The restaurant is casual and inexpensive, but it is much nicer than the quick-serve taco counters that have sprouted up since the storm. At the same time, it is much more in tune with authentic Mexican cooking than the Tex-Mex cantinas that fed New Orleans most of its burritos and enchiladas pre-Katrina.
The chef and owner is Juan Contreras. His parents hail from central Mexico and he was raised in New Orleans, where he has spent most of his life in the local restaurant business. Prior to the hurricane, he was co-owner of Madrid, a Spanish restaurant in Kenner. He sold his share in that restaurant after the storm and began planning his own place, which he opened near the French Market in November as El Gato Negro, Spanish for "the black cat."
When menus arrive at El Gato Negro, so does a free serving of chips and salsa. The salsa is smooth, lightly smoky and just a little spicy -- just right for a dip. The chips come from a bag, but that's about the last pre-packaged food you'll have here.
There are two chorizo and cheese dips, of which the straight-up queso fundido is better. The white Mexican cheese, though plain on its own, is gloriously transformed once melted with crumbled bits of spicy chorizo and sliced jalapenos. The namesake El Gato Negro dip tones things down by adding a layer of refried beans.
The shrimp ceviche looks regal, served in a heavy, globe-shaped glass of the sort used for beers at Liuzza's Restaurant and Joey K's, but it left me wishing for a ceviche with fresh fish and peppers instead of just shrimp. The real surprise on the short appetizer list are the taquitos. Some places use the terms taquito and flauta interchangeably for fried tortilla rolls, but at El Gato Negro taquitos are "small tacos" made with succulent bits of lamb and a chunky pico de galo wrapped in fresh flour or corn tortillas. These tortillas are made in-house and the flour ones are so good you can eat them on their own like bread.
Full-fledged tacos are $3.75 each and are the only spot of the menu that induces sticker shock. Two are not quite enough for lunch on their own. The burrito and enchiladas are more satisfying. Burritos with juicy squiggles of pork or very tender steak require a knife and fork to eat and are coated with chorizo salsa made with so much minced, spicy sausage it comes off like a meaty Italian red sauce. A very different salsa for the enchiladas is a delicious, thin, complex sauce made with orange juice, diced potatoes, carrots and oregano, among other ingredients.
The house specialties are usually only a few dollars more than the tortilla-wrapped standbys and are the best options at the restaurant. For instance, the pork chops were nice and thickly cut, cooked to moist medium doneness, and covered in a very rich, creamy sauce with mushrooms and the soft crunch of abundant diced garlic. Someone raised on New Orleans soul food might call this dish smothered pork chops. The chicken mole gets better and better as you eat it as its mouth-coating flavors seem to build upon themselves with each bite.
The fish special has lately been Alaskan salmon, which is done extremely well with a thin crust of salty seasoning. The fish is cut big, lightly cooked in the center and enhanced by a freshly chopped salsa over the top. It was served with a brace of gorgeous butterflied shrimp and a luxuriously buttered hash of sliced zucchini and mushrooms. At $15.75 it topped out the restaurant's price scale and was worth every cent.
The restaurant serves Mexican beer, good sangria and a small assortment of South American wines, but the drink of the house here is the margarita. Don't bother asking about a pitcher, these cocktails are made one at a time by Contreras himself. When a drink order comes in, he'll stop his cooking and shuffle over to the bar to squeeze fresh juice, mix in Triple Sec and add a healthy dose of tequila. The tequila's edge all but disappears in the lavish juice flavors yet there's none of that chalky sweetness you get in margaritas made from bar mixes. An offbeat specialty is the carrot margarita, made with freshly juiced carrots for an exotic, mildly sweet flavor that combines fantastically with the tequila. The drink is like the twisted sister of wholesome vegetable juice.
The bright and cheerful restaurant was built out from a warehouse that once housed a giant refrigerator used by French Market vendors. It had been a crepe restaurant before the storm and more recently was a coffee shop called Sarafina. It was hardly modified at all for El Gato Negro, retaining the quirky touches of an old, reclaimed French Quarter space while mirrors, tile work and blond wood counters give it a clean, updated feel.
At night there is a casually romantic feel to the place. The lighting is dimmed, little candles flicker on the tables and the smells and sounds of the food cooking in the open kitchen animate the room. With the doors open, the sound of the lonely riverfront streetcar rolls in and the lighted superstructures of cargo ships slide past just over the levee. It feels like anyone might wander in at any moment and, like a Decatur Street barroom on a good night, they do.