El Gato Negro (300 Harrison Ave., 504-488-0107) first opened its Lakeview location at an address that looked like a suburban ranch house. On Friday (Feb. 3), the popular Mexican restaurant will reopen after a renovation that has restyled the same property as something closer to a Spanish mission.
The menu hallmarks remain the same – the guacamole prepared table side, the lobster claw tacos, the pineapple-basil margaritas. But what had been a rather cramped, homey eatery under low ceilings is now a complex that wends across an expanded dining room and out to a newly-built patio with its own bar.
El Gato Negro proprietor Juan Contreras closed his Lakeview location in November to undertake the work, while maintaining the brand’s original French Quarter location and a Warehouse District offshoot.
“At first people told me a Mexican restaurant would never make it in the Quarter, but then we had a line out the door,” said Contreras. “I wanted another place here that would be more for the locals, but then we outgrew that too.”
The renovation nearly doubles the restaurant’s seating capacity. Next up, Contreras plans to develop a new parking lot on a plot across Milne Boulevard from the restaurant.
Ranch to mission
The main dining room is now dubbed the Sanchez Room, after the contractors from Sanchez Construction who completed the work here. It’s lined by big windows opening to a small, front patio dining area, which will be finished a little later.
Most dramatic is the main patio on the other side of the property, a walled, outdoor dining space illuminated by copper Bevolo gas lanterns and edged by agave plants. In the center of the courtyard stands the glass-enclosed bar – an air-conditioned den of tequilas under high rafters. All around, the courtyard walls are inlaid with handmade Mexican tile.
“During the construction, this is my therapy, putting in the tiles,” said Contreras.
This local restaurateur’s parents hail from Mexico, from the state of Michoacan. They came to New Orleans when his father got a job at the Norco refinery. Contreras got an early start in the restaurant business, which indirectly brought him to this unlikely Lakeview spot on Harrison Avenue.
The one-time house here had long served as a little neighborhood convenience store called Milne Mini Mart, which had a pair of apartments on the side. In 2009, it was converted to a Spanish restaurant called Madrid. Contreras had been a partner in an earlier incarnation of Madrid, which first opened in Kenner in 2004.
After Hurricane Katrina, the two partners went separate ways. Contreras opened the first El Gato Negro location in the French Quarter in 2006, when New Orleans was just seeing a post-Katrina surge in Latin American cuisine.
Madrid lasted in Lakeview for about two years. Soon after it closed in 2011, Contreras bought the property from his one-time partner to expand El Gato Negro.
It opened just two months after the debut of the Velvet Cactus (917 Harrison Ave., 504-301-2083), a Tex-Mex cantina with a large patio just a few blocks down Harrison Avenue.
El Gato Negro is casual but serves a more ambitious cuisine than most Mexican restaurants, with lamb chops with chipotle glaze, red snapper with avocado salad and a guajillo chile chimichurri and tacos filled with rare skirt steak or crumbles chorizo. Order the ceviche and, like the guacamole, you get a table-side demo as all the raw ingredients are combined as you watch.
The much-expanded kitchen will initially serve the same menu as before, though in the months ahead its offerings should grow with more specials and entrees.
All around the newly renovated restaurant, walls are lined with displays of its deep collection of tequilas, including a veritable altar to a brand made specifically for El Gato Negro, the Tocamba Azul Tequila.
300 Harrison Ave., 504-488-0107
781 French Market Pl., 504-525-9752
800 S. Peters St., 504-309-8864
Lunch and dinner daily
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