Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Babalu Tacos & Tapas – Jackson

I’d like to think that I’ve been following the ascent of Babalu since day one. Sometime last September, a twitter account by the name of Babalu Tacos & Tapas appeared and began to chronicle the construction of Jackson’s newest tapas restaurant. It was a mildly interesting assortment of promises of amazing seating arrangements, food research in major cities, and photo updates of the construction process. Well, much to my surprise, Babalu opened in early December, completely on schedule. Soon enough, twitter & facebook were abuzz with rave comments about short ribs and queso, not to mention the amusement at old I Love Lucy episodes.

That’s right; Babalu takes its name from the trademark song of one Ricky Ricardo.
It’s a shame there aren’t any speakers for the projector at Babalu. I grew up watching old Lucy episodes and I would have loved to hear some of the dialogue and laugh track.

After waiting a few weeks for the new restaurant jitters to pass, I finally had the chance to eat at the Duling building’s newest resident. Over the course of a few visits, I believe it got a pretty good look at what Babalu had to offer. To begin, service was never an issue. Each visit, I had the same waitress who was fast, friendly, and frighteningly efficient. Of course, great service is nothing without a quality product from the kitchen.

While the tapas and tacos were the main draw to Babalu, I could think of no better place to start than with the Queso Blanco Dip.
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Served in a cast iron pan and bubbling with small pools of separated fats, this was a simple, salty cheese.
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In an effort to liven up the queso blanco, a pico de gallo shooter was brought to the party.
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Despite the additional color and punch of the cilantro, there’s no mistaking the bland taste and poor textures of out of season tomatoes.
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Tortilla chips are in the same boat as the tomatoes. They have the look of a good chip, but were in dire need of salt and lime.

In the few years since Jackson received its first taqueria, people are realizing there’s more to the taco than beef from a spice packet and a crispy, pre-fried shell. With our city now having a decent supply of reasonably priced and excellent tacos, I was intrigued by the idea of an upscale version.
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Skipping the mushroom and the fish taco, an order of the carnitas, carne el cerdo, carne la vaca, and pollo tacos were all soon brought to the table. They certainly have an up market appearance, but would the extra cost translate into extra flavor?

Starting with the carnitas taco, I was surprised at the flavors.
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If you ignore the tortilla shell, it bears a striking resemblance to a pulled pork sandwich, especially with the topping of roasted peanut slaw.
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Surprisingly that flavor was similar to a pulled pork sandwich. Tender pulled pork combined with a smoky salsa roja made for a passable bbq pork sandwich with just a hint of Latin flavors.

Despite the promise of smoked pork belly, cotija cheese, and a chipotle-citrus bbq sauce, the pork belly taco was underwhelming.
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While each bite had the necessary smoky, spicy flavors from the bbq sauce and the creaminess of more roasted peanut slaw, the pork belly was lost in the fray.
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Even on its own, the smoked pork belly was missing the fatty unctuousness that makes belly worth all that later effort.

Labeled as rotisserie chicken, goat cheese, radish, black eyed pea relish, and a salsa verde, the pollo taco truly stood out from the rest of the group and not just for the black eyed pea relish.
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Between my first and last visit, the menu at Babalu has changed. The pollo taco now consists of chicken with a pineapple, cucumber, and jalapeno salsa with a Romesco sauce. I’m not entirely sure which version was at work here, but it was of little consequence.
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With a creamy sauce to soothe a nonexistent heat and chicken that was as dry and bland as a bag of sand, this taco is just best left alone.

It was at this point that I began to realize what sort of taco shells I was dealing with. Despite splitting each order, by the third taco the doughiness of the shell really began to shine through. Of course, this realization came just in time for the last of our four taco order.

By all accounts the carne la vaca taco should have been exception. Outside of the addition of cotija cheese, the rosemary marinated flat iron steak, pico de gallo, and salsa roja all sounded like an excellent combination. This had the potential to really justify the $7 per order price of each taco.
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Well, I think we all saw this coming. Despite a nicely marinated flavor, this beef was overcooked and stringy.
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Doused in the same salsa roja as the carnitas, I was still a fan of the sauce, but the beef just wasn’t up to the job. What was really surprising was the complete absence of the cotija cheese and the pico de gallo. It really was a case of the salsa roja and the beef completely dominating the taco.

It wasn’t until a later visit that I was able to try the baja pescado or Baja fish taco.
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This time the fish of the day was triple tail and it came topped with pickled red onions, a spicy poblano sauce, and roasted poblano vinaigrette.
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I was worried that this abundance of toppings would ruin the subtle flavors of the fish.
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Fortunately, the fish was extremely well cooked and seasoned. A touch of lime brought forward every virtue of the triple tail.
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Even with the all the toppings, it was a symphony of succulent fish, smoky and spicy sauces, and the crunch of pickled onions. The only thing holding it back was the taco shell. Since each bite was full of doughy, bland taco shell, this fish taco was kept firmly grounded.

