Features & Columns
House of Siam Closes its Doors
as a second home and a third space
After 20 years in downtown San Jose, House of Siam on Second St. will be closing its doors for good this weekend. Although it was not the first Thai restaurant to open downtown, this sapphire in the wasteland successfully fused the native and the exotic from the very second it opened.
Back in the late '90s, when I first began writing for websites, one of the first pieces I ever wrote described House of Siam as a "culinary dominatrix flogging one's taste buds." It was a compliment. I was a longtime fan of Herb Caen and the way he wrote about his favorite places around town—eateries, hat shops, etc.—but I longed to add my own punk twist to his shtick. I can definitely say my House of Siam experiences in the '90s booted me in that general direction.
For a specific crew of us at the time—longhaired, hard-drinking SJSU grad students—House of Siam became our equivalent of the coffee shop on Seinfeld. It was our regular meeting place for probably the last half of that decade. I must have spent hundreds of student loan dollars. In retrospect, it was our second home. We drank there, plotted future gigs there and planned our next trips there. If one of us had just returned from a trip, we'd always meet at House of Siam to catch up. Any new friend or girlfriend who came into our circle was usually initiated at House of Siam. For all practical purposes, we essentially operated out of that restaurant and at one point I was even getting phone calls there.
What's more, House of Siam offered degrees of spiciness: mild, medium, spicy, then 1x and 2x. We were the first ones to order 4x. At the time, my music professor at SJSU, Allen Strange, taught us that cooking and music composition were the same process, especially when it came to Asian food. As a composer and performer, his lineage went back to the '60s, a time when John Cage's frequent collaborator, David Tudor, used to carry Indian spices in his gear bag when traveling because there didn't exist that many Indian restaurants in the U.S. yet, or none that were spicy enough. So, just like quintessential know-it-all grad students trying to show up their professor, we indoctrinated Allen at House of Siam and proved we could take the food spicier than him. And we did. He gave up. If any restaurant fused life with avant-garde performance aesthetics, that place was it. Of that original crew, I am the only one still left in San Jose, so revisiting that era now feels especially poignant.
In the mid-'90s, there only existed a handful of interesting ethnic restaurants in downtown San Jose and the SJSU community rarely engaged with anything off campus more than a few blocks away. The folks at House of Siam always made us feel at home, no matter how loud and drunk we became, no matter how often the nearby parties got up and moved across the restaurant from us, no matter how long we stayed, refusing to leave, and no matter how much we embarrassed the waitresses, some of whom are friends of mine to this day. It really seemed like we were all one big family. If any place proved that Thais are the Italians of Southeast Asia, it was House of Siam.
A few days after the original location at 55 S. Market closed down, I sauntered in just as the owners/sisters were gutting what was left. From the wreckage behind the bar, they pulled out the last remaining Singha beer and gave it to me. On the house. Literally. When the new location opened up in September of 2001, legions of family and friends were invited, and I was grateful to be among those present.
In recent years, the owners of House of Siam have intentionally and unintentionally helped me write several columns. Quite a few leads have come from the mystic aura of that restaurant, leads enabling me to fuse the native and exotic halves of how I tend to interpret the San Jose condition. All is not lost, though. The owners will soon reopen Tee Nee Thai on The Alameda, enabling the legends to continue, either in my own head, or in some other fashion.