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Thu, May 23

Chew on This: Are you havin' El Gato yet?

Barry Barbe, El Gato Azul owner-chef-singer. (Tom Scanlon, The Daily Courier)

Barry Barbe, El Gato Azul owner-chef-singer. (Tom Scanlon, The Daily Courier)

Rain is falling gently on El Gato Azul's awning, diners comparing tapas offerings at the simple cafe tables, French jazz music playing soothingly ...

Here on El Gato Azul's patio overlooking Granite Creek, it's easy to close your eyes and imagine you're in Europe.

Especially with the likes of these worldly tapas offerings:

• Salmon bruschetta, with goat cheese and almonds, $8

• Ceviche, seafood in a lime marinade, $9

• Calamari frita, ale-marinated and fried with a red pepper aioli, $6

• Gambas espinaca, shrimp, spinach and a spicy cream cheese sauce, $9

• Mussels cerveza, steamed with ale and herbs, $6

• Escargot, olive oil, garlic, butter, mushrooms, herbs, sherry, $9

Though El Gato has some 60 tapas, chef-owner Barry Barbe acknowledges he cheats the concept, a bit. A true tapas place might have plates that are literally one-bite offerings; his are bigger, more along the lines of appetizers.

Whatever he's doing, it works: This week, Barbe celebrates 10 years of El Gato Azul.

That might not sound like a long time, but in the Prescott restaurant scene, it's the equivalent of about 100 years. Only a handful of Prescott's many restaurants have been around for a decade, with dozens of others crashing-and-burning in a few years - sometimes less.

Barbe knows all about that. Indeed, El Gato Azul is his sixth Prescott restaurant.

Some of the previous ones were successes that he sold. Others ... well, not so much.

"I don't believe in mistakes," the energetic Barbe was saying, the other night. "I believe they're learning opportunities. Everything that happens, you learn and grow from."

Even El Gato wasn't gang-busters from the start.

"It took us a long time to create a product Prescott understood and appreciated," Barbe said. "The last three years have been incredible growth, consistency, customer appreciation."

You'll find plenty of that appreciation from customers on Internet review sites:

On Tripadvisor, a Prescott local shares: "This is the restaurant that I love to share with out of town guests."

Out-of-towner, on Yelp: "We found El Gato Azul, and fell in love! Friendly service, great food, Barry's Classic Margarita is the bomb, and the jazz quartet was very enjoyable... this dinner really defined Prescott for us!"

Local, on Yelp: "My husband and I love to go here on date nights. It's cozy and they often have live music. The atmosphere is as good as the food."

Indeed, the people who love this place are as smitten with the charm of the small cafe (the patio is larger than the inside area) as with the diverse, ever-changing menu.

For lunch, there are a variety of salads and entrees, in the $8.95 to $10.95 range.

The most popular dinner entree? Hands-down, Paella Valencia: Saffron rice sautéed with chorizo, mussels, chicken and shrimp with white wine, garlic, green olives and peas.

Other tantalizing dinner options include grilled shrimp and scallops over cous cous ($19.95), chipotle slow-roasted ribs ($19.95), green chile mac and cheese ($14.95) and Southwest vegetable stir-fry ($14.95).

"Everything is made fresh," said Barbe, chuckling as he looked around his small, homey place. "We don't have the storage, so everything is made once if not twice a day."

El Gato has live music Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday nights - with Barbe himself singing with a jazz combo on Sundays.

The owner-chef-singer was asked for a song that best describes El Gato Azul's feeling.

After thinking for a moment, he decided on Tony Bennett's "Are You Havin' Any Fun?"

"Living for the moment, enjoying yourself - that's what we try to do," Barbe said. "We're definitely quirky and weird. I want customers to walk away feeling like they had an experience."

- By Tom Scanlon, The Daily Courier


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