For the past few weeks, restaurant-obsessed Houstonians have been making their way to the East End to try Mimo. Quietly open for lunch only (for now), the new Italian restaurant has been earning raves for its commitment to serving well executed dishes in a clean, comfortable space.
Led by chef Fernando Rios and beverage specialist Mike Sammons, Mimo has been years in the making. Taking its name from the Italian word for “Mockingbird,” the restaurant aims to serve classic Italian dishes that aren’t regularly prepared in America.
Rios and Sammons have known each other for years. They first worked together at Italian fine dining restaurant Da Marco and Dolce Vita, its more casual sister concept. From there, they worked together at Weights + Measures, where Sammons was a founding partner and Rios worked alongside executive chef Richard Kaplan before taking over the kitchen when Kaplan retired in 2020.
“We go way back,” Rios tells CultureMap. “We always talked about opening something together. We never knew when.”
Mockingbird takes wing
“We met at Da Marco. I was working the bar,” Sammons adds. “He and I met and immediately clicked. We see eye-to-eye with food. Everytime we come with a dish together, we have the same aesthetic.”
Eventually, Rios began looking for a space for his own restaurant. Ultimately, he found the former Kanomwan space in the East End’s Tlacquepaque Market complex. The chef explains that he has history with the area, including attending high school nearby. Sammons also lives in the neighborhood.
Together, they saw an opportunity to bring the project they’d been talking about to fruition. They ripped out the carpet to reveal the concrete floor and installed a small bar near the entrance. The restaurant has wooden tables and chairs and a minimal amount of decor.
“One of the things that I was attracted to is the space is a rectangle. It’s a blank canvas,” Sammons says. “To take a space that’s as minimal as can be and say, everything is going to be comfortable and clean, but the focus is on what comes out of the kitchen.”
Rios takes a similarly minimal approach to his food. Following Italian traditions, he aims to serve dishes that use only a few ingredients and present them in a way that allows each one to shine.
"F-ing fantastic" fare
“We’re trying to bring something that’s traditionally made in Italy but isn’t in the United States,” Rios says. Later, he adds, “I want to do the classics, along with some influences from us. Instead of using the traditional ingredient, let’s try something and see how it tastes. That’s where we’re trying to be a little bit different.”
One way that Mimo has defined its cuisine is through sandwiches. Using bread that’s made for the restaurant by local bakery Cake & Bacon, Rios serves sandwiches such as Sicilian beef with vegetables, mortadella with mozzarella and mostarda, and chicken parm with crispy cabbage and lemon-chive aioli.
“We wanted to do sandwiches first, because that exemplifies a lot of what we’re doing,” Sammons explains. “There’s a lot going on between two pieces of bread when you’re messing with texture and acidity and all the components that make a delicious sandwich. When you’re taking a bite of it, you experience all those things at the same time — that’s something beautiful.”
The mortadella sandwich illustrates the approach. To make the mostarda, Rios grinds toasted pistachios and blends it with lemon zest and cheese. The result achieves his goal of capturing a richer, more adult take on peanut butter that ties the whole sandwich together. For another sandwich, he pairs prosciutto with mozzarella and roasted cherry tomatoes.
“It’s f—ing delicious,” Rios says. “The bread is right. The ingredients are right. The olive oil we use is f—ing fantastic.”
Rios has created pastas, too, which use fresh or dried pasta depending on the application. Recent dishes have included gnocchi with marinara and basil and spaghetti amatriciana. For Easter, he served pappardelle with braised lamb.
A taste of Sicily, Tuscan wines, and Sunday Supppers
Dinner, expected to begin May 11, will feature more pastas. The Easter menu offer a couple of other previews in the form of a seared lamb chop with polenta and broccolini friti and a mozzarella in carrozza — a Sicilian-style dish fried cheese that gets a boost of umami from anchovies. They’re also planning to roll out a weekly Sunday supper special that will feature family-style dishes.
Sammons is contributing a tidy wine list. For now, he’s serving several wines by-the-glass from Tuscany, the region where he first learned to appreciate Italian wine. Each month, he plans to add one new region. The bottle list will add a few French favorites, too.
After working with and for other people for some long, both Rios and Sammons recognize that Mimo is a special opportunity to do their own thing. With positive word of mouth building, they’re ready to start serving more diners.
“The most important thing is that I’m the happiest I’ve been in my career,” Rios says. “After COVID and all this other s— that happened, I’m very comfortable trying to experiment with Italian cuisine that’s not done in Houston as much. Once we open at night, I think we’re going to go further with this food than we’ve done before in our careers.”
“I think we’re both confident in what we’re doing,” Sammons adds. “We have the same goal, which is to make a beautiful and exciting experience that we feel good about it. It’s not rocket science, but there’s something really satisfying about doing it this way. It feels right.”