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Rock On, Babalu

Dilworth establishment puts a spin on Latin-fusion

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There's a special something about Babalu that's hard to put a finger on. Maybe it's the brightness of the interior that coincides with the inviting and popping colors of the exterior. The clean-cut, yet rocking designs and contemporary furniture make the taco and tapas joint a place that's great for dates, family dinners or casual outings.

The company started in 2010 when two restauranteurs, Bill Latham and Al Roberts, decided to move forward with a concept of comfortable and fun dining infused with Latin-inspired and fresh cuisine. Thus, the first Babalu opened in Jackson, Mississippi, and was received with great success. Six years and three more locations later, the fifth Babalu installation is open in Charlotte.

So, why'd they pick Charlotte to set up shop? Mary Sanders Ferris, the design and brand manager for Babalu said the Q.C.'s uniqueness, young age and booming millennial population made it a match for the company to open up a new location.

"It's going through a growth right now and it's got a lot of opportunities that are exciting and fun," Ferris said. "And the fact that within Charlotte there are so many great spots and locations we could've gone into and fit and work within the current population and demographics of the neighborhood." For now, Babalu is settling in and getting cozy in historic Dilworth.

Although technically it's a chain restaurant, the vision for Babalu is to make sure that each location is different so that it doesn't feel like a chain. Aside from branding standards, every Babalu has a special touch to differentiate it from other cities.

Babalu's chef de cuisine Deacon Ovall.
  • Babalu's chef de cuisine Deacon Ovall.

Each location has its own aesthetic and the core of the menu is the same, but each Babalu sources their vegetables and proteins from local farms. The chef de cuisine of Babalu in Dilworth, Deacon Ovall, is in touch with a multitude of farms in North Carolina in order to get the freshest vegetables and sustainable proteins. Each location is connected to local farms, so some daily chef features vary depending on the region.

In keeping with the theme of local sourcing, Babalu used Evan Plante, owner of Docklands Designs, to decorate the bar area. It's covered with different screen-printed posters of local acts that have graced venues around Charlotte.

"It's most exciting in that a lot of the local music scene knows about what's going on — but there are a lot more people in Charlotte who aren't seeing it," Plante said. "Now, hopefully, they'll look up and see these bands and venues right in their own city and wonder what they're missing out on."

And then, there's the food itself. The cuisine the restaurant boasts is a mixture of different culinary styles with the same southern undertones, offering dishes like de pato tacos — otherwise known as duck tacos — and costillas: smoked Duroc baby back ribs. The Baba burger, a tasty different take on a burger, is served on a sweet sourdough bun and easy to eat due to a wider, less heightened approach. There's also tableside guacamole.

"I think we've developed a menu and we continue to push kind of a Latin-influenced [cuisine] with a lot of southern undertones," said Eric Bartholomew, guest executive chef from the Birmingham, Alabama location. "The creole and the southwest, a lot of southerners are more familiar with."

Ovall agreed, adding that the cuisine can be a mix of Spanish and southwestern or southern with a twist of Spanish.

Babalu is designed with an open floorplan, which allows guests to look out over the bright and colorful restaurant with an unimpeded view. This view also includes a peek into the kitchen.

The open kitchen adds to the large, bright and expansive atmosphere of Babalu, while guests can sit at the chef's table and watch the action close-up. As the food is whipped up and carried out hot to hungry guests at other tables, those at the chef's table can converse with those in the kitchen, upping the game in regards to transparency and good service goes.

With a growing culture of "foodies" and a re-kindled spark of interest in the culinary arts, Bartholomew noted that people don't want to be shut off from the cooking process and may want to know "what goes on behind closed doors." So the kitchen staff at Babalu is not afraid to show them with full transparency.

"This open kitchen being a major focal point ... just brings everything out in the open," Ovall added. "And it really gives us the chance to showcase as a culinary and hospitality restaurant."

Babarita from Babalu
  • Babarita from Babalu

In conjunction with the food menu, the staff points to its bar program as another point of interest in the restaurant. There's no soda guns behind the bar because all sodas and tonics for mixed drinks are poured from a can for quality control and the sour mix is fresh-squeezed along with the house-made lemonade. Local craft beers rotate on the bar's 14 taps, and the back wall of the bar is actually a window that opens to the patio, so guests can be served on either side.

Each day is different at Babalu, whether it's the food and drink specials or the black-and-white movies that are projected on two of the walls in the restaurant. It could even be the loud music and Charlotte-specific artwork that adds to the booming and colorful personality of the eatery.

"We have chef features daily, we have seasonal margaritas every day," said Rebecca Vitale, the general manager. "We definitely put some thought and some craft into our days so that every day is different. We never want the same thing twice."

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