As far as Fermín Núñez, the executive chef of East Austin Mexican-inspired restaurant Suerte and Eater Austin’s 2018 chef of the year, is concerned, a perfect tortilla must start the day before it’s meant to be eaten. “It takes a village to make tortillas every night,” he said.
“The foundation of Mexican food is masa,” Núñez said. “The best things in cooking and in life are usually the simplest forms,” much like bread and pasta. “That’s why the tortillas are so integral to the menu. It’s something each and every team member takes pride in.”
Every tortilla that leaves the restaurant’s East 6th Street kitchen is made to order and pressed by hand individually. The process starts with one of the restaurant’s staffers bringing a pot of water to a simmer, adding the necessary ingredients, cooking it to a certain level of doneness, and then letting it sit overnight. A different employee comes in the next morning to rinse the masa, and that’s the source of the day’s tortillas.
Núñez was raised in Torreon, a small town in northern Mexico. He’s influenced by the street food and family restaurants he ate during his childhood. “Those are the flavors that I grew up with,” he said. “They always take me back when I’m making dishes.” He recalls mom-and-pop tortas, homemade flautas, and potato tacos that he used to buy from a woman’s garage.
Austin’s neighboring city San Antonio is another big culinary influence for Núñez. It’s where he attended University of Texas San Antonio and learned to be a cook. At that point in his life, “I was not ready to be a chef,” he said. “I was not even able to cook rice.”
Then, during his undergraduate years, Núñez learned how to prepare food for himself. He took those skills and hopped over to culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston, after which he returned to San Antonio after graduation to dive headfirst into the cooking world. He took a break for a European backpacking trip, and came to Austin by way of a job at downtown upscale Mexican restaurant La Condesa nine years ago. And he’s been here ever since.
But back to the masa. The intention of Suerte, which opened last March under the helm of owner Sam Hellman-Mass, is that it’s “obsessed with masa.” Tortillas accompany practically every dish, from the popular goat barbacoa to the creamed kale to the already-iconic suadero tacos. The masa y mas section of the menu truly pays tribute to the component, featuring a red chile tortilla quesadilla, an oyster mushroom tlacoyo, and a carrot tostada. There is even a masa streusel used in the tres leches dessert.
Despite all of the accumulating accolades, for now, Núñez is taking the restaurant one day at a time, with no future plans to report just yet. “The future, to me, is in three hours when we open for service,” he said. “What’s important to me is making sure that everybody that is coming in is happy, that everybody who is part of the team is happy. You don’t get to do more things if you take your eyes off of what actually got you where you are.”
This article has been updated to reflect the correct ownership of Suerte.