The chefs at Suerte are wild about masa. They nibble bits of the sticky beige dough while staring thoughtfully into the middle distance; they fuss and fret over the tiniest nuances of texture; they greet news of heirloom corn as if it were a long-lost symphony by Mozart. Simpletons like me, who once managed to get masa in my hair and on my phone when making tamales for a party, are humbled by such expertise. But to Sam Hellman-Mass and Fermín Núñez, masa is a thing of beauty and endless inspiration. In the kitchen of their three-month-old Austin restaurant, owner Hellman-Mass is passionate: “Masa is so simple. It’s just dried corn that has been cooked with water and calcium hydroxide”—the latter is what turns it into masa instead of cornmeal mush—“but you can do so much with it. You can make tortillas, tamales, pupusas, tostadas, huaraches, sopes, tlacoyos, tetelas, tlayudas, gorditas . . .” He pauses for air before the windup. “Masa is nothing less than the backbone of Mexican cuisine.”
Suerte’s story starts three years ago, when Hellman-Mass, then a partner at Austin restaurants Barley Swine and Odd Duck, decided to strike out on his own. He wanted to do something with masa, but there was a catch. Although he knew a ton about the subject, he lacked deep personal experience. And that’s when he thought of Núñez, an Austin chef with a résumé that includes Launderette and Uchiko. The two had worked together when Núñez did a stage (an apprenticeship) at Barley Swine, but more to the point, Núñez is from Torreón, in north-central Mexico. The enthusiasm and skill sets of the two chefs meshed seamlessly. Together, they started experimenting with recipes, traveled to Oaxaca and other Mexican cities, met grain producers and millers from across Texas, and talked long into the night about, you guessed it, masa.
Their dream finally materialized in March at a contemporary building on Austin’s trendy East Side. The masa-focused menu is rooted in antiquity; the look of the restaurant is strikingly modern. Suerte’s large dining room is open and light and—I’m sorry to say—clamorous when it’s full, but aside from handsome black clay pots and a couple of grindstones on a shelf, the touches that signal “Mexican restaurant” are minimal. The subtle striped fabric covering the walls is pink, gray, and off-white. Booths are framed by boxy wood enclosures without so much as a square inch of carving. Mexican craftsmanship is not absent, though. The woven fabric was made in Oaxaca by an artisan whom Hellman-Mass and Núñez met during their travels, and the chunky glassware was handblown in Hidalgo. The wild chandelier was made from mezcal jugs found in Oaxaca.
To start your masa journey, you should supply yourself with a cocktail—the Rosalinda, say, a wonderfully aromatic mezcal creation with quinquina and rose water. Once you’re properly fortified, it’s time to get serious. I suggest you order the aguachile, a wonderful crudo made not with fish but shrimp. In short order, a plate of utterly pristine royal red prawns arrives, banked by avocado slices and half-submerged in a substantial broth of cascabel chile, tomato, and lime juice. Where is the masa? It’s that large, thin cracker balanced on the shrimp like a sheltering roof. You can break off a piece to scoop up a shrimp or eat it alone. A startling mahogany color, it’s made from a type of earthy heirloom red corn ominously named bloody butcher.
Luck is in the Name
Early in Hellman-Mass’s career, he and fellow line cooks would bump fists and say “Suerte!” at the start of service. “It’s a Spanish word (for ‘luck’) that most people know and everybody can relate to,” he says.
To see a sturdier side of masa, check out the mushroom frito, a side dish that also serves nicely as a starter. In this case, Núñez makes either red or blue corn masa into a batter for oyster mushrooms. Though labeled “tempura” on the menu, it’s actually a lot more substantial and comes tricked out with aromatic green herbs. After a quick swish through the underlying puddle of emerald-green broccoli puree, the fungi make hearty, satisfying bites.
There are other interesting masa novelties in the “Snackcidents” and “Vitamin T” (e.g., tacos, tostadas, tamales) sections of the clever menu. The molotes are small, torpedo-shaped snacks made of masa and a smidgen of chorizo (they reminded me of hush puppies). Suerte’s tetelas are tidy grilled packets fashioned from tortillas spread with a black bean puree, folded into small triangles, and grilled. Glad as I was to see these two treats, for reasons of culinary anthropology, I have to say that both were a tad, um, stolid. (If I may change gears here and talk about something that has no masa whatsoever in it, I’ve got to mention the fabulous oak-grilled sweet potatoes. Charred until they all but melt into a sort of fabulous sticky custard, they are set off by a sparky oil of garlic, habanero, and black pepper, and if you don’t have them, you will regret it for the rest of your life.)
Lest you get the idea that Suerte is focused on things that are outside the norm, let me say one word to you: tacos. Núñez and Hellman-Mass have deconstructed tacos into their components, so that you can eat the main ingredient as a formal entrée or cut it into pieces and tuck them into tender, hot, delectably-seared-from-the-comal corn tortillas.
Of the three to four taco entrée options available each night, my absolute favorite—and one of the new must-have dishes in Austin—was the goat barbacoa, a rack of teeny goat ribs under a scandalous cap of seared fat (it’s relatively easy to remove if you’re concerned about trivial things like your arteries). Arranged alongside the epazote-and-mint-rubbed meat is a covey of condiments—creamy queso fresco, a finely chopped cross between guacamole and avocado, and piquant salsa hidalguense.
Just as the condiments change, so do the meats. On two visits, different steak cuts had been grilled to make carne asada. Another time, we ordered tender braised brisket confit. And then there was the oak-grilled fish à la devil, fantastically accessorized with sweet pickled onions and a salty bacon salsa that have ruined me for conventional fish tacos.
Desserts, after such hearty entrées, are likely to be shared. It’s fun to take turns scooping spoonfuls of the duck-egg flan with a molasses-thyme crumble or to dip pieces of churro in spicy Mexican chocolate. After all the masa madness, I was frankly surprised not to see it among the desserts. But I have a feeling that when I return, things could be different. As Hellman-Mass says: “Masa is such a fascinating thing. I think we are just beginning to explore what we can do with it.”
1800 E Sixth, Austin
D 7 days.
Opened March 22, 2018