harsh, and the Reeses have all of their mental faculties and you've got to be a real ass-wipe to get the Reese family smack down.
Bibimbap with tofu and without the fried egg, Kimbap just made by Mom so the rice is still warm, and Japchea with tofu.