By Joanne Hornak   Published Sep 23, 2002 at 5:28 AM

When hip Cuban band leader Desi Arnaz, best remembered for his role as Ricky Ricardo in "I Love Lucy," sang his song "Babalu," few people knew he was singing to an African god brought to the Caribbean islands by African slaves.

"Babalu is the deity of good fortune and prosperity," says John Jaquez, owner of El Babalu Caribbean Club & Restaurant, 611 W. National Ave., explaining where the name of his Walker's Point establishment originates.

Milwaukeeans know El Babalu as a popular Latin dance club. What many don't realize is that it's also a restaurant, offering an extensive menu of authentic Caribbean and Mexican food.

When he opened his club in 1997, Jaquez envisioned it as "a fusion of Latin music and food -- a place where a lot of cultures come together."


The menu, which he describes as a unique blending of the flavors of dishes from Cuba, Puerto Rico and his native Dominican Republic, was inspired by several people including the Cuban mother of a good friend who taught Jaquez a philosophy that is evident in the exceptional and delectable dishes that I sampled:

"Always cook with love and passion."

We started with Tostones ($2), deep-fried sliced plantains, served with an incredible garlicky mayonnaise-based dipping sauce -- worth every calorie. Other appetizer options include Ceviche ($6) a seafood dip made with shrimp, cilantro, onion and avocado and mini pasties ($4), fried flour shells stuffed with seafood and cheese.

For the main course we sampled two seafood entrees -- both were outstanding. The Pescado Frito en Coco ($12), is Tilapia cooked in coconut sauce, with white rice and platano maduro (fried sweet plantains.) The perfectly cooked flaky white fish garnished with pineapple, absorbed the flavor of the sauce to form an indescribably delicate, slightly sweet and spicy taste.

Next was my favorite entree, Camaron a la Criolla ($11) eight large shrimp in a sensational Creole sauce of tomato, garlic, fresh cilantro, onion, peppers and spices, served with white rice and black beans.

Other seafood entrees we were forced to pass up on this visit include Pescado a la Veracruzana ($12), seasoned and sautéed red snapper in a chunky salsa with Mexican rice and frijoles and Langosta al Ajillo ($24), two 6-oz. lobster tails in garlic sauce with saffron rice and ripe plantain.

All of the meat dishes -- chicken, pork and beef, are marinated in the owner's special sauce that is one of the keys to the unique Caribbean flavor, so we also tried the Bistec Empanizado ($9) a very tasty Cuban dish of breaded flank steak grilled with onions, served over Puerto Rican style rice with peas.

Also offered on the menu are reasonably priced soups, salads, and Mexican standard fare -- enchiladas, tostadas, tacos, chimichangas and burritos. And for the unadventurous, hamburgers, steak and chicken sandwiches are available.

Depending on the night you're here, you might dine while watching group salsa lessons or couples dancing on the sizable dance floor to Salsa, Merengue or Bachata music pulsing in the background. With potted palm trees here and there, a tropical wall mural behind the bar and the warm oranges, yellows and reds of a sunset scene painted on the wall opposite the dance floor, El Babalu captures the ambience of Latin nightclubs that flourished in the 1950s when couples went out for a night of cocktailing, dinner, and dancing.

The wait staff is friendly and efficient and all of the servings are generous -- you definitely won't leave hungry.

El Babalu has a fully stocked bar with everything from margaritas ($5) to Cosmopolitans ($8) to imported beers such as Negro Modelo ($4), Corona ($3.50) and Tecate ($3.50) and is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 4:30-9 p.m. (414) 383-4044.