ROBERT ST. JOHN: Jackson’s Babalu restaurant in excellent hands

By Robert St. John

I eat out all of the time. One would think a person who eats for a living might become jaded after a while. Restaurants come and go, trends fade, palates change, but good food is good food, and I love the restaurant business.
I enjoy the business behind the business and I certainly love the food side of the restaurant business. That is why I get so excited when I see someone step out on a ledge and try something new and different. No one has taken a larger culinary leap than Bill Latham and Al Roberts with their new concept, Babalu, in the Fondren neighborhood of Jackson.
I don’t know when I’ve been more excited about a new restaurant opening that wasn’t one of my own. I ate there last week while in Jackson on business, and drove my family back to Jackson yesterday for a small plate tapas and tacos lunch with friends.
Small plates are big these days. And Babalu is spot on.
The Spanish have been eating tapas for decades. The first time I ever ate tapas was in the early 1990s at Rich Melman’s Café Ba Ba Re Ba in Chicago. Melman is to restaurants what Trammel Crow was to real estate. In my opinion, Bill Latham is the Melman of Mississippi. Along with his longtime business partner, Al Roberts, they have given Mississippi such tried-and-true concepts as Amerigo, Sundancer and Char.
A few years ago, they sold all of their restaurants and set out to play golf. Then they became the statewide franchisor for Five Guys. Three restaurants, and several more to come, later, I don’t think they’re playing as much golf as they had originally planned – good for us. These two guys know how to operate a restaurant.

Food a perfect 10
The look and feel in Babalu is neo-hipster big-city industrial and is a breath of fresh air in this state. My favorite small-plate hipster concept, Chino Latino, in Minneapolis fuses South American and Asian cuisines. At Babalu the style is mostly Mexican, slightly Spanish, with a healthy dose of the Mississippi Delta thrown in for good measure.
Babalu gives off a hipster vibe smack dab in the middle of Jackson’s ever-expanding hipster neighborhood of Fondren. But seated next to the ski-cap-and-white-Ray-Bans-clad hipsters are tables filled with North Jackson/Madison money.
The food is spot on. On my first visit, the ceviche was made from scallops and was flawless. On the second visit, shrimp was the main protein in the ceviche, and the entire dish didn’t seem to work as one full, tight unit, but it was good nonetheless.
Chef David Ferris has done an excellent job developing the menu. The aforementioned scallop ceviche, along with tableside guacamole and a short rib preparation over Delta Grind grits would have all scored perfect 10s had they been Olympic events.
Actually, the short rib was so good, I ordered seconds (which is quite a leap, especially since we were in the middle of an eight-course bacchanalia).
The service is good. As with most small-plate concepts, food arrives as it is prepared. I love that, because I am into communal eating and sharing plates. Babalu is all about the complete experience that is sharing a meal.
There’s a lady in the back making tortillas by hand and everything is fresh and prepared ala minute. Even the bar mixers are fresh – freshly squeezed juices all the way around.
I ordered pork belly tacos and a vegetarian taco made with Portobello mushrooms on the first visit. Despite my love for all things porcine, and as good as the pork belly tacos were, I ordered the Portobello taco again on the second visit – excellent.

No stress here
Ultimately, the key to any restaurant’s success is management. Atmosphere and trendy food is great, but if the place is inconsistent with service and food it won’t last long. No worries, here. Babalu is in excellent hands with Latham and Roberts at the helm.
I remember when the two opened Char in Jackson’s Highland Village. Opening a restaurant is one of the most stressful things one will ever do. I was there on night number two and Latham was just cruising around the dining room, stress-free. Amazing. Both times I have visited Babalu, he is doing the same thing. Folks, that speaks volumes about the organizational skills and management abilities of Latham and Roberts.
There is still a little bit of tweaking to do. I never once heard any music during either one of my visits, and music is big with hipsters. It’s big with me, too. Also, there are two desserts on the menu, which is fine – cheesecake bars and crème brulee – personally, I would like to see a lighter option, maybe a fruit finish, as an offering.
Nevertheless, what they offered, they nailed. All hail, Babalu.

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.