The front door of East Austin Mexican restaurant Suerte features a flared design that starts as a pinpoint at the left and expands to fanned layers of sky blue, dusty agave green and bubblegum pink.
They are the muted colors of buildings that line the stone streets of Oaxaca’s historic center, and the geometric explosion looks like colored light reflected through a prism. Enter the door and you transform as well. You leave what you have known about Austin dining and you walk into the vibrant promise of its future, one textured and flavored by the influences of our rich neighbor to the south.
The wicker light fixtures, Oaxacan fabrics used for aesthetic and functional purposes and large mezcal jugs that constitute a chandelier at the restaurant’s southern end all speak to Mexico. But the homemade masa sings of the country’s soul and culinary heritage.
Owner Sam Hellman-Mass, one of the founders of Odd Duck, and executive chef and Torreón, Mexico, native Fermín Nuñez (formerly of Launderette) have made masa the backbone of their restaurant, whose name means “luck” in Spanish. They source locally (Richardson Farms and Barton Springs Mill, specifically) and nixtamalize the corn in-house.
That is all thoughtful and good. But if it doesn’t taste great, the artisanal nature of the masa-making process only serves as a marketing angle or a lure for the breathless foodie.
The masa at Suerte tastes great. There’s a loamy sweetness that balances sun and earth, and it ranges from gentle to brittle depending on its preparation. It is shaped into an oval tlacoyo, a popular Mexican street food, cooked on the comal and topped with pork belly carnitas that run juicy through the middle and crispy at the edges and find harmony in the nutty pecan salsita and tangy pickled carrots ($15). It is fried into a tostada layered with roasted beets and smashed avocado drizzled with zesty peanut-walnut yum sauce ($10), and rolled thin and fried into a crackling tlayuda (think massive tostada) layered with herbaceous green chorizo and creamy strands of quesillo ($14).
Those three dishes come from the Mexican-food-bloggy-titled “Vitamin T” section of the menu that includes a dish that shows the chefs have done their homework. They visited Oaxaca, Mexico City and other cities throughout Mexico, bringing back pottery and textiles used for design and service, along with some culinary inspiration. If you’ve visited the otherworldly tree in the heart of the Oaxacan town of Tule, hopefully you popped into the restaurant just across the street from the UNESCO World Heritage Site for a quesadilla filled with quesillo and squash blossoms. Suerte reimagines that dish (or at least I assume that was the inspiration) as the “quesadilla del Tule,” and while it doesn’t quite capture the simple transcendence of its forebear, I appreciated the thin red corn tortilla filled with banana peppers and squash, dusted with cured egg yolk and spiked with pumpkin seed salsa ($9) as much for its flavor as its homage.
A great restaurant can elicit from its guests an equal amount of questions as exclamations. As in, “What in the world is that sauce?” And: “Oh, my God, I want to eat that sauce with everything!” Which circles back to another question: “I wonder if I can make that sauce at home?”
You may be able to replicate the black magic oil if you find the right balance of black sesame oil, garlic and morita chile, but I doubt you can make small, supple red corn tortillas like those at Suerte, or summon the alchemical powers to abracadabra tender confit brisket elevated gently with the citrus kiss of avocado. Delivered four to a plate ($15), the brisket tacos with the toasty sauce are some of the best I’ve ever eaten in Austin. The way the chefs synthesize Texan and Mexican traditions into something wholly unique but familiar reminds me of what Lawrence Wright refers to as the third (and highest) level of cultural evolution in his recent book, “God Save Texas.”
The chefs’ expeditions to Mexico also apparently gave them — or reinforced in them — an appreciation for mezcal, more than two dozen varieties of which you can find on the menu from artisanal distillers. If you desire your agave spirits blended in a cocktail, the bar shows as much attention to flavor development as the kitchen, with the grassy and lightly smoky Desert Drifter ($13) — a mix of ancho verde, cucumber, lemon and celery bitters featuring Driftwood-based Desert Door sotol — and the bitter and floral Rosalina ($13) — flavored with hibiscus and rose water — standing out in the mix.
As you sip a mezcal or a serious cocktail, you’ll make your way into the menu that starts out playfully with the unfortunately titled “Snackcidents” section, featuring a funky and wonderful fontina cheese play on Mexican street corn in a cup ($6) and the hocus-pocus of lentils standing in as refried beans for dipping with corn tortilla chips ($7).
When the menu goes light with its raw section, it still finds a place for the corn, but the tostadas are happy to play only a supporting role as the base of sweet snapper awash in leche de tigre and chile mayo ($12), or as a fan shading raw prawns relaxed in the sunburned shade of a mild cascabel chile broth ($14).
Corn takes a rest during dessert, though knowing this crew, maybe they subtly sneaked some into a silken duck egg custard topped with the sweet crunch and glow of a molasses crumble and apricot-orange sorbet ($9).
Most of the menu seems designed for sharing, though if you want to keep things to yourself, there is the “Specialties” section. However, once your friends get a taste of the well-developed mole negro on the chicken roulade ($17) or savor a swipe of the bacon Veracruzana dish used to amp up a flaky oak-grilled fish ($24) served with tortillas, the plates will circulate.
One of the few minor letdowns, in addition to one very loud dinner and a brief bout of service ambivalence that belied a generally enthusiastic staff, was the carne asada ($25). While grilled to a becoming medium-rare blush, the kitchen’s choice of New York strip meant not enough fat for my liking. Considering I still sopped up the sweet acid of a vinegary tomato broth with the beef, my disappointment barely registered.
Hellman-Mass helped guide Odd Duck to a steady position in the Top 10 of Austin restaurants, and that love of comfort, technique and locality reverberates at this spot that at times feels like the Mexican cousin of the South Lamar restaurant. The pliant goat rib barbacoa ($28), rubbed with an enlivening mix of mint and epazote and served with a collection of accompaniments that included queso fresco and smoky tomato salsa (and, yes, tortillas), reminded me of large-format dishes from Odd Duck. And the almost-mashable grilled sweet potatoes with vibrant lemon aioli ($9) and sunshiny peaches and mangoes with goat feta in green goddess dressing ($9) seemed like they could sneak onto the menu at his former restaurant without anyone being the wiser, while the craft of roasted carrots in mole amarillo with dumplings made of masa blended with carrot pulp ($9) felt akin to a dish you might find at Odd Duck’s refined sibling, Barley Swine.
Those vegetable side dishes spoke to me as much as the more intricate plates that hold most of the menu’s gravity. And they reminded me of a recent conversation I had. A culinary wizard broke down for me what a chef should set as his seemingly simple but actually very difficult goal: Create delicious food that makes people happy and makes them want to come back again and again.
Weave that together with a sincere story told in a space with character, and you have one of the best restaurants in the city.
1800 E. Sixth St. 512-953-0092, suerteatx.com
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Prices: Snackcidents, $7-$8. Vegetables, $9. Frio and raw, $12-$16. Vitamin T, $9-15. Specialties, $17-$28. Desserts, $9.
The order: Sweet corn esquites with fontina, snapper tostada, beet tostada, suadero tacos, goat shoulder barbacoa, peaches y mangoes.
Expect to pay: $35 (price per person, does not include alcohol, tax or tip)
Notes: Complimentary valet parking
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Suerte, which serves smart modern Mexican cuisine, is the best restaurant to open so far this year in Austin.