By Hannah J. Phillips
Photograph by Minta Maria Smail
Gabe Erales never meant to become a chef. And yet today, he’s at the helm of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants of 2019 and is a rising star at the intersection of two global food trends. His résumé reads like a roll call of local and international culinary giants—from Noma in Copenhagen to Fonda San Miguel and Dai Due in Austin. Mixing influences from both authentic Mexican cuisine and the farm-to-table movement at Comedor, Erales upholds the ancient tenets of Mexican tradition by preaching the modern revival of masa.
Chatting at the sleek new restaurant’s communal high-top, he pauses mid-conversation to taste the daily delivery of corn.
“Give it 10 more minutes,” he tells his team before returning to the hermeneutics of heritage corn. His hat reads “Sin maíz, no hay país”—a Mexican idiom meaning “Without corn, there is no country.” Working with a local graphic designer, Erales used concentric circles to create the hat’s husked emblem, symbolizing the need to preserve Mexican corn and culture.
Growing up in a border town, the El Paso native always appreciated food, learning to cook cochinita pibil from his mother. The vibrant braised meat later became his signature dish, but his first restaurant jobs were purely to support his studies at the University of Texas in Austin. After college, he moved to Detroit to pursue mechanical engineering at General Motors while earning a master’s degree. Thankfully for Austin, both the kitchen and the city called him back.
“Having a stressful day in that type of job, I found a lot of relief in cooking,” Erales says. “And even though it can be stressful, too, I realized that I missed being in the kitchen.”
Moving back to Austin in 2012, Erales sought out Fonda San Miguel, a bastion of interior Mexican cuisine in a sea of Tex-Mex. At the time, he says, most Texans equated Mexican food with queso and fajitas, whereas Fonda San Miguel used traditional techniques to infuse its menu with pure Mexican soul.
“Their restaurant is driven by architecture and art and beauty,” says Erales. “You walk up and the building is absolutely gorgeous, and they were the first to do nixtamalization here in town.”
Comedor updates both legacies, using the Mesoamerican technique of nixtamalization to prepare masa in a beautiful modern setting. A dark-glass-and-brick entryway leads to an industrial dining space that feels intimate yet cosmopolitan, with cozy candlelight to balance the sparkle of skyline views in tall glass ceilings overhead. Hand-cranked window walls reveal a courtyard for alfresco dining on the open-air patio.
“We want you to come here and feel transported,” Erales says, referring as much to the urban oasis as to the menu. “I want to put something on the table that’s both authentic and local, yet not immediately recognizable as Mexican cuisine.”
Experimental dishes like bone marrow tacos are what separate Erales from other missionaries of the masa gospel—no doubt a byproduct of his experience working with local chefs like Jesse Griffiths and Bryce Gilmore.
“I have so much respect for Jesse as a chef and as a person,” Erales says. “I learned so much from him about sourcing and respecting ingredients, minimizing waste and embracing the local terroir. And Bryce has done so much for farmers and the community. You go eat at Odd Duck and Barley Swine, and you can feel an evolution of cuisine.”
Apart from local chefs, Erales also attributes that evolution to Barton Springs Mill, where James Brown’s heritage grains have become staples in the Austin restaurant industry. For Erales, such partnerships mean that the future of authentic Mexican cuisine and the farm-to-table movement are one and the same—especially in Austin. Pointing to the rise of people traveling to Mexico as a culinary hot spot, he predicts the next chapter of local food will further deepen the interactions among chefs and farmers to grow things previously only found in Mexico.
For now, he plans to continue sourcing Comedor’s heirloom corn from Mexico as a way to support indigenous communities, spreading the mission of masa through his ever-evolving menu. So far, Austinites are proving eager proselytes, always happy to add new revelations to the local culinary canon.