On paper, Chapel Hill restaurants Babalu and BarTaco look a lot alike.
Both are the first Triangle locations of up-and-coming chains (a second BarTaco is slated to come online this summer in Raleigh). Both offer menus that feature tacos with a trendy international supporting cast of street food-inspired small plates.
At either restaurant, you can choose from a rainbow assortment of margaritas and tropical cocktails made with freshly squeezed juices. And you can sip them in a setting that, with a little imagination, might be a beach vacation spot.
Even the time and place of the two restaurants’ openings invite comparison: last summer, barely a month apart in shopping centers so close to one another that you could practically stand at the front door of one restaurant, whip a tortilla Frisbee-style in the direction of the other, and hit it.
But rest assured that once you’ve been to both places, there’s no risk of confusing the two.
Babalu Tacos & Tapas
1800 E. Franklin St., Suite 16, Chapel Hill, in Eastgate Crossing shopping center
Weather permitting, you can get in a festive tropical island mood on Babalu’s landscaped patio, where you can sip on a Cherry Cadillac (TOPO organic vodka, Cheerwine and fresh-squeezed sour mix) and pretend that the string lights overhead are stars. Otherwise, you’ll be dining indoors, where an open kitchen and old reruns of “I Love Lucy” projected on one wall are the focal points in a sprawling space that might best be described as utilitarian-modern. (“Babalu” was the signature song of Ricky Ricardo, Lucy’s husband on the show and in real life.)
Not to worry, the menu offers plenty of ways to keep the adventure alive. Babalu bills its offering as “tapas and tacos,” but for my money, it’s the latter – inventive riffs on the taco theme, piled into house-made corn tortillas – that deserve top billing. The menu lists nine options, covering a broad spectrum from spice-seared rare tuna to smoked Niman Ranch pork belly to a vegetarian taco with cremini mushrooms as its “meaty” foundation.
If forced to pick a favorite, I’d probably go with the braised short rib with Fresno pepper slaw, citrus-tinged BBQ sauce, pickled red onions and crumbles of cotija cheese. But I wouldn’t say no to the blackened redfish, or the fried chicken with buttermilk avocado dressing, or the miniature shrimp po’ boy in a tortilla that is the Camarones.
Babalu delivers on the other half of its slogan with a globe-spanning selection of shareable starters, from chicken satay to Creole shrimp and grits. But Latin America is without question the center of the Babalu universe.
Tableside guacamole is a signature offering, and clearly a crowd favorite. Even so, I’d be hard-pressed to choose it over the excellent salsa roja-spiked queso dip, which you can get with grilled chicken, chorizo or pork belly for a small upcharge.
Crab cakes with chipotle chile sauce are tempting, but their overworked texture doesn’t live up to the menu’s “jumbo lump” promise. But pan-roasted redfish – served over rösti potatoes, smoked corn pico de gallo and red chile butter sauce – is a keeper.
In keeping with the concept, service is laid-back, and for the most part, attentive. At the beginning of the meal, your server will inform you that (as there are no heat lamps in the kitchen, a point of pride at Babalu), food is brought to your table as soon as it’s ready. This “Babalu-style dining,” as it’s called, means that dishes may not arrive in the order you expected them.
But what do you care? You’re not on a schedule, after all. You’re on vacation.
201 S. Estes Drive, Suite E3, Chapel Hill, in University Place
Entering BarTaco, you’re transported from the University Place mall parking lot to a Latin American beach resort. You can almost feel the sea breeze as you take in the airy dining room’s whitewashed plank walls, dangling overhead lights fashioned from inverted baskets, and island bar churning out colorful cocktails.
The food keeps the fantasy alive. You order by checking off the items you want on a sushi bar-style menu that you’ll be given by your friendly (but sometimes harried; BarTaco is a very popular place) server. The list is divided into categories labeled Tacos, Not Tacos, Rice Bowls (essentially, taco fillings served over brown rice), Sides, and – for those who are making this a family vacation – For Kids.
Under the Tacos heading you’ll find just over a dozen options, a diverse assortment ranging from falafel (one of three vegetarian offerings) to tamarind-glazed duck. South American-style chorizo, whose breakfast sausage-like texture may come as a surprise to those familiar with Mexican chorizo, is a standout. So are tempura-battered Baja fish and slow-roasted pork carnitas with a tangy mojo sauce.
Tamales – pork or mushroom mole, authentically steamed in corn husk wrappers – are a winning taco alternative. So is BarTaco’s respectful take on posole, which serves up succulent shreds of pork and hominy in a complex broth that owes its brick red color to roasted chiles.
Also under the Not Tacos Heading (though on more traditional menus they’d be considered a side), an item described simply as “plantains” turns out to be ripe maduros. Tossed with salt and a touch of cayenne to balance their caramel sweetness, they’re addictive enough that you won’t care which heading they’re listed under.
Same goes for Mexican street food-style grilled corn on the cob, rolled in a spicy-savory melange of lime juice, cotija cheese and cayenne. You’ll find it under Sides, along with the likes of chipotle slaw, stewed black beans with pork shoulder, and spicy cucumber salad.
Dessert presents a thorny dilemma. Do you go with the best-selling (and rightly so) churros, fried to order and served with a rich dark chocolate sauce? Or do you succumb to the tangy-sweet siren call of key lime pie with a graham cracker crust, served in a miniature Mason jar and topped with whipped cream and a shower of lime zest? Either way, you can’t lose.
Then again, as long as you’re on vacation, you might just have another margarita.