Every neighborhood should have something like the Blue Cow Cafe.
Tucked in one of Columbia's many neighborhood centers, the family-run cafe sells newspapers, coffee drinks, bagels in the morning, peanut-butter sandwiches for the kids, and a wide-ranging and tasty selection of salads and sandwiches for the rest of us.
The cafe is run by Karen Blue, who grew up nearby in Columbia's Thunder Hill neighborhood, and her husband/chef, Mark. They've worked a miracle to turn a sterile, fluorescent-lighted space into a cozy eatery with artwork for sale on the walls and checker tables ready for action. (Be sure to check out the unisex bathroom, which features an aquarium that is home to blue and red neon tetras.)
Our large order took a while to prepare, but with only two people working during a fairly busy lunch hour, the wait was forgivable.
First the bad news: The cheeseburger ($3.50) was basically depressing, thanks to a thin, grim piece of meat.
Everything else, though, was made with care and skill.
A pork-barbecue sandwich ($5.50) was made with slow-cooked meat that was then minced and served with a mild sauce on a fresh kaiser roll. The tuna-salad sandwich ($5.99) had a piquant dill flavor and wasn't overloaded with mayonnaise. Likewise, the chicken-salad sandwich ($5.99) featured a generous serving of large meat chunks. Finally, the Caesar salad ($6.75) came with peppery grilled chicken and, touchingly, homemade croutons. Another winner.
The Blue Cow folks make several of their own desserts, including carrot cake. We tried a butterscotch-flavored cookie (50 cents) that was a little cloying. An espresso brownie ($1.25), on the other hand, delivered a zingy blend of chocolate and the slightest hint of bitter coffee flavor. The restaurant also serves ice cream. Blue Cow is extremely kid-friendly, and there's plenty of free parking out front. For breakfast, the cafe also serves French toast, omelets and the intriguing "breakfast on a stick" -- a sausage wrapped with a blueberry pancake and glazed with syrup.
Blue Cow Cafe
Service: *** 1/2
Waiting area: ****
Where: 5134 Thunder Hill Road, Columbia
Hours: 7 a.m to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Sandwiches and subs from $3.50 to $10.95; kids' meals from $1 to $3.95; breakfast items from $1.19 to $4.89; credit cards accepted
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *