Last May when I interviewed Bill Latham, co-founder of Babalu Tacos and Tapas, I got more excited about the food than I’d expected. It seemed like fun, interesting food served in reasonable portions and at good prices. Mr. Latham was very convincing and the food sounded good, but what would the reality be?
At that point they were hoping for an “early fall” opening, which turned out to be more “late” than early, but they will, in fact, open this Monday for lunch and dinner. Urban Woman and I had a chance to join friends for a preview dinner offering some of the potential menu items. You can find a full menu here, but that’s just a sample as the local menus vary depending on local produce available and other variables.
I expected good food and found it. We particularly enjoyed the ribs, which have a sweet sauce with a punch. It was the table favorite. Also getting high marks: the guacamole made fresh at our table, the shrimp tacos and the burger. The burger has won awards in several of the cities where the restaurant is located. Most small plates and taco plates (includes three) run around $9 to $10. If you hit the restaurant during their “social hour,” from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM Monday through Friday, you can get those tacos for $2 apiece along with $1 draft beer, $4 sangria and $5 house wines and well drinks.
Tegan, our fun and friendly waitress and others recommended the Pepe O’Malley, a gin drink with fresh squeezed lemonade, a cucumber slice and mint. I’m not big on gin and I don’t like cucumber, but the drink was the hit of the table. Very refreshing and, we agreed, a great drink for a warm day. While the food was served free-of-charge, the cocktails were not, but the entire profit from the cocktails was designated to be split between Beardsley Farm and the Pat Summitt Foundation.
I often miss pop culture references and didn’t realize that Desi Arnaz’ signature song was “Babalu.” The name is a reference to that and you’ll find other references in the restaurant, such as “I Love Lucy” episodes projected on the wall. I’ll admit to being happy they were playing without sound. The restrooms are labeled “Fred” and “Ethel,” as well.
Beyond the “I Love Lucy” references, the decor is interesting. Remnants of the building’s history are easily spotted, such as the JC Penney name in the original terrazzo tile near the front and the original sign from the store, mounted on the wall in the back. Handbills from various concerts are tacked up above the bar and more will be added as artists pass through and (hopefully) sign them.
You’ll find televisions, but they are in the bar area only and I think the sound is turned down. Sound was quite good in the restaurant, with conversations easy to maintain, though there was some unobtrusive music in the background. General Manager JT Dewitt said the intent is for sharing food around the table – literally, they bring smaller plates to pass around – and they don’t want televisions to distract people from their friends. There are 261 seats in the large restaurant.
Training was continuing through the night and there were the expected hiccups. The wait staff could not have been more friendly and helpful and a large number were deployed, though I suspect that will settle a bit. A significant number of employees from other Babalu restaurants were in town for the evening. One young man told us he works at the Babalu in Birmingham and he would be in town for another twelve days, so they really seem invested in making sure the service is done right.
They’ve hired over 180 so far, and hope to hire more. The hiring was done during their residency at the Arcade Building owned by Kevin and Melinda Grimac. JT made a point to say that Melinda is, “one of those people who comes along at just the right time,” saying how much help she has been. He also pointed out that everyone has been very welcoming and supportive.
The restaurant strives to locally source food, and while that has gotten to be a cliche, Mr. Dewitt noted that they actually go to the farms they use and will help work, picking vegetables or doing other tasks, in order to see how the farm is run and to check its practices. They favor organic practices and he remarked negatively about both pesticides and GMO foods. One farm on which they are leaning heavily is Mountain Meadows Farm, which is one of our favorites at the Market Square Farmers’ Market. The serve Vienna Coffee from Maryville. They continue to look for local vendors with whom they might work.
Selection and treatment of foods also separates them a bit. They work with farmers to help when they have an abundance of one product, to make a dish with that product as the “chef special.” You’ll notice that not all food on the table is served at the same time: they serve each dish as it gets ready and have no warmers in the kitchen.
Beyond the food, the place just seems like a lot of fun. The wait staff, cooks and others were high-fiving and encouraging each other. They showed off their “crazy socks,” which is apparently a thing among them, and generally projected that they were happy to be there and the that you should expect to have fun, too. And it was fun, from the guacamole being prepared from a fresh avocado at our table-side to the crazy socks and “I Love Lucy” references.
Check it out when you get a chance, starting this Monday. Say hello to Executive Chef Warren Weiss, a downtown resident, to General Manager JT Dewitt, a new Knoxville resident (and expectant father at any moment) and to Tegan if you see her. Tell them you saw this story and, while you’re at it, “like” them on FB. JT tells me that once they hit 10,000 “likes,” they will begin offering $3 off Margaritas on Mondays. It’s a worthy goal, Knoxville.
I’ll leave you with the man, Mr. Desi Arnaz, doing the namesake song for the restaurant.