Somjai II Restaurant - Guam's Venerable Thai Eatery Features Chinese Favorites (4/04 nka Sesomaji in East Hagatna 477-5115)
Restaurant Review by Ken Stewart, The Guam Food Guy
If there is a restaurant that could rate as its own "Survivor" show, it would have to be one of Guam's oldest Thai restaurants, Somjai II Restaurant in Tamuning. Now located across the street from the new Lexus showroom on the sidestreet adjacent to Hong Kong Bank, Somjai is next to AC Auto Air Conditioning, whose Marine Drive sign you can't miss. Somjai Restaurant is owned by Somjai Vongalorn, who has operated Somjai for 16 years, some of which have been interrupted by calamities, some natural and others man-made. Her original Agana location, the Bangkok Lounge, was across from the Paseo and was destroyed by a fire. Her second location was in East Agana near Citibank, and it was ravaged by a typhoon. She then moved to the Hafa Adai Exchange where it eventually was damaged by another fire. Her present location is tucked away in a safe building which also houses her son Wanna's air conditioning business, and which makes Somjai feel more secure since she is surrounded by family.
Somjai Restaurant is a small, unpretentious eatery that's open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. It could be described as a clean, well air-conditioned "hole-in-the-wall", and has 8 tables of various shapes and sizes. Unlike other Thai restaurants that are jam-packed with lunch customers, Somjai's is relatively quiet and not crowded since most people don't know its location. Her food is quite good, and she has a menu that has more Chinese than Thai items! This is because she used to work for Istemewa Restaurant, which was a highly popular local eatery on Camp Watkins Road, now home to Shirley's. Her daily $4.00 Lunch Special menu offers Egg Fu Yung, Beef w/Broccoli, Chop Suey, Fried Noodle Pancit or Bihon, Steamed Chicken with Straw Mushrooms, and Beef with Oyster Sauce (all with rice).
We decided on Thai for this evening's dinner, and ordered Tom Yum Soup (Chicken & Shrimp for $7.00), Pad Thai ($6.00), Pad Kapao Chicken ($6.00), and a house specialty, Shrimp with Garlic and Black Pepper ($10.00). The soup, Pad Thai, and Pad Kapao were ordered "spicy", since we both enjoy "exciting" foods.
The Tom Yum was delivered in a steaming bowl, and the surface was covered with specks of red pepper. It was a sour spicy soup laden with boiled chicken and shrimp, with onion, straw mushrooms, lemongrass, and fresh ginger chunks.
The Pad Kapao had minced chicken that was nicely sauted with basil, mint leaves and peppers. It was a pleasant dish, and went well with the big bowl of steamed rice she gave us (more rice than we were able to eat!).
The Pad Thai is a traditional favorite one must eat at least once when visiting a new Thai restaurant, primarily because they are usually prepared differently (I've never had two identical Pad Thai dishes). The portion was large and did have ample chicken and shrimp pieces, and lots of nuts, egg, noodles and bean sprouts. She didn't use any fish sauce as some Pad Thai recipes do to enhance flavor.
The most memorable entree was the garlic shrimp with black pepper. That's because it had the strongest flavors! The shrimp was immersed in a thick dark peppery sauce and covered with dried minced garlic. Each piece was moist and tender, and the spicy sauce brought both heat and flavor to our tastebuds. It was one of those dishes that when you take a bite, you gaze at the sauce on the plate with admiration as you relish the flavors released by chewing. Of course, we love garlic, and lots of it, so it's easy to understand our bias.
When you eat at Somjai's, you can't help but feel like you are a houseguest in Somjai's home. Her daughter-in-law, Thai, helps Somjai along with her husband in the business, and she regularly cooks meals for her son and his employees at AC Auto Air Conditioning. (Talk about great job benefits!). When not cooking, Somjai comes out and talks to her customers. She is a grand lady who is very proud of her three sons (all who have their own businesses). She is a proponent of working hard and being thrifty. She has overcome many adversities and has prevailed by being able to do what she loves to do - COOKING! She's been cooking for over 30 years, and you can taste it in her food. For luck, Somjai has at least 4 clocks in her restaurant, on different walls. There are hand-woven bird decorations from the Buddhist temple, as well as paintings, murals, and statues depicting the Thai culture. It's just part of the atmosphere created when one's business reflects the life experiences and values of the owner, something common in smaller Asian-owned, family-run operations.
Somjai's Restaurant accepts take-out orders (call 646-6122), has ample parking, serves beer and cocktails, accepts Visa/MC, and serves vegetarian dishes. In fact, not everything Somjai makes is on her menu, so just ask. I've heard from friends Carol and Sam that her Fried Tofu with Vegetables is the best! Treat yourself to a different Thai dining experience and go to Somjai's Restaurant, where there's no long wait for food or a table, at least not now!