Travel around South Louisiana and you quickly learn that rewarding Cajun cooking can be found in the most dowdy settings. Yet even with that lesson in mind, it takes a leap of faith to arrive at Brocato's Eat Dat for the first time and sense you're about to experience greatness.
The restaurant opened quietly last summer in a forlorn strip mall in eastern New Orleans. It's set amid block after block of ranch-style homes and apartment complexes, and while the place isn't difficult to find, it's not a location that reels in people. The windowless interior of fresh drywall, drop ceilings and commercial carpeting doesn't add much romance either.
But scan the menu and it's like you've slipped into some hungry Cajun's dream: smothered rabbit with rice and gravy, roasted pork with eggplant dirty rice and smothered greens, crawfish boudin made in-house, all spicy, plump and silken. This is Cajun comfort food incarnate. Just finding such food in Creole New Orleans is hard enough, but finding it done with such care and at such modest prices makes Brocato's Eat Dat extraordinary.
Chef/owner Troy Brocato says he's not related to the New Orleans ice cream family of the same name, but the Opelousas native is kin to chef Paul Prudhomme. He worked at his great-uncle's restaurant K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen for 13 years before opening his own lunch spot near the CBD in the unfortunate month of August 2005. He didn't reopen after Hurricane Katrina, but instead started catering lunch for Lake Castle Private School in eastern New Orleans. Now, Brocato's Eat Dat doubles as his catering commissary and a neighborhood lunch joint.
The regular menu has the standard po-boy offerings and a few salads, but it's the half-dozen daily specials that make this place worth the drive across town. Brocato doesn't do much reinterpretation here, and he doesn't need to. The bedrock flavors are exciting enough, and his attention to detail does them justice.
The blackened redfish is crusted and crisp with dark, flavorful seasoning, shiny black but not scorched, leaving the flesh beneath still sweet. I've paid twice as much for redfish not half this good, and at $13, this one comes with perfectly textured shrimp etouffee. His andouille Creole is like the more familiar shrimp version, only it's also loaded with thick coins of smoked sausage and plated with stuffed shrimp the size of plums.
The daily menu usually has a familiar Italian dish or two, like veal Parmesan or fettuccine Alfredo. These are fine, but they don't have the down-home dazzle of the other spicy, buttery dishes. Much better, for instance, was a soft-shell crab that looked like it had been doing curls at the gym, and its pumped-up claws cradled crawfish pasta bursting with garlic.
Even if Middendorf's sets your standard for fried catfish, Eat Dat could be a new contender for top billing. The fish is cut thin, though not quite paper-thin, and its cornmeal coating is speckled with black pepper. Pile six pieces next to a perfectly textured crawfish etouffee and you have one of the best restaurant meals anyone should expect for $12, no matter where it turns up.