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James Beard Award-winning chef explains why he’s finally expanding to Houston

Houston Business Journal | 05.21.2018

James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Mina will open his first restaurant in Texas in Houston in early July. International Smoke will be 6,000 square feet and in CityCentre.

The chef — who owns more than 30 restaurants across the U.S. with San Francisco-based Mina Restaurant Group — has been planning a Texas expansion for a while but had to wait for the right concept, he said. Thanks to a collaboration with celebrity cookbook author Ayesha Curry, Mina thinks International Smoke is the right one.

“I feel very strongly that this concept will be something that will give people another option, a really good option of good, high-quality, very chef-driven food,” he said. “Houston's a market that we wanted to be in, a market targeted based on multiple reasons, but one (reason) is the diversity of people that live here.”

In fact, Mina said the dishes served at International Smoke mimic Houston’s diversity — a feature that James Beard Award-winner Chris Shepherd has also touted at his new concept, UB Preserv. 

“Obviously, you have amazing food here and an amazing food scene of many different styles of cuisine and everything else,” Mina said. “But International Smokes is interesting in its own right because it is grilling and barbecue from all over the world … (and offers) different flavors and different techniques from around the globe.”

He added that he’s not bringing the concept to compete with Texas barbecue. 

Although this will be Mina’s first Texas location, he’s no stranger to the Bayou City or its restaurant industry. He’s been visiting the region for years because his brother-in-law lives in Houston. 

In February, the famed chef came to Houston to host the Culinary Kickoff, a celebrity chef and vintner event, with chefs Charlie Palmer, Danny Trace and Adam Sobel. He also partnered with Houston chef and James Beard Award-winner Hugo Ortega in August on a new concept called Mi Almita, which Ortega is taking to Los Angeles. 

Another decision that should help International Smoke thrive is its local culinary staff headed by executive chef E.J. Miller, who most recently was the sous chef at Riel and has also cooked at Clark Cooper Concepts’ SaltAir, Punk’s Simple Southern Food and Coppa Ristorante, according to his LinkedIn profile. 

"It's been very heartwarming to see how well we've been accepted by the chef community," Mina said. "I'm excited to be able to start giving back here."

News that International Smoke would open at 800 Sorella Court, the former home of Straits, emerged in November. Mina said he chose Midway’s CityCentre for several reasons: the development’s tenant mix, clientele and management as well as west Houston’s population growth.

Los Angeles-based Bishop Pass is the concept’s designer and architect. California-based Terra Nova is the general contractor. A $950,000 commercial building permit was filed in mid-April for the restaurant by Shawn Cable, but Mina declined to provide investment costs.

The idea for International Smoke began about seven years ago, he said. It debuted in Hawaii inside The Street — Mina's food hall in Honolulu — and opened in San Francisco in November. After the Houston location opens — which is expected in June — the Mina Group will take International Smoke to Miami and San Diego, California. 

Within the first three months of opening, the Houston location is expected to have about 100 employees. 
When asked whether he’d expand his restaurant empire to other Texas cities, Mina hinted toward the possibility: “The industry I’m in is hospitality, and people in Texas are very hospitable.”

Mina started his restaurant group in 2003 and now has roughly 30 restaurants in San Francisco, Chicago, Dubai and other cities, per the Mina Restaurant Group website. His concepts include Pabu, Bourbon Steak, Arcadia, Michael Minaand Margeaux Brasserie.