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Midtown Magnetism

Babalu fills in another Overton Square spot; Muddy’s to open on Cooper.

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As Cooper-Young continues to blossom and Overton Square comes back to life, Midtown is proving a magnet for new restaurant concepts and established favorites alike.

In 1987, Bill Latham and Al Roberts opened the first Amerigo in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1997, the pair brought the popular Italian restaurant to Memphis. Now, Latham and Roberts are exporting another popular Jackson restaurant to Memphis: Babalu, a tacos and tapas joint, will join the ongoing revival of Overton Square in early 2014.

The popular Jackson eatery is the latest to come from Latham and Roberts' Eat Here Brands, which is also responsible for Interim in East Memphis. Known for its fresh guacamole, crafted tableside with a mortar and pestle, Babalu's menu is eclectic but with a distinctly Spanish bent. Many of the offerings, like blue hull corn tacos, tamales, and various tapas, will be the same core items from the Jackson location. But Latham and Roberts said the executive chef in the Overton Square spot, who has yet to be hired, will have space to get creative with daily specials and appetizers.

"The focus is on high-quality ingredients, freshly prepared," Roberts said. "We mix and match different ethnic foods with a Southern flair."

In the former T.G.I. Friday's space, Babalu is poised to bring back the electric atmosphere of Overton Square with an indoor and outdoor bar and plenty of handcrafted cocktails.

"I remember Overton Square back in the late '60s and early '70s, back when T.G.I. Friday's was there and Lafayette's Music Room and Bombay Bicycle Club. It was a great area," Latham said. "We're happy there will be restaurants all around us. It just brings more energy to the area."

Babalu, 2113 Madison, babalums.com

Muddy's Bake Shop, the celebrated cupcake mecca, has been luring sweet-toothed customers to its East Memphis location since it opened in 2008. Last week, owner Kat Gordon announced she will open a second location — something fans have been hounding after for a while — on Cooper, just north of the Cooper-Young neighborhood.

"For the first couple of years, I was so opposed to the idea [of expanding], but when you have a really great team of employees, you have to give them a chance to grow or they'll leave you," Gordon says. "So I've been thinking about how to do that without losing the heart and soul of who we are."

But not losing the heart and soul of Muddy's doesn't mean Gordon wants to clone her original bake shop. In the charming, 1,800-square-foot house at 585 S. Cooper, Gordon will grow her second location into something all its own.

"I have no interest in trying to replicate the other Muddy's. I think it's important for that store to retain its own identity," Gordon says. "This will be a sibling business, so there will be overlap. I'm not about to tell the people of Midtown that they can't have their Prozac [cake], but I have a lot of time, while the construction is going on, to think about what the menu will look like, what it will have in common with the other store, and what will be different."

Gordon is exploring the possibility of offering more J. Brooks Coffee, for instance, and considering converting the house's large yard into a patio. Construction will continue through the rest of the year, and Muddy's Midtown — what Gordon anticipates her patrons will dub the new shop — should open in early 2014.

"The sentimental part of me really wants to open in February, because that's when the [first] shop opened," she says. "It would have a lovely symmetry to it."

Muddy's Bake Shop,

5101 Sanderlin (683-8844)

muddysbakeshop.com

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