It’s official: Babalu Tacos & Tapas has replaced Kid Cashew as the newest must-try restaurant in Charlotte’s Dilworth neighborhood.
Following a soft opening Friday and Saturday (for friends, family, journalists and a variety of folks who have been or will be involved in its business – from construction workers to farmers), Babalu opens for business at 11 a.m. Monday.
The main thing to expect? Crowds. Those tend to materialize when you promise high-end food for a fair price, and when you do it on a high-traffic street in a spot that used to be home to the popular Cantina 1511.
What else should you anticipate? Here are five things we learned during our lunch/sneak preview on Friday afternoon.
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1. It’s not just another Mexican restaurant. It’d be easy to make the mistake, since Charlotteans were so used to going to that very spot for Mexican food at Cantina – but it’s not a Mexican restaurant at all. Yes, there are tacos, and yes, there are chicken and fish tacos, but there are also Ostra (flash-fried Gulf oysters) and De Pato (orange and soy braised duck) tacos. And despite the “Tapas” in the name, it’s not a Spanish restaurant, either: Options include an Enchilada Of The Day and a Beef Empanada, but also Creole Shrimp & Grits and Mississippi Delta Tamales. “We do things a little bit different, and we are very Southern,” says bar manager Maggie Callahan, “all the way across the board. You can call us a Southern-style tapas restaurant with a Latin flair.” Other menu items you might not expect: a Baba Burger, Flash-Fried calamari and Black-Eyed Pea Hummus. And – as it’s not a Mexican restaurant – you’ll get no free chips and salsa. (Instead, you’ll pay $4.50 for Pico De Gallo & House Chips, and you’ll love them.)
2. That name, by the way, is actually Cuban. There’s an old Latin American music standard called “Babalú,” which originated as a tribute to an Afro-Cuban god but is perhaps best-known as the signature song of Ricky Ricardo from “I Love Lucy.” So, are the owners obsessed with the old sitcom? Nah. President and co-founder Bill Latham – who with his partners also owns locations in Jackson, Miss., Birmingham, Ala., and Memphis and Knoxville in Tennessee – simply liked the name because “it sounds fun and happy.” Still, the restaurant eventually hopes to project old “I Love Lucy” episodes onto a back wall, as soon as it can secure legal rights. (At Friday’s soft opening, an episode of “The Three Stooges” was on display ... which isn’t Latin at all, but hey, they’re fun and make people happy.) P.S.: Among the sandwich options is the Torta Cubana, a fairly traditional Cuban.
3. As is the trend, Babalu is focused on local, local, local. Guest executive chef Eric Bartholomew and chef de cuisine Deacon Ovall will select a variety of in-season local, organic, farm-fresh food from Cold Water Creek Farms in Concord, Barbee Farms in Concord and Boy & Girl Farm in Union County, says Al Roberts, Babalu’s vice president/director of culinary. Ice cream in the Pineapple Rum Empanadas will come from Golden Cow Creamery in Charlotte. And Charlotte beers on tap include Wooden Robot’s Good Morning Vietnam, Unknown Brewery’s Ginger Wheat, Birdsong’s Lazy Bird Brown Ale, Sugar Creek’s White Ale, Triple C’s Greenway IPA and Legion Brewing’s Sparkle Party.
4. Parking nightmares (hopefully) are a thing of the past. Cantina 1511 almost never seemed to have empty parking spaces, and if you tried to park elsewhere then sneak over, it wasn’t out of the question that you’d return to find a boot on your front wheel. Babalu, meanwhile, will offer complimentary valet parking during all hours of operation. Even if the lot is full, management has a contract with an auxiliary lot – so customers can head to lunch without worrying about whether they’ll be able to get a space. You should, however, remember to have at least a buck or two stashed in your wallet...
5. You can hang on the patio year-round. Babalu’s decor is fairly simple: concrete floors, a concrete bar, reclaimed-wood ceilings, a color palette that revolves around “Babalu orange” and “Babalu blue.” But the crowning achievement in the design is the indoor-outdoor patio, which is screened in but also has a retractable roof and retractable sides. Says co-owner Bill Latham: “So, in the wintertime we can use it, if it’s raining we can use it, if it’s a beautiful day we can open the entire thing up so it’s wide open.”
Babalu Tacos & Tapas
Where: 1511 East Blvd.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11-11 Friday-Saturday; 11-9 Sunday. Opens Monday.
Prices: Soups and salads, $3.95-$14.90; starters, $4.50-$10.95; sandwiches, $7.95-$11.95; sides, $3.75-$5.75; tacos, $3-$9; tapas, $7.95-$13.50; desserts, $5.95.
Bar: More than a dozen specialty cocktails (including the popular Baba-Rita, which blends Patron Silver, Agave nectar, fresh-squeezed sour mix, POM and triple sec), wine, beer.