After wading through most of the tacos, the next step was to the Tapas section of the menu. With only nine items to choose from, it’s hardly the overwhelming number of choices that you see in your typical tapas restaurant, but it’s a start. Speaking of starts, I began with the garlic shrimp.
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Lightly breaded and dripping with the pungency of fresh garlic, these shrimp certainly live up to their name. Although the mushrooms seemed like an unnecessary addition, the broth intrigued me. With a slight spicy uptick at the end, the broth really reminded me of a garlic laden marsala sauce.

Long a fan of mussels and chorizo, I was delighted to see them combined in the steamed P.E.I. mussels.
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This dish is an example of the idea “if you want to make something better, add pork”. Each mussel was plump, juicy and brimming with the subtle, yet forward taste of chorizo.
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Of course, the best part about this dish was the chorus of aromatics and broth. When equipped with plenty of crusty bread, the broth, chorizo, and vegetables can nearly be the whole meal.

The braised beef short rib, it’s seems to be everyone’s favorite dish at Babalu and why not? It’s a hearty cut of beef that’s been cooked till tender and served with delta grind grits and black eyed pea relish; at least that’s how it’s described in the menu.
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This turned out to be one of the few times where the hype was right. The beef was unctuous and as full flavored as a short rib should be. While I may not have fully appreciated the inclusion of black eyed peas, I was highly amused by the textural combination of whole corn kernels and coarsely ground grits. With the flavors of cumin and chilies playing a starring role, this dish tastes like a cross between southern cuisine and the forward seasonings of the Latin world. If there was one gripe about this dish, it was the portion size. I realize that tapas dishes are small in stature, but I was dying for more than a short rib nugget.

Outside of local Mediterranean restaurants, lamb doesn’t get enough stage time in Jackson, so I was glad to see the grilled lamb loin on the Babalu menu.
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This lamb could win over a few new converts.
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Six pieces of well seared, rosemary-tinged lamb should make anyone happy, especially when it’s served with chimichurri and cooked this well.

If there was one tapas dish that lagged behind, it would have to be the empanada.
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This fried pie should have been a winner. It’s rotisserie chicken, olives, cumin, salsa verde, and red bell pepper wrapped in a shelled and tossed in hot fat. It’s a winning combination.
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Unfortunately, this was far from the best thing on the menu. What I did receive was a nicely fried exterior with a still cold from the freezer interior, but even proper frying times wouldn’t have saved the already overcooked white meat. To their credit, once I pointed out the shortcomings of the empanada, I was offered a fresh batch or to have it left off the bill. I let them take it off the bill; at that point, I was over dry chicken.

Not wanting to end on sour note, I saved one of Babalu’s best for last.
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Mexican street corn should be the best selling dish at Babalu.
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After being grilled, this now smoky cob of corn is slathered in mayonnaise and covered in a spice mix and plenty of cotija cheese. It’s a disarmingly simple dish that leaves you with a smiling face covered in mayo and cheese.

With each visit, I couldn’t help but leave Babalu with mixed feelings. I like the idea of high end tacos and tapas and it would be a nice addition to the metro area. Unfortunately, you won’t find a multipage tapas selection at Babalu or a choice of five different paellas, but this is Jackson. Outside of meat and threes, country buffets, and fried chicken, new food has to arrive here in baby steps. So, put into that context, Babalu does a decent job at serving tapas. It’s the tacos that really leave me in a quandary. There are good flavors at work, but it’s often hard to justify the extra cost and those taco shells. Personally, I’d skip the tacos and go straight for the tapas and the Mexican street corn. I may never see a choice of paella in Jackson, but for now I’ll stick with corn, mayo, and cotija cheese.

Babalu Tacos & Tapas Address & Information620 Duling Ave., Jackson, MS 39216 // 601.366.5757 // Babalu Website // Babalu Menu

BABALU Tacos & Tapas on Urbanspoon

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this comprehensive review! Like you, I've been waiting for the newness to wear off a bit before trying Babalu. But in the meantime, I've heard such disparate viewpoints on the place that I wasn't sure if or what to try. I always look forward to your Jackson restaurant reviews because I can count on solid culinary knowlege to back up your opinions. Keep up the great work!

Holly said...

This review really matches up nicely with our feelings about Babulu. We were much more impressed by the tapas than the tacos (the fried calamari is really good), and we liked the queso dip a lot.

I think the reason we've been back a few time is the atmosphere. It's a fun and stylish place to eat, and the service is reliably excellent.

NMissC said...

It would be really nice for you to add address / phone number info to these reviews.

Thanks for their comprehensiveness and honesty!

Cynical Cook said...

>Anon

-Thank you for reading and for the compliments.

>Holly

-Babalu is a pretty fun addition to the Duling building, but I'm wondering if it's still the residual allure of a new restaurant or will the crowds persist. As for the queso, I really want to see how the flavors change when they can get some tomatoes in season.

>NMC

-I haven't really thought about adding that info, but it does make sense.

As always, thanks for reading.