Babalu Tapas & Tacos is opening its first Triangle location in Chapel Hill’s Eastgate Crossing shopping center next month.
The restaurant, the eighth site in the Southeast, features creative tacos and tapas that often use locally sourced ingredients. It is expected to open Monday, July 24.
“I’ll be running features with tomatoes from around the corner,” said Chef James Huff, referring to the Chapel Hill Farmers Market nearby. “I’ll be using whatever I can that’s in season.”
Babalu got its start in Jackson, Miss., in 2010, and includes a location in Charlotte. It’s named for the song featured in “I Love Lucy,” as sung by Desi Arnaz’s character, Ricky Ricardo. A large television in the 4,529-square-foot restaurant shows the first season of the iconic series, Huff said, which fits with the restaurant’s “eclectic and fun” atmosphere.
“We want to take any pretense out of dining,” Huff said. “It’s meant to be shared. That’s the whole premise of Babalu. It’s a good time.”
The tapas menu features items like spice seared tuna crisps, braised chicken tamales, filet on a stick, fierce shrimp, braised beef short rib and an enchilada of the day.
Tacos come on house-made tortillas. They include tinga chicken, beef tenderloin, citrus-braised pulled pork, spice-seared saku tuna, redfish and duck confit.
Guacamole is made fresh at the table. Other Latin-inspired dishes include Mexican street corn, cilantro pepita rice, a torta Cubana and Dulce de Leche cheesecake bites for dessert.
The drink menu features margaritas, sangria, cocktails and an extensive tequila selection. There is an outdoor patio as well as an indoor/outdoor bar.
Huff came to North Carolina three years ago after working in Washington, D.C., restaurants. In the Triangle, he has worked for the Empire Eats restaurant group (The Pit and the catering operation) and helped the Urban Food Group open Motto in Durham.
While Huff’s background is working in independently owned restaurants, he said Babalu’s culture, plus the opportunity to be creative, appealed to him. The core menu is consistent across locations, but chefs can create location-specific specials with local ingredients. Menus change seasonally as well.
“I like to tell people we’re serious about what we do, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Huff said. “It’s approachable. For me, utilizing some of the local farms that I’ve connected with, it’s exciting to me.”
Info: 1800 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. chapelhill.eatbabalu.com
Jessica Banov: 919-829-4831; @JessicaBanov