- By Wyatt Williams For the AJC
The Cuban singer and composer Margarita Lecuona wrote the song “Babalú” in 1939. It is a dramatic Afro-Cuban number backed by a hip-shaking beat. The moody Spanish Creole lyrics are a plea to one of the deities of Santeria, a story full of ritualistic candlelight, cigar smoke and brandy. They speak to a culture melded from African, Caribbean and European traditions.
The best-known version of that tune, the one that Babalu Tacos and Tapas in Midtown is named after, is the rendition that Ricky Ricardo often played on the old sitcom “I Love Lucy.” Ricardo, as played by Cuban-American bandleader and actor Desi Arnaz, often simplified the number on the show, losing most of the lyrics along the way to a show-stopping conga solo. As one of the last surviving members of Arnaz’s band told NPR a few years back, this wasn’t about Latin or Caribbean American traditions so much as it was, in his words, “about playing to Americanos.”
Forgive, if you can, this history of song. You probably thought you would be reading about chips and dip and tacos, the dishes that Babalu serves. It’s just that Babalu the restaurant tastes on my palate just like listening to “Babalú” the song, three times removed. Rarely does a restaurant name sum up everything you need to know about a restaurant so tidily. When Bill Latham and Al Roberts started the restaurant chain in Jackson, Miss., and chose the name Babalu, leaving off the proper accent on the last vowel, they did something very honest. That’s because Babalu is a Latin restaurant that has lost its accent.
Perhaps “lost” is the wrong word. It sounds accidental. At Babalu in Midtown, one of the chain’s eight locations scattered throughout the South, nothing is left to accident. This is a well-oiled corporate machine restaurant, from the monologue that servers recite to customers to the colorful, clean design that draws in diners from the corner of Peachtree Place and West Peachtree Street.
Take the guacamole, which is made tableside and priced to the current market value of avocados, a move that means the owners won’t accidentally lose any pennies on a sudden uptick in avocado prices. On the recent night I ordered it, it ran $10.50 plus another dollar for the addition of minced jalapenos. Pricey, no doubt, but so are avocados these days. The tableside assembly was less of a show and more of a guarantee of freshness. No accidentally stale guacamole will come out of this kitchen. Did I wish for a bit more heat from those upcharged jalapenos, more zing from the lime? Sure, but our table greedily, happily scooped up bites from the generous portion. Even at nearly $12 for the bowl, they might have been my favorite bites at Babalu.
The colorful cocktails that accompanied our guac ranged from sweet to very sweet. There was a Baba-Rita, a margarita riff made pink by pomegranate juice. A Midtown Martini, served up with Patron Reposado, agave nectar and lime juice, glowed the color of the orange juice it had been shaken with. The Mojarita, a very sweet split between a mojito and margarita, was green with plenty of muddled mint. On the second round, I asked if any of the tequila cocktails on the menu were less sweet. Our server, though helpful, couldn’t think of one. I went with a beer.
The menu is fairly evenly divided between tacos and tapas. Tacos are the better way to go, by some margin. A plate of pan-seared crabcakes, recommended by our waitress as one of the best plates on the menu, was underwhelming. The cakes themselves were mushy, not at all loaded with thick lumps of crab as promised on the menu, but a stringy, creamy mash that needed a stronger crisp from the pan. The Fresno pepper slaw beneath them was wilted and forgettable.
A plate of albondigas, the Spanish version of meatballs, were small and dense as they should be. Composed from a mix of lamb and chorizo, their flavor, which balances gamy and spicy elements, was at least interesting, though not particularly compelling. The bed of yellow rice and black beans they arrived on, though, was thoroughly bland. The spirit of Desi Arnaz would not have been impressed.
I’d hoped the tamales would be a chance for the owners to show off a little local Mississippi food heritage. The tamales served in the Delta, as well as in Jackson, are some of what I consider the best Mexican-American food items in America. No such luck. The tamales that arrived were colorfully garnished with a pretty “tri-pepper-corn hash” but were salted to the point of inedibility.
Tacos fared better, though with a curious asterisk. If you’re counting on sampling the spread of Babalu’s salsas, comparing the salsa verde to the salsa roja to the salsa adobo, be forewarned that there isn’t one. Babalu only offers pico de gallo and only if you order a $5 bowl of it. I imagine this is, in part, because each taco on offer comes in a fully dressed composition, most of which could use one fewer ingredient, not one more. In this way, withholding the standard spread of salsas from diners is a way of the kitchen saying, “We’ve got this.”
Sometimes they do. I found the smoked pork belly taco, dressed with a sweet barbecue sauce, cotija cheese and slaw, to be a fatty, rich, tender concoction, melting with my every bite. The seared tuna taco, which isn’t typically my sort of thing, found a proper complement in a spicy crema sauce and crunchy tortilla strips.
On the other hand, the carnitas taco is served with a salsa roja. This didn’t trouble my tablemates as much as me. I’ll admit, in fact, that it wasn’t bad. But I’m of the opinion salsa verde is the only way to go with carnitas, that tomatillos and fatty pulled pork go together like Lucy and Ricky. There’s an easy way to fix that disagreement. Just offer the option of different salsas.
If the name of the restaurant puts you in mind for Cuban food, you have the option of a torta Cubana, which is packed with pulled pork, sliced ham, bright pickles, and plenty of mustard, as it should be. In fact, it is almost a Cuban sandwich aside from the fact that the bread isn’t pressed fully flat, but oddly fluffy. It is almost like hearing Ricky Ricardo sing that old song and thinking, “Wait, that isn’t how it’s supposed to go.” Oh well, it isn’t bad, even though the accent is lost.