El Gato Negro Mexican Restaurant
81 French Market Pl
New Orleans, LA 70116
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Since Hurricane Katrina, there has been an explosion of casual joints for burritos and tacos, enchilada plates and authentic tastes of Mexican cooking in a city where it had previously been rare. El Gato Negro opened after Katrina too, but this restaurant is quite different from the many new taquerias around town.
It's more ambitious and far more accessible for those who don't speak Spanish. Chef and owner Juan Contreras was raised in New Orleans, but his family is from central Mexico and El Gato Negro is a tribute to that heritage. It is as comfortable and accommodating as any Tex-Mex cantina, but draws on authentic Mexican cooking rather than Americanized standards. It is also home to some of the best, most creative fresh-juice margaritas in the city.
The restaurant space was once a big, industrial refrigerator used by vendors at the French Market just across the street. It's a colorful, open space with a very high ceiling, long mirrors on exposed brick walls and plenty of Mexican folk art. A tiny courtyard in the rear is available, though it's so small it feels more like a cell than a romantic dining spot. The better choice for eating outdoors is one of the sidewalk tables up front, which are open to all the odd scenes of tourists, French Market vendors and produce distributors mingling around.
There's an open kitchen, so you can sometimes tell when your food will arrive by the change in cooking sounds coming from the counter just across the room. The servers are swift, cheerful and do a good job explaining some of the menu items that may be unfamiliar.
Chips and salsa are free, and there is a real possibility of filling up on them. The round tortilla chips come straight from the bag, a disappointing shortcut for a place that otherwise seems to take such pride in its offerings. The smooth salsa is sweeter than spicy, and has a little smokiness.
Entrees here are very large and, after a basket of chips, the best move is often to head straight for the main event. Anyway, the appetizers are not all that elaborate, and many of them call for more of those middling chips. The queso fundido is a hot dip made from mellow, white Mexican cheese with bits of spicy chorizo and jalapenos. The ceviche is made with shrimp and scallops, like a chilled seafood cocktail. My preference is for the avocado salad, which is simply creamy green slices with lime juice and seasonings.
There are two ways to go here: the Mexican standbys or the more elaborate, and more impressive, entrée dishes.
For tacos, burritos and quesadillas, you start by choosing your meat, and these are done better than the standard, overly-salty taco filling. The pulled pork and the chopped filet mignon are my favorites, while the fish is consistently dry and flavorless.
You order tacos individually, which is helpful for lighter appetites. These are substantial tacos using puffy house-made flour tortillas, and two is enough for a light meal. Three is more like the norm. I also recommend the fajitas made with chopped strip steak and served with whole roasted garlic cloves among the usual grilled vegetables.
Aside from the disappointing fish tacos, the Mexican-style seafood makes for the best meals at El Gato Negro. The red snapper a la Cancun has a crispy edge of seared seasoning and is served swimming in a creamy sauce made with garlic butter and tequila, and is further crowned with a pair of jumbo shrimp. I didn't expect to see salmon at a Mexican restaurant, but this version is distinctively prepared, left a bit rare in the center and mounded with flavors from a corn-garlic lime salsa.
For meat eaters, the pork chops are thick-cut, cooked to order like steaks and covered in a very rich, creamy garlic sauce. Though it's tempting, avoid the chicken molé. You can taste the elements of chocolate, cinnamon and peanuts that go into the molé, but the sauce still remains mysteriously bland.
Flan and tres leches cake are the predictable and perfectly fine standard desserts here, but I would always rather have another one of El Gato Negro's extraordinary margaritas as a liquid dessert.
The restaurant stocks a wide selection of tequilas, and mixes them with fresh juices for cocktails quite unlike anywhere else in the city. The carrot juice margarita, for instance, has a mellow sweetness that takes all the edge off the tequila. The watermelon margarita is also dangerously smooth, while the pineapple and cilantro margarita could be an antidote to the hottest New Orleans summer day.
El Gato Negro's menu pricing covers a lot of ground. Appetizers are between $6.75 and $12.75. Enchiladas, burritos and such are about $11. The entrée-style dishes venture toward mid-range fine-dining prices, though most dishes remain under $20. A couple can expect to spend around $60 for dinner with a cocktail each.
More of a café than a cantina, El Gato Negro is a mid-range restaurant to explore some of the depth of Mexican cooking beyond the casual standards. Though more expensive than the new batch of local taquerias, it operates in line with what most New Orleanians expect from a family restaurant. The margaritas alone are worth a trip across town.