If you want to eat at Babalu Tapas & Tacos on a Friday night, then you should expect to wait at least 45 minutes for a table. Lucky for Charlotte, it’s worth the wait. The restaurant’s contemporary design and open concrete floor plan features pops of orange and blue, and there is a sizable bar donned with an impressive margarita list and a mighty team of denim clad bartenders. “The Three Stooges” partake in a sword fight that is projected in black and white on the dining room wall. Within the open kitchen, Guest Executive Chef, Eric Bartholomew, and Chef De Cuisine, Deacon Ovall, are immersed in their culinary mastery preparing the freshest organic ingredients from local farms and sources such as Cold Water Creek Farms, Barbee Farms both in Concord, Boy & Girl Farm in Union County, and Golden Cow Creamery in Charlotte.
Despite the name, Babalu Tapas & Tacos is not traditionally Mexican, although they do serve tacos, and it is not traditionally Latin American, although they do serve tapas. The original Babalu opened up in Jackson, Mississippi, by owners Bill Latham and Al Roberts five-and-a-half years ago with several locations expanding throughout the South since then. Apart from being the signature song of Ricky Ricardo on the classic comedy series, “I Love Lucy,” the name Babalu should next be associated with community. Not only do they source their produce locally, but they also have several local brew houses on tap, such as Wooden Robot Brewery, The Unknown Brewing Co., Birdsong Brewing Co., Sugar Creek Brewing Company, Triple C Brewing Company and Legion Brewing.
Along the theme of community, Babalu promotes sharing and camaraderie over a meal, two typically Southern ideals and one that Babalu patrons should keep in mind before diving into their black-eyed pea hummus or table-side guacamole. Babalu’s goal is to make their customers happy, hence the name, fun colors and décor (did I mention they have their open ceilings adorned with band posters?), and delicious food. Something that made me happy in particular? A combination of two of my favorite types of foods: Latin and Southern-style, which explains why I tried as much as food as I possibly could when I went the first time. I enlisted my husband to help, and this is what we found.
Babalu’s drinks, much like their food, taste flavorful and fresh. I consider myself a margarita maven, so I tried the pineapple margarita and their seasonal cocktail, the watermelon margarita. Both margaritas are made with fresh ingredients and infused tequila, and they are garnished with fruit that has been soaking in tequila for three days – don’t eat the watermelon unless you have a designated driver. My husband opted for other Babalu favorites, the white sangria, light and delicious with notes of cinnamon and a lemon lime twist, and the Pepe O’ Malley, a gin cocktail made with fresh lemonade, cucumber and mint. No matter which cocktail you choose it will be made fresh and delicious. For those who don’t drink but have a sweet tooth, opt for one of Babalu’s Mexican Coca-Colas!
I am a big fan of sharing appetizers, and Babalu is the perfect place to do just that. We asked for recommendations on which ones to order and ultimately went with the table-side guacamole. It just tastes better when it’s made in front of you in a molcajete, and Babalu does it up just right: avocados, sun-dried tomatoes, red and green onion, kosher salt, cilantro and lime juice. Plus, you have the option of adding jalapeños or bacon for $1 or veggies for $2. Naturally I decided to add bacon, and it did not disappoint.
For dinner we decided to try a little bit of everything, including one of the tapas, a sandwich and several tacos. After speaking with Chef De Cuisine Deacon Ovall, we decided to go per his suggestions and order the Baba Burger and the Filet on a Stick, both customer favorites that exceeded expectations. The tapas on the menu range from those you would find in your South American Abuela’s kitchen, such as chicken tamales to those you would find in your Southern granny’s kitchen, such as creole shrimp and grits. Through the selection of tapas alone you can see the fusion of the concept behind Babalu: Locally sourced fare that has a Southern style with a Latin twist. The tapas aren’t the only menu item that stand out. Their taco selection is enough for any foodie to gush over. Apart from traditional taco choices such as pork belly (personal favorite), chicken, beef and vegetable, they also have tacos made with fried oysters, duck and pulled pork. Nothing says Latin and Southern Fusion quite like pulled pork tacos.
If it were up to me I would always order dessert first, but as they say, “save the best for last.” Unable to decide on just one of Babalu’s freshly made desserts, I opted for a sampler, which included the Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Bites, Spicy Mexican Fudge and Cinnamon Bread Pudding. Another dessert favorite not included on the sampler is the Pineapple Rum Empanadas, which I plan to try in the very near future. Verdict on the sampler? Get the Cinnamon Bread Pudding — between the cream, caramel and powdered sugar, each bite tastes like it was homemade in your granny’s kitchen.
Babalu is exactly the new Southern-inspired restaurant the Queen City needed. If the fresh and flavorful food and beverages don’t convince you to check it out, then the fun atmosphere, the complimentary valet parking and the friendly staff sure will.
Babalu Tapas & Tacos is located in the Historic Dilworth neighborhood at 511 East Blvd., Charlotte, NC 28203. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. To learn more, call (704) 334-1511, click here or visit them on Facebook.
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