Babalu Tacos and Tapas Finalizing Plans for J.C. Penney Bldg. Location


In March I wrote about the J.C. Penney Building, focusing on the residences which will be available soon. A month or so later, I wrote about Maple Hall, the bowling alley planned for the basement of the building. Today we’ll look at what’s coming in the larger of the two commercial spaces fronting Gay Street. I had a chance recently to talk to co-founder Bill Latham of Babalu Tacos and Tapas who told me a bit about the plans.

He said he is excited about entering the east Tennessee market. Knoxville will be the fourth location following Jackson, Memphis and Birmingham. While the concept is consistent between the various locations, an executive chef and sous chef located in Knoxville will also be given latitude to shape the concept to fit their vision and local tastes.


The previous locations, like the new one, will not be found in suburban strip malls. He and co-founder Al Roberts favor urban areas which are experiencing a comeback. Babalu is, “just not a strip mall kind of place. We do everything local as much as possible. Everything is from scratch from the tortillas to the bar mixes. We try to be a little different.”

Interestingly, he cited Bill Regas as a factor in their choice to move here, saying, “Bill has been a good friend and talked to me about Knoxville being a great city for our concept.” After a bit of exploration, they decided that the extensive interest in downtown Knoxville would make it a very good choice for their next location. He said, “We thought it was a great looking area.”


The restaurant, as the name indicates, does focus on tacos and small plates, but with quite a few twists thrown in. Sandwiches, for example include a burger, but also “Grilled Lamb Sliders.” You don’t see that everyday. Several salads are offered and the tacos include beef and chicken, as you might expect, but also include tuna and redfish, as well as an oyster taco. That last one has my interest piqued, for sure.

The small plates are a real point of interest and even the most ordinary offer some sort of flavor twist. Some you might not expect include Mississippi Delta Tamales, Crab Fritters, Beef Empanadas and Black Bean Cake. The tacos (3 to an order) and small plates all run just below or above $10, so it’s an attractive price for interesting food. Several desserts and signature cocktails are also offered. You can view the full menu here.


When last I spoke to Mr. Latham, the hope was for an opening early this fall, though he pointed out that a number of variables are beyond their control. Last week a proposal regarding the facade/entrances to the business were presented to the Downtown Design Review Board. Plans include a large, covered seating area similar in size to the Downtown Grill. Tri-fold doors will allow the front of the restaurant to be opened to the street (with a bug-screen lowered around the patio).

It sounds like a good addition to Gay Street and the menu sounds different from the other various restaurants downtown. The building is looking better and better. We should be just a few months away from new residents, bowling and a fresh, new menu. We have a lot to look forward to in the city this fall. Head over to their Facebook Page and give them a “like,” if you’d like to welcome them to the city.



  1. Gene Rump says

    We were big fans of Bill’s restaurants during the years we lived in Jackson. They are terrific operators and will make a super addition to the street…if only they would open an Amerigo’s too!

  2. I’d wager I’ve spent as much time as anyone sitting at a table on the Gay Street sidewalk, and not once have I ever thought “what this place needs is a bug screen.” I can’t see it doing much for the aesthetics. But otherwise, sounds like a welcome addition.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      If I’m understanding correctly, the bug screen is required if you open the front of the building as they plan to do. That doesn’t, however, make me understand Crown and Goose and Sweet P’s.

      • About the bug screen, my understanding is that if the kitchen is entirely enclosed, the restaurant doesn’t have to have one. That is the case for Crown & Goose, but not for Sweet P’s. I assumed Sweet P’s must have a bug screen, but I’ve never seen it, so I don’t know about that one.

  3. Hello, always i used to check web site posts here in the early hours in the
    break of day, since i enjoy to learn more and more.

  4. Kevin Meyer says

    My wife and I checked it out last night, alas, this restaurant is definitely NOT vegan friendly.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Sorry to hear that. While there are vegan options around, we could use a good downtown vegetarian restaurant with lots of vegan choices. Maybe eventually.

      • Yeah, we had high hopes for this place, vegan tapas is just not that hard. We will keep trekking to Asheville and Atlanta.

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