There’s the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Andrés “Big Cat” Galarraga, and then there’s El Gato Negro (French Quarter – 81 French Market Place New Orleans, LA. 70116 / 504.525.9752) + (Lakeview – 300 Harrison Avenue New Orleans, LA. 70124 / 504.488.0107), where some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever had is allowed to roam around like a big dog.
Just like most of the places I’ve visited lately, I tend to wander what took me so long. The Black Cat has purred it’s way into my stomach by offering stellar and mind blowing down home baja Mexican grub.
Authentic and genuine Mamma style Mexican is not something you would expect in New Orleans. We have the creole spectrum covered, and of course French & Italian are making a comeback, but Mexican has long been an afterthought in my mind. I’d heard so many great things about El Gato, I was coerced on principle alone to give it a shot.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and enjoy some of El Gato’s storied dishes with Owner/Chef Juan Contreras. Both enigmatic and charismatic, Juan’s culinary ideals stay true to his roots and how he remembers his most cherished family meals. Whether Male or Female, folks remember those family meals made with love and devotion more than anything else. I taste and see that in Juan’s choices for El Gato.
Lower decatur, blocks away from the Marigny, has always been one of my most favorite parts of the Quarter. Always accessible and available. El Gato’s fascia faces the historic French Market which bustles and hustles deep into the early evening. When things get packed up in the market, El Gato begins to vibrate.
For starters I just had to start out with chips and salsa. The chips were fresh, crisp, and traditionally multi-colored. The Salsa on the other hand was like none I’d ever had. Derived from truly fresh mexican ingredients, the salsa still to this day haunts me. The consistency was thick not watery, chunky and not in a Pace way, and did not require the milk of a cow to cool down my mouth. Most people when they visit a Mexican spot always say gluttonously “I could eat just the chips and salsa.” Until now, I never wanted to be that person, but yes, I’m not that guy who could happily just eat El Gato’s chips and salsa.
I decided the chips needed another friend and ordered some guac. Thinking my lovely server would retreat back inside with a dish full, I was pleasantly surprised when she came back and prepared my order of guac tableside. Folks this was the real deal and not a mexican version of bananas foster. The mashing and mixing lasted a few seconds, but the taste was divine. It was like butter on my chips.
The two dishes I had were Filet Mignon Quesedillas and Sauteed Red Snapper a la Cancun. The filet quesedillas arrived first and I proceeded to pounce. Accompanied by the best rice and beans I’ve ever had this side of Monday, the quesedillas didn’t last very long. Before each bite I dipped the quarter deeply into the salsa and quickly grabbed a bite. Drops of salsa slowly built up along my chest pocket as a sort of badge of honor.
Two Mike Tyson headshots away from a food coma, the snapper arrived. Bulging with jumbo shrimp, creamy pico de gallo, and rice and beans on the side, this meal was becoming one for the books. Adam Richman eat your heart out, just took on that meal like el hombre frente la comida.
The highlight for me was not the Chihuahua cheese in the quesadillas, the speciality one of a kind tequila, or the superb garlic sauce on the snapper, it was my conversation with Juan. While chatting over a small snifter of ridic tequlia, Juan’s love and passion for the city and his place in life rang true. He truly wants to share his childhood memories with New Orleans through food.
El Gato Negro in the French Quarter is where it all began, but just a few months ago, the black cat showed itself in Lakeview. Juan and crew have taken their proven and delicious fare all the way across town to their newest location on Harrison Avenue. Poised and dedicated, El Gato has proven to be above the rest.