Traditional Masa Gets the Star Treatment at East Austin’s Suerte
by Karen Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
I don’t speak Spanish, and until recently I didn’t know what “suerte” meant. But after dining at this new East Side restaurant, I suspect it translates as “very popular.” Or, perhaps, “cool Mexican food”? Or maybe “obsessed with masa”?
Actually, it means “good fortune” (I Googled it), which is exactly what Suerte is experiencing. The place is packed, night after night, and for great reason: It offers something unique, which is a menu built around masa. Yep, plain ol’ corn and water. But at Suerte, it’s elevated to a higher level.
Founder Sam Hellman-Mass, formerly of Odd Duck and Barley Swine, and executive chef Fermín Núñez, of Launderette, are obsessed with masa. Before launching Suerte, they traveled Central Mexico extensively in search of the best variations. They returned with inspiration and recipes that helped define their restaurant’s cuisine. Suerte’s artisanal masa is made from local heirloom corn and is used in its homemade tortillas and distinctive dishes rarely found on Austin menus.
Naturally, corn has a starring role in Suerte’s appetizers, including the playful and delicious sweet-corn esquites con fontina, a sophisticated riff on Mexican street corn in a cup. Assembled like a parfait, fresh kernels are seasoned with a zingy brine and layered with a light, savory foam. We ate every spoonful. No ordinary nachos, a platter of rustic blue-corn chips are bathed in salsa and smothered in pickled red onions, peppers, cilantro, and a generous grating of tangy Caldera cheddar cheese.
Almost every table ordered the Suadero Tacos. Great for sharing and bursting with flavor, the four small tacos are served on tender yellow-corn tortillas and topped with succulent confit brisket, avocado salsa cruda, diced onion, and a drizzle of smoky Black Magic Oil.
Entrée specialties include a simple but perfectly grilled carne asada, served with beans and bright tomato salsa. Chicken roulade featured medallions of moist meat atop a pool of complex mole negro. Both dishes came with warm corn tortillas for creating DIY tacos. Other dishes that caught our eye included the snapper tostada, chicken tamal, goat shoulder barbacoa, and an entire oak-grilled fish. But Suerte’s seasonal menu changes frequently, so hopefully we’ll sample some variation of those when we return.
Dessert was a surprising stunner. Panna cotta, normally an Italian dolce, was given a Texas twist with local figs and peaches. It was a light, creamy, delightful end to our meal.
You won’t go thirsty at Suerte, where the restaurant’s proprietors are almost as passionate about mezcal and tequila as masa. The list is long, and you can sample their spirits in one- or three- ounce pours or mixed into a tasty cocktail like the Desert Drifter. There’s also beer and wine, and our glass of Mexican Casa Madero Cabernet Sauvignon rosé was so good we ordered a second round. Its subtle hint of sweet strawberries paired beautifully with Suerte’s assertive flavors.
Open since March, Suerte took over Dario’s on East Sixth Street and was stylishly remodeled by architects Matt Garcia and Bart Whatley. Its contemporary interior, assembled by Allison Burke Interior Design and the Suerte team, showcases items Hellman-Mass and Núñez discovered on their Mexican travels, like Oaxacan textiles, La Chicharra ceramic plates, hand-woven palm tortilla warmers, and a whimsical mezcal bottle chandelier.
Like most new Austin restaurants, Suerte is loud — perhaps intentionally or perhaps because its shotgun dining room is perpetually packed with people enjoying themselves. It’s a festive din that in any language translates into a fun and tasty night on the town.