Dining profile: Siam Thai chef creating flavorful dishes at family’s downtown restaurant
Couple started business so they could see more of each other
Published in the January 6 – 19, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Marty Cheek
Diners who go to the Siam Thai Restaurant in downtown Morgan Hill might be confused for a moment, thinking they are approaching someone’s home as they climb up the steps to the front porch. But stepping inside, they’ll find a warm and welcoming restaurant run by chef Sean Thera and his wife Na.
The restaurant’s backstory is a bit romantic. Thera had ambitions to be a Silicon Valley tech worker, but he discovered the long hours kept him away from his bride most of the day.
“I was an engineer and I was working and going to school and I didn’t see my wife at all,” he said. “She was in the restaurant business as a server. I got up early in the morning, went to work, came home. When I got up, she was still in bed. And when I was home, she was working. And so it was not quite working for us. So we sat down and asked, ‘Hey, what are we going to do so we can be spending time together more?’”
The couple came up with the idea of starting a restaurant so that they could work together. Thera started being a partner in Bay Area restaurants to get involved with the business and see how it works and learn management skills. He found that even though he had never cooked before, his love for good food and even his electrical engineering background helped him understand the art of creating quality cuisine.
“I have a passion for cooking now,” he said. “You can kind of use some knowledge from engineering and apply it here as well. How to process the ingredients. First in, first out.”
Siam Thai Restaurant opened in 2005 when Thera was 33 years old. Originally from Thailand, he came to San Jose in 1996 to study engineering at the state university in the city’s downtown. On one winter break, he went to Indiana to visit a brother who was earning his masters degree. Even though he realized life was less expensive in that mid-West state, he quickly found he didn’t care for the cold weather and the icy roads
“I decided I want to stay here in California,” he said. “I got stuck here and I like it here.”
As they began their restaurant, the Theras also decided to begin a family. Their son Zachary is 8 years old and Sasha is 6 years old. Both children help out doing small chores in the restaurant.
Thera explained the elegance of flavor found in many Thai dishes on the menu at Siam Thai Restaurant, saying the essence of Thai food is “kind of between Chinese and Indian” cuisine.
“Our food is not really about spices,” he said. “In Indian food, you get a lot of things, like tandoori and cumin and stuff. But for Thai, the ingredients when we make curry, the paste is different and unique, not aromatic like Indian. I like Indian food, too. But people sometimes say the aromatic quality is too much.”
After years of being behind the stove, Thera feels he’s mastered the art of cooking for a non-stop stream of customers.
“Once you’ve been cooking it for so long, it’s easy,” he said. “You have everything in front of you. Boom, boom, boom and you’ve got a dish.”
He said he always recommends that people, especially when they come in as a group, pick at least one curry to try.
“My go-to thing is the panang. Panang is like a red curry but we make it more thicker and more flavorful,” he said. “The way we make the red curry is we use a roasted chili that you put it in the blender so that it is red and you get a complex flavor.”
If diners are going to share two things, he recommends they get a sauteed stir-fry dish to accompany the curry.
“I would go for the cashew chicken because the texture is a little different. It’s sweet with the cashew nuts and the sauce — they go together,” he said.
Often when larger groups come in, people ask him to pick the food off the menu for them. He’ll ask if they have any food allergies, and then he tries to mix and match the dishes so that they accent each other and create a delightful culinary experience for the customers.
The restaurant’s appetizers give diners a sense of Thailand. The Tod Mun ($8.95) are fish cakes prepared with green beans, red curry paste and kaffir lime leaves and fried to perfection. They are served with cucumber salad and ground peanut. The seafood dumplings ($9.95) are made from a steamed and deep-fried mixed shredded crab meat, pork and ground shrimp with jacamar, egg and green onion. They’re wrapped in soybean wrapper.
Siam Thai Restaurant has a selection of traditional soups to choose ranging in price from $7.95 to $14.95 depending on whether the customer wants a small or large portion. The Po Tak is a spicy and sour seafood soup filled with prawns, scallops, green mussels, and calamari in lemony broth with mushrooms, lemon grass, galangal, cilantro, kaffir lime leaves, fresh Thai chili and Thai basil leaves.
The restaurant also serves traditional Thai foods including noodles and fried rice dishes as well as a vegetarian selection.
Desserts include the ever popular fried banana and ice cream and the sticky rice and mango, which many people are familiar with. But Thera recommends customers try the Thai pancake to top off their meal.
“It’s pastry fried and rolled with a little condensed milk, a little cinnamon, served with vanilla ice cream. I love that. It’s been a big hit,” he said.
The restaurant also serves Thai and Chinese beers, but Thera finds that diners prefer sampling the local wines made by winemakers including Guglielmo, Solis, Jason-Stephens and Leal.
Thera found his calling with the Siam Thai Restaurant. Instead of working with electronics, he gets to work with customers who love to try his authentic Thai cuisine.
“I love taking care of people. That’s what I do. I help them out,” he said. “If it’s not in the menu, I can fix it. It adds up little by little. I got a recipe from this place, a recipe from that place, from mom. And we just mixed it up to see how it works.”