After more than 23 years in business, Lloyd and Mary Reese are retiring from Blue Cactus Cafe — and handing the reins to their daughter Julie Ford.
The Reeses’ last day at the beloved Five Points restaurant will be Dec. 16. Ford will take over as owner when the restaurant reopens in January.
Unbeknownst to many, Blue Cactus had been quietly for sale — advertised in Korean newspapers around the country — but nobody was biting. Recently Mary Reese was talking to her daughter about whether she should lower the price, maybe look for another realtor.
“Then I looked at her and was like, ‘Or you could give it to me.’” Ford explains. “She said, ‘You want it?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’”
Mary shakes her head, seemingly still torn about whether owning a restaurant is what she wants for her daughter.
“This is a hard job,” she says. “This is not a good job.”
But she’s happy that her family will stay together. The Reeses’ son has helped out at Blue Cactus for years; their grandson — Ford’s son — has become a key part of the kitchen; and one of Ford’s daughters will continue waiting tables as her school schedule allows.
Ford herself is no strange face: For many years, she waited tables at Blue Cactus, only stepping aside a few years ago. She can still recite the orders of regular customers. In her new role, she says, she’ll be more of a back-of-house presence.
Blue Cactus serves Korean and some Southwestern food, but that wasn’t always the case. Lloyd Reese, a former drill sergeant, tells Free Times he actually started the restaurant so he could sell some used equipment he’d bought.
“Restaurant equipment is pennies on the dollar for used equipment,” he says. “But if it’s from an operating restaurant, you can get more money from it. So I set this up originally just to get an operating restaurant and to sell it. Then I got interested in it.”
Originally, the tiny eatery — it was less than half the size it is now — sold sandwiches, also delving into Southwestern foods.
Lloyd’s foray into serving Korean food came when a doctoral student from Korea came by Blue Cactus one day and ordered beans and rice.
“He’d been here about four days and was eating bread; he’d tried the food up in the Russell House and wasn’t impressed. I said, ‘You’re not going to like beans.’ Koreans just don’t eat beans like we fix them here.”
At the time, Mary, who is from Korea, was working with her brother at a Korean restaurant across town. Lloyd called her to ask how to make a particular Korean soup, which he then prepared for the student.
“I knew how it was supposed to taste,” he explains, “because [Mary’s] mom’s a good cook, she’s a good cook. I’ll eat anything that somebody else eats. I always thought it was rude, if someone else is eating it and offers you some, you’ve got an obligation to be civil. I’ve ate things I didn’t like, but I then knew that I didn’t like them.”
Lloyd and his cooking gained a bit of a reputation, he says. It wasn’t long before a Korean-American dropped by and said, “Are you the white guy that cooks Korean food?”
“I said, ‘That’s me.’”
Nobody was as surprised as the Reese family.
“He never cooked at home,” Mary says, ribbing him.
“Sometimes fixing a sandwich was too much cooking; it’d be literally rolling us a piece of meat,” Ford says.
After a few years, Mary began working at Blue Cactus as well.
“It was a nice little retirement job till she got here,” Lloyd jokes.
Decades later, the Cactus is still going strong, serving homestyle Korean food from Mary’s childhood in the ’50s and ’60s.
That traditional food, as any Cactus patron will tell you, takes time. Mary shakes her head in disapproval over cooks who cut corners on traditional Korean bone broth, which forms the base of many of the restaurant’s dishes. Made correctly, over several days of slowly simmering beef bones until the marrow is gone, the broth will develop an intense milky opaqueness. Some cooks shortcut the process by using actual milk, she says.
But she’s broken with tradition, too, like when she makes kimchi. Because many Blue Cactus customers are vegetarian, she avoids adding fish sauce, salted shrimp, and other common kimchi additives. She’s grown to like the clean taste of her own recipe.
“I can tell the difference.” With other kimchi, she says, “you have really some heavy taste. I didn’t use any fish anything in my kimchi.”
As for Lloyd, his “love it or leave it” attitude has permeated Blue Cactus. He’s driven away some customers over the years — some on purpose, and some through his political rants. On his first day in business, he says, he told a customer who complained about the slow pace, “Get your ass out the door. Go for it.”
Another time, he told a man eating a Pita Pit sandwich at one of Cactus’ outdoor tables that he had to leave.
“He said, ‘You’re not using it,’” Lloyd relates. “I got in the middle of his sandwich, took a big handful, said, ‘Well, you wasn’t using that either.’ … Little Marxist bastard needed a taste of what he was talking about.”
But the Reeses and Ford — equally outspoken in her own way — consider the Cactus’ attitude a feature, not a bug. The restaurant has embraced the phrase “arrogantly slow,” even emblazoning it on T-shirts; more recently, Ford’s admonition that a complaining customer should “die mad about it” became a social media slogan.
But the Reeses are also generous, feeding everyone from Buddhist monks to homeless people. That includes Lloyd’s soft spot for crust punks.
“One of the nice things has been the punk kids,” Lloyd says. “They come in, and the grunge punks smell terrible.”
“Crusties,” Ford corrects him.
“And when they order,” Lloyd goes on, “they order something that they have enough to pay for and to tip with. If they don’t have enough, they’ll get something cheaper or two of them will split something. I’m at the point now where I go out in the street and see crust punks and get warm and fuzzy feelings.”
Lloyd, who turns 74 in January, says he’s retiring “while we can still do something.”
Ford plans to make a few changes, including restoring Tuesday service. She may also drop a few things from the menu that don’t sell enough.
She’s excited to come back, she says.
“When I quit working here for a while I didn’t miss waiting tables, but I missed the customers,” she says. “I call them my Cactus kids.”