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Restaurants / Lists

Texas Lands Two Restaurants in America’s Top 10, Including a Tiny Houston Spot With a Major Punch

Welcome to the Best Food State in the United States

BY // 05.22.19

When it comes to the great state of Texas and its bevy of buzz-worthy restaurants, it’s truly eat, drink and be merry — for tomorrow, we dine. There are endless options to choose from. You can try a new place every day and never run out of delicious options.

Need proof? How about the 27 James Beard Award semifinalists in the Lone Star State this very year.

But even among that group, some restaurants shine so bright they’re blinding. And they haven’t escaped the notice of the nation’s leading foodie publication, Food & Wine.

The culinary bible just released its coveted list of Best New Restaurants 2019. Two of the Top 10 restaurants in the entire country come from Texas

Just like The James Beard Foundation, Food & Wine showered praise on Austin’s Suerte and Houston’s Indigo.

Austin’s Suerte snagged the No. 2 spot in the magazine’s Top 10 thanks to chef Fermín Núñez’s obsession with masa and his enchanting “black magic oil,” as detailed by writer Jordana Rothman. The chef of the East 6th Street treasure couldn’t even quite believe it.

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“It was shocking,” Núñez tells PaperCity. “It was just a good moment in my life. When Jordana called, I’d had a really rough week at work. I think people were sick that week, we had to reschedule people. One of those weeks I just wish was over.

“But on Monday, my day off, she reached out to me and told us. It made all the hard work we’d been doing very, very worth it.”

It took everything he had to keep this quiet.  “I found out a few months in advance, but obviously we couldn’t spill the beans quite yet,” Núñez laughs.

He couldn’t wait to tell his staff. “They’re a big part of why we got that nod,” he adds. They all celebrated with a family meal, Núñez cooking up some steak, French fries, sauces and tortillas.

About those tortillas. Rothman dubbed them “supple” and points out that what make them unique is their origin. Unlike many Mexican-inspired restaurants, Suerte’s corn comes locally, straight from Central Texas.

“Masa is one of those things I’m very passionate about, because it’s something I grew up with. I think what we do is a little different, we get corn from our friends, our farmers,” Núñez notes.

And then he takes that Mexican culinary cornerstone and makes fresh tortillas to order, never re-warmed. “We make them to order, one at a time. That’s part of the magic of making a great tortilla — the moment you cook it, it’s never going to be as good as it is now,” he adds.

 

Suerte Austin restaurant
Suerte’s duck mole makes quite an impression.

He’s just as proud of his black magic oil as Rothman was enchanted by it. It’s a mesmerizing mixture of toasted garlic, chilis, black sesame seeds, fermented black beans and oil.

“That’s all cooked together, tasty and delicious. I could have called it ‘chili sesame oil.’ But I chose to call it black magic. It shows you what we like, who we are,” Núñez says.

All things considered, Rothman took a cue from Suerte. Tex-Mex may have been all the rage, but now it’s “2019: the year of Mex-Tex.”

Houston Wins Big

Houston’s very own Indigo took the eighth spot in Food & Wine‘s Top 10, wowing with chef Jonny Rhodes’ signature neo-soul cuisine served in rich culinary and cultural context, exploring African American history.

Rothman admits that the intimate, 13-seat restaurant defies definition. “Chef Johnny Rhodes delivers a thesis in five courses — the historic oppression and creativity of African, African American, and black people, told through the lens of what he has named neo-soul food.”

Oxheart veteran Rhodes earned points for his technique, with particular attention paid to his knack for preservation — everything from curing to pickling, reminiscent of African Americans’ surviving agricultural oppression.

Rothman highlights potato ashcakes and sweet crab meat warmed in butter.

The names of many dishes warp racist language, like the “Homogenization of Mandingos” and the “Turtleneck and Durags.”

But it’s not all about teaching, it’s not all a one-way street.

“I definitely think it’s an opportunity for us to educate people about the plight of African Americans and food waste in America. But I also think it’s an opportunity not just for us to educate but to learn. A lot of people experience food apartheid all over the world, globally,” Rhodes says.

“A big part of this is people coming and telling us how their story coexists with their story. We give people the opportunity to put that out there and share it with us.”

And they’ll share it over some top dishes. Rhodes points to the turtle stew on the pescatarian menu, along with the crab and crayfish goulash.

Since opening last July, Indigo has turned into quite the hot spot. This honor definitely won’t slow any of that down.

“I definitely think there’s going to be a demand now. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to meet everyone’s demand for us. We should be booked for the rest of the year pretty soon,” Rhodes says.

Like Núñez, he’s known about this Food & Wine national recognition for awhile now.

“When I first found out about this, I was pretty in shock and ecstatic. Wondering if I was worth all of this. I’ve just been going to work hard so I can feel worthy,” Rhodes says.

He’s worthy because of his inventive food and his mission, but also because he’s just as hospitable to his staff as his diners.

“I deliberated for a long time and asked myself why, and I honestly think it’s how we treat our staff,” Rhodes tells PaperCity.

Instead of working his staff to the bone, Rhodes respects their need for rest and holds manageable hours. Indigo is only open four days a week, and his staff come back energized and ready to execute the restaurant’s philosophy: do it right, or do it twice.

This nod only makes Rhodes feel that more.

“We’ve been able to let everybody know now,” he says. “We’re still going to live up to it more now that everybody knows.”

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