It wasn't that long ago that the North Loop neighborhood was a collective of quiet warehouse space. There was little to nothing going on in that part of town when the sun went down. At the base of one building, far ahead of its time, a restaurant opened with the herald of a bongo beat. The restaurant wasn't afraid of color, volume, spice or what the modest Midwestern sensibilities would think of such an audacious place.
Babalu opened at 800 North Washington Avenue (in the space now belonging to Bar la Grassa) in 2003 and quickly became a hot spot. Mojitos ruled the bar set, although an extensive rum list also allowed booze nerds to explore the under-appreciated spirit. This was before the smoking ban and those who enjoyed a fine cigar were able to purchase hard to source tobaccos inside the beautiful on-site humidor.
The menu was filled with Latin dishes hard to find in the Twin Cities, and unheard of inside such a fancy setting. This was where diners flocked for paella studded with seafood, charred churrasco, citrus spiked ropa vieja and flaky empanadas.
Although the restaurant was named for the Afro-Cuban god, it was impossible to say the name without thinking of Desi Arnaz and the restaurant sported an image of him on one of its walls.
The restaurant was run by Alfonso Menendez and Fernando Santa, a pair of Parasole vets who were fixtures in the restaurant, checking in on guests, guiding them to their tables or holding forth lively conversations at the edge of the dance floor.
Babalu closed its doors in December of 2008 after a brief and glorious run. Alfonso Menendez would go on to run the Las Sierena Gorda inside Midtown Global Market. The fresh seafood and zesty flavors at this modest taco stand allowed for rich memories of the Babalu menu for a moment before also passing into Minneapolis restaurant history. Sadly, Menendez closed the stand to return home to Acapulco to battle an undisclosed illness.
Last we heard from Fernando Santa was almost a year ago. He was working to return to the neighborhood with Socialista.