Despite its popularity, CityCentre lacks a true destination restaurant. Establishments like Capital Grille, Bellagreen, and Yard House draw crowds, but they aren’t the sort of culinarily-ambitious establishments that would lure diners from all parts of the Houston area.
That will change next spring with the arrival of International Smoke. Established by superstar chef Michael Mina — the San Francisco-based James Beard Award winner whose MINA Group operates 32 restaurants in the Bay Area, Las Vegas, Chicago, and more — and Ayesha Curry, the best-selling cookbook author who is the new face of Cover Girl and the social media savvy wife of NBA star Stephen Curry.
Originally developed at the MINA Test Kitchen, International Smoke takes a global perspective on barbecue and live fire cooking. It will be the third location of International Smoke (the San Francisco location opens next week) and the MINA Group’s first restaurant in Houston.
Mina tells CultureMap that he developed the idea for International Smoke a couple of years ago after traveling through Asia and the Middle East. He noticed that every culture cooks with fire and smoke, even though the dishes take different forms.
“Every country has a different kabob, skewer type device. That’s because everybody has their own way,” he says. “What I always wanted to do was figure out how do you bring all that together.”
He recruited his friend Curry, whose cooking includes elements of her multiple ethnicities: Chinese, Jamaican, African American, and European. Together, they developed a menu that takes inspiration from around the world: everything from Chinese-style char sui pork shoulder to Argentinian steak with chimichurri and Japanese binchotan charcoal. The pop-up became a sold out success, and the duo decided to make it a permanent restaurant.
Although International Smoke is Curry’s first restaurant, Mina says she understands the hospitality required to make the business successful.
“I’ve got my own restaurants that are done by myself and my group of chefs. Then it’s really fun to partner with people , because you learn so much,” Mina says. “It’s not just about food . . . It’s making people feel warm and welcome and doing that through the food. Ayesha’s really good at that.”
Mina says that he’s had his eye on Houston for awhile, and that visiting during the Super Bowl helped motivate him to open a restaurant here. MINA Group CEO Bill Freeman identified the former Straits space in CityCentre as a location that would work.
“Like most cities in the United States, it’s really getting established with some very good restaurants,” he says. “There’s definitely a clientele of people who want good food there.”
One thing that will not be present is a take on Texas-style smoked brisket.
“We’ll always do one or two items that we can execute, but that’s not the concept to compete with Texas barbecue or American barbecue,” Mina says. “It’s much more about the diversity of barbecue around the globe.”
Of course, Mina has another tie to Houston. The current MINA Test Kitchen is a collaboration with beloved local chef Hugo Ortega. Could the Mi Almita pop-up follow International Smoke’s path and someday become its own restaurant?
“We measure (that) at the end. We don’t get ahead of ourselves,” Mina says. “We’ve kind of learned you watch it the whole time. I will tell you it’s very hard to get into. It’s not died down. If anything, it’s gaining momentum.”
Let’s consider that TBA, at least for now.
Houston hasn’t always been welcoming to chefs from outside the city, but the combination of Mina’s track record of success and Curry’s celebrity make International Smoke one of next year’s most intriguing new restaurants.