James Beard Award Semifinalists Dish on Prominence of Mexican Food in Austin’s Culinary Scene
By Ana Paola Davila Chalita
Mariela Camacho, 34, was organizing Comadre Panadería’s menu in January when friends started texting her the news — she was named a semifinalist for a prestigious James Beard culinary award.
Camacho, who opened the panadería in Austin in 2019, was overwhelmed.
“I was very tired that day, and I was like, I’m not ready for this,” Camacho said.
The news spread quickly and Camacho was sold out of her weekend pastries a couple of hours later.
The James Beard Foundation, founded in 1986, is a non-profit that celebrates and promotes America’s diverse culinary heritage through events and awards. Their annual awards, first given 1991, are often referred to as the “Oscars of the food world.”
Of the six James Beard award semifinalists in Austin, three are Mexican food establishments, highlighting the cuisine’s prominence in the Austin culinary landscape. Comadre Panadería is nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker, Suerte for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program, and La Condesa for Outstanding Restaurant.
During the last three decades, Austin restaurants and chefs have received 67 semifinalist nominations and won five awards. Mexican food establishments in Austin have received James Beard Awards semifinalist nominations ten times. In 2022, chef Edgar Rico of Austin’s Nixta Taqueria’s won Emerging Chef of the Year.
In February, owners and employees of Comadre Panadería, Suerte and La Condesa dished on their establishments and the role of Mexican food and drink in Austin’s culinary scene.
Comadre Panadería doesn’t have a traditional storefront. Camacho has a website where her consumers place orders starting every Tuesday at 10 am.
Saturdays and Sundays from 9 to 10 a.m. customers pick up orders in various locations around the city, primarily at Nixta Taqueria. Camacho plans to open a breakfast cafe in East Austin later this year.
The panadería’s pastries depend on the occasion — for Valentine’s day, Camacho baked heart-shaped, pink conchas; for Mardi Gras, she made purple, green and gold brioche donuts.
Camacho puts her passion for exploring new ingredient combinations and transforms traditional Mexican pastries, such the famous concha into something original.
A concha (Spanish for seashell) is sweet dough with a topping enriched with butter and sugar, which is pressed onto the surface. It is usually enjoyed as a breakfast pastry and served with coffee or hot chocolate.
Camacho became addicted to sugar at an early age, which later led her to struggle with her image and weight, she said.
“Everyone tells you, you are too fat, you are too skinny, there’s always something. You are never enough,” Camacho said.
By using nourishing ingredients as a way to heal in her teens, she fell in love with baking.
“I started empowering myself by taking control of the food in my life,” she said.
She started working in restaurants at 15 years old and promised herself she would be self-employed by the time she was 30, which she made happen.
“I was so tired of working for other people,” Camacho said. “They weren’t taking care of me.”
Camacho feels grateful for the level of support she has received from Austinities. She has a loyal clientele, and the James Beard nomination made her business “busier, way busier,” she said.
She’s excited for the opportunities and recognition Mexican cuisines have been getting. “We never needed them but the reality is: it opens doors, this nomination, this exposure, this press, it changes access to people,” Camacho said.
La Condesa, located on 2nd Street, opened its doors in 2009. Its menu is a take on some of Mexico’s classics, such as their dish using huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on ears of corn, and is considered a delicacy and traditional flavor in Mexico.
Another popular menu item at La Condesa is esquites, a corn street food snack often served in a cup and easy to find in most Mexican cities. It is made from broil or roasted corn kernels that are seasoned with a variety of ingredients, mayonnaise, chile and cheese.
As a result you get a creamy, and spicy dish with a satisfying crunchy end from the corn kernels.
La Condesa has been a James Beard Award semifinalist four times, but the 2023 nomination is Lopez’s first as its executive chef. “It’s crazy, I still don’t have words,” he said.
Lopez explained how it is “inspiring” to see young chefs and restaurants taking Mexican cuisine more seriously, and learning from it.
“You are saying thank you to the culture and the knowledge,” he said.
Born and raised in Texas with a Mexican heritage, Lopez grew up eating Mexican food, but
“To us it was just food,” Lopez said.
As a fan of Tex-Mex food, he described how it is a style of its own, different and far from what interior Mexican food is with its flavors, techniques and preparations.
For him, the James Beard Award nomination is a testament to everyone who works at La Condesa.
“So many people do so many things in this restaurant to make it what it is. That’s what I love about the nomination, it doesn’t say — outstanding one specific thing,” Lopez said.
Celia Pellegrini, the director of operations and wine director at Suerte, says having people differentiate Tex-Mex from traditional Mexican dishes can be a challenge.
“I think a lot of people don’t think of Tex-Mex as Tex-Mex, they think of it as Mexican,” she said. “We still get people come in all the time and ask if we have queso.”
Suerte’s menu is composed of traditional dishes from Oaxaca, Mexico. The restaurant’s executive chef, Fermín Núñez, is also known for his appearance on Netflix’s “The Taco Chronicles.”
This is the second time Suerte, which opened in 2018, has been a semifinalist for a James Beard Award — in 2019 as Best New Restaurant and currently for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program.
Pellegrini is part of the team at Suerte in charge of their extensive drinks menu.
“A lot of time and effort, and education, and studying had gone into the program and turned it into something that we love,” Pellegrini said.
Suerte gives their customers the option to come in and go beyond just eating and drinking, she said. If they want to learn more about what they are consuming and where it comes from, the staff is prepared to give that experience.
Their wide variety of agave-based spirits is also focused on quality and “making sure that it is made with integrity and in a traditional way,” she said.
For her it is “super inspiring to know that people are really starting to care about it now,” she said referring to the rise of attention in the Mexican beverage culture, and described it as, “something that should be nominated for awards.”
“We really believe in what we are serving and the history and culture behind it,” she said.