Modern Mexican and Fresh Masa at East Austin’s Suerte
In a city full of Mexican restaurants, newcomer Suerte stands out. Owner, Sam Hellman-Mass, and chef, Fermín Núñez, talk about what sets their restaurant apart. (Spoiler: it’s the masa.)
Austin is no stranger to Mexican restaurants, and when Hellman-Mass set out to open Suerte, he knew the restaurant needed to go all out. A dedication to masa is a big part of that: it’s made in-house daily from Texas-grown heirloom corn.
The tortillas, made from that masa, are rapidly becoming the hallmark of the restaurant: “Most tortillas anyone gets in the dining room are cooked five minutes ago or less,” says Hellman-Mass. “That texture and warmth from the first time it’s cooked—that’s a lot of the magic. It’s hard to do. There’s no shortcuts . . .”
Chef Núñez adds that the masa isn’t used for only tortillas. Referring to the “Vitamin T” portion of Suerte’s menu, he says, “In Mexico, [Vitamin T] is slang for a lot of things: tacos, tlayudas, tlacoyos.” And the masa reacts differently in each application. For example, in the molotes, “the masa is raw wrapped around the filling . . .and then deep fried. It’s a totally different texture than a tortilla.” Nunez explains that in the tostadas with aguachile, “you taste the corn flavor and [the masa is] crispy.” “They’re all different experiences of the masa.”
Núñez cites the restaurant’s tamales, another masa application, as an example of how Suerte riffs on Mexican tradition: “The tamales that we make are not like any tamal you’d find in Mexico, because we get kind of crazy with [them].” The carrot dish, is inspired by a tamal, but it’s made from masa, mole amarillo, and carrot juice. “I think if I showed that recipe to a grandma in Mexico she’d be like, ‘What is wrong with you? Why would you put carrot juice?’ But why not? Why does it have to be chicken stock? Why does it have to be water? Why does it have to be lard?”
The corn for the masa is sourced from Central Texas: the white corn, which has a more recognizable corn flavor, is from Barton Springs Mill, and the red corn, which is a little more earthy, is from Richardson Farms in Rockdale. “[T]he corn itself has a lot of flavor,” says Hellman-Mass. And it’s another factor that sets Suerte apart: local, seasonal sourcing.
But this sourcing is a commitment that’s not without obstacles: “We did this crazy thing,” says Núñez, laughing. “We decided to open a Mexican restaurant with local foods at a time of the year when there were no peppers.” Currently in the midst of chile season, Suerte is preparing for the off season by prepping the peppers to last. “We got poblano peppers last week, and I’m so excited to roast them and grill them and pickle them.”
Suerte takes the same care with its drink menu that it takes with its food. “There’s the classic saying with food and drink,” says Hellman-Mass: “Things that grow together go together.” Continuing its dedication to the local sourcing, Suerte collaborates with Hops & Grain brewery—located just down the street—to make its own custom lager. The cocktail menu is agave-centric, and the restaurant’s spirit library goes deep on both mezcal and tequila. “When I try mezcal, it takes me to a place in the world. I think you can taste the plants, and the character of the agave, where it’s from, and the smoke, and touch of the person who made it.”
The dining room also reflects Suerte’s combination of Mexican tradition and local flavor. “I think one of the biggest challenges for the restaurant was trying to make a space that was a Mexican restaurant in East Austin,” says Hellman-Mass. A space that “told both of those stories right—the restaurant’s connection to Mexico and the fact that it’s in East Austin.”
They achieved that balance by focusing on people, and sourcing decor from both regions. Located in an old restaurant space, which was ripped down to “one and a half walls and half the foundation,” according to Núñez, the interior features work from Oaxacan and local artisans alike. There are hand-made fabrics from Oaxaca City, lights woven from palm leaves, and chairs made by a Monterrey carpenter. The tabletops are made of locally-sourced pecan wood, and the gorgeous, colorful front door is made by local artist Aaron Michalovic.
Sitting in the empty Suerte dining room on a sunny (yet stifling) Austin summer day, Hellman-Mass and Núñez seem thrilled with the restaurant they’ve built. “There are a lot of great restaurants in the city,” says Hellman-Mass. “If people are choosing to come here, we’ve got to hang onto that. That little bit of magic that’s making people want to be a part of this—it’s precious.”