MERCED — The food at Sam Café on West 12th Street is as big and bold as the owner, Sam Malaythong, who's been cooking up a personal take on traditional Thai cuisine for more than 15 years.
The crispy vegetable egg rolls and pho or Thai soup are a good place to start. Kuay tio, a rice noodle, beef and meatball combination pho, is a favorite, and there are many vegetarian options. Sam is happy to customize, rearrange or alter any dish for anyone. Regulars rarely open the menu. "I ask them like, 'Soup, gravy, spicy? Rice or noodles? Chicken, beef or pork?'" Sam said. "I try to get a feeling (for them), then bring it out."
We went spicy and sweet on a recent visit: gaeng keow wahn — a green curry, vegetable and tofu substitution for beef — and peht yeang — roast duck with a pineapple and vegetable sauce.
Spicy isn't an understatement and it's well warned. Dinners are always asked to choose from "one to 10" when a spicy dish is ordered. Feeling adventurous, we went with a seven — two points above our regular five — and left with cleared sinuses. Don't be embarrassed to order a two or three.
Sam moved from Laos to Los Angeles in 1972 and migrated north to Merced in 1991 to open his first restaurant, Star Garden. Star Garden closed for a few years while Sam worked in finance, but his pull toward restaurateur was hard to resist. The Star Garden sign broke in the move, but he did have one that read "Siam Café." With a little work, the "i" was dropped, the letters spaced out, but there was no room to make it the possessive "Sam's Café."
Sam laughs about it now: "People still think I can't spell."
The first Thai cook in Merced, he is heavily influenced by Chinese and Laotian cooking. Laotian influence is especially strong in the herbs and spices. Newspapers across Asia and The New York Times have praised the fusion. But for Sam, it's just cooking the family way — the big family way. He was one of 10 children.
"I was always the one cooking because I loved to eat," he said. "I hate it when others don't cook right. I have to make every dish my own. I have my own touch."
Every person who works at Sam is related to Sam — cousins, nieces, in-laws.