It was an amazingly hot day—typical for Minnesota at the end of July. It reminded me of Isla Mujeres, Mexico, in the spring: humid and scalding hot—but no beach. Parking my car, and feeding the meter, I quick-stepped it (I was running late) into the dark, sexy, coolness of Babalu Restaurant. Good friend Jonathan was waiting for me in the marvelously decorated lounge with owner Terrence Large, who offered his hand for a warm welcome to his establishment.
Large seated us in the spacious dining room with high ceilings, exotic colors, and Caribbean charisma. He asked if we would like anything to drink. Jonathan declined, because he had to return to work, but I asked for suggestions. Large recommended Babalu’s Mojito. That’s all I needed to hear, and I raised my hand, exclaiming, “Yes!”
We were introduced to Executive Chef Juan Carlos Duarte, who explained that Babalu offers a Cuban Style Lunch Buffet ($9.99)—featuring Ropa Vieja, Rice and Beans, Yuca Frita, Roast Pork, Tinga, and many other items—Monday through Friday, 11 AM to 2 PM. But he offered to prepare for us some of his evening specialties.
My Mojito arrived, filled with mint and ice. When I took a sip, my thoughts immediately returned to the Caribbean. It was the finest Mojito I’ve tasted in the Twin Cities, as well as the best Mojito I’ve had since I last visited Playa Lancheros on Isla Mujeres.
Babalu is also famous for its spectacular retro and classic cocktails. The Babalu Special blends six different rums and a variety of Island fruit juices.
Duarte brought our first plate to the table: Tuna Axteca ($11.95)—grilled sushi-grade tuna, sliced with arugula and watercress salad dressed with lemon habanero vinaigrette, served with grilled mango chutney. The tuna was seared on the outside, and encrusted with freshly ground black pepper. It was a striking presentation. The tuna and salad melted in our mouths.
Next, Duarte brought Grilled Romaine with Chorizo ($9.95). The dish was drizzled with balsamic guajillo syrup. I savored the wonderful, smoky flavor of the grilled romaine. The chorizo was spicy, complementing the romaine in a sexy way. It was a Salsa dance on my plate. The two inspired each other perfectly.
We were in dreamland at this point, and my Mojito was going down smoothly. More plates were delivered to our table with Grilled Shrimp with Diabla Sauce and Fufu ($24.95)—ripe plantain puree with salt pork and cilantro.
As Duarte explained, “The recipe calls for using bacon, but I prefer salt pork. It makes it more Cuban/Caribbean.”
Duarte was correct. The salt pork did make a difference—an enhanced taste accenting the grilled shrimp, and smoky flavors blending with sauces, not overly hot or spicy.
“It’s residual heat,” Duarte added.
The service didn’t stop—and we weren’t complaining. Ropa Vieja with Plantano en Tentacion ($17.95) was next—shredded beef stewed with green peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, with ripe plantains (“temptation”).
Zarsuela de Mariscos ($22.95) followed—shrimps, mussels, clams, scallops, and fish sautéed in a sweet smoked paprika broth. I couldn’t resist finishing every piece, and even stole a large scallop from Jonathan’s plate. This was true Caribbean pleasure.
Our final dish before dessert—yes, I said dessert—was Churrasco Argentino ($23.95), traditional Argentinean grilled beef tenderloin, served with mojo potatoes and salt pork croquettes with chimi-churri (the latter made from chopped parsley, dried oregano, garlic, salt, pepper, onion, and paprika with olive oil).
Duarte then had his team bring to the table three dessert plates: Coconut Flan ($8.95), Pastel de Limon Cake ($7.95), and Mango and Rum Cake Ice Cream ($7.95).
As Duarte shared, “The rum cake is my mother’s recipe from Cuba. We take the mango and rum cake to Izzie’s, then they create the ice cream for us.”
And what an ice cream! Duarte’s mother’s recipe is one of the best-kept secrets in town, just as he, I believe, is the best-kept secret in a city filled with celebrity chefs.
By the way, the Coconut Flan left us breathless.
Babalu’s lounge features live Latin, Jazz, and Brazilian music. Check the Web site for which nights Salsa dance lessons are offered as well.
Tummy stretched tight, I felt like I had returned to the Caribbean, mixing it with Spanish, Cuban, Brazilian, Mexican, and other Latin influences.
Cross the threshold of Babalu into my ideal Caribbean paradise in the Twin Cities. All that’s missing is sand.
800 Washington Ave. N., No. 102, Mpls.
John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, and Food Network personality. His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, private events, and culinary vacations to Italy and the Caribbean. Visit www.GardenCounty.info. Check out his “ Word of Mouth” Blog under “Extras” at LavenderMagazine.com