El Gato Negro
WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
In the center of the new restaurant row next to the French Market, El Gato Negro opened its first location in 2007. From day one, it purveyed a menu that its fans–especially those who have never been to Mexico–call “authentic.” What they really mean is “not Tex-Mex.”) In late 2011, a second location in Lakeview opened, adding to the fat pickings already on Harrison Avenue.
The menu includes a minimum of combo platters, mix-and-match tacos, and the like. Instead, the kitchen concentrates on grilled and broiled meats, poultry, and fish, with the tortillas more likely to be found on the side instead of wrapped around everything. Nothing is held back in terms of seasonings, marinades, salsas, or garnishes, all of which are offbeat and convincingly flavorful.
We first met owner Juan Contreras when he and Juan Hernandez opened the spectacular Madrid restaurant in Kenner. The Juans split, with Contreras opening the first El Gato Negro and Hernandez reopening Madrid in what would later become the Lakeview El Gato Negro. Contreras, encouraged by the raves for the taco trucks and taquerias that came in the wake of Katrina, made El Gato Negro bolder than it would otherwise have been.
The French Market location is one large room crammed with tables in a very old building with thick brick walls and neon signs everywhere. The kitchen is only barely separated from the dining area. The sidewalk tables are very popular and, in good weather, a better place to dine than inside. The Lakeview restaurant is a dimmer, cooler space, the decor dominated by high shelves filled with hundreds of tequilas.
»Salsa sampler (four kinds)
»Agave shrimp and crab claws, mushroom-jalapeno-mezcal-agave nectar sauce
Stuffed poblano pepper (cheese and chicken, shrimp, crawfish, or vegetarian)
El Gato Negro dip (beans, chorizo, jalapeños and Chihuahua cheese)
»Queso fundido con chorizo
»Yellowfin tuna ceviche
»Whole sliced avocado
»Acapulco salad (Vidalia onions, tomatoes, poblano peppers, queso fresco, corn, grilled fish)
Tacos, quesadillas and burritos
All available with choice of chicken, pulled pork, filet mignon, fish, chorizo, vegetables, lobster, or shrimp claw, on corn, flour or wheat tortillas
Juanito’s burrito (beans, rice, and Chihuahua cheese, chorizo, sour cream, guacamole)
»Pulled pork tamales
»Carne asada (ribeye steak, with many garnishes)
»Mixed grill (filet mignon, pork loin, shrimp Michoacan)
»»Pork chops al cazador (garlic, mushroom and chorizo sauce)
»»Chicken breast con molé poblano
»Sauteed red snapper with shrimp and tequila-butter sauce
»Pan seared wild salmon, shrimp, cilantro-tomato-corn salsa, squash, poblano peppers
Shrimp and lobster pasta
»Seared drum, crab claws, shrimp, complicated cream sauce
Fajitas (pork loin and chorizo, New York strip, chicken breast, shrimp, fish, lobster or vegetables–choose two)
»Tres leches cake
FOR BEST RESULTS
You’d get the most out of eating her by steeling your resolve and ordering something you’ve never had before. The French Market location serves an excellent Mexican breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
Beware the tilapia. The music is loud and irritating.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment
- Consistency +1
- Value +1
- Attitude +1
- Wine & Bar +1
- Hipness +1
- Local Color +2
- Sidewalk tables
- Open Sunday lunch and dinner
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Open all afternoon
- Unusually large servings
- Easy, nearby parking
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
The good news is that we’re getting more Mexican restaurants in New Orleans, a place which has never supported many ambitious kitchens in that style. The problem lies with us, the customers. We’re stuck on the idea that Mexican food must be cheap and filling, include at least five different items on a single platter, and be covered with melted cheese.
It’s easy to tell when a restaurant works against those prejudices and tries to give the unique, brilliant cuisine its due. Just look for the words “mole poblano” on the menu. This describes the classical Mexican sauce made of peppers, sesame seeds, and bitter chocolate. It is in a league with the best sauces in the world, and lends an amazing flavor to whatever it touches. Which is usually chicken. Mole poblano is hard to make. Any restaurant that undertakes it has crossed the threshold into real Mexican flavor.
El Gato Negro has roast chicken with mole poblano. In both its locations.