Merlion Thai Restaurant & Lounge makes locals feel at home

Ahi Tuna Raad Prick ($40) comes covered in red curry sauce. (Cynthia Zelaya/Community Impact Newspaper)
Ahi Tuna Raad Prick ($40) comes covered in red curry sauce. (Cynthia Zelaya/Community Impact Newspaper)

Ahi Tuna Raad Prick ($40) comes covered in red curry sauce. (Cynthia Zelaya/Community Impact Newspaper)

Image description
Seafood Gapro ($26) features sautéed onions and garlic in an oyster-based sauce. (Cynthia Zelaya/Community Impact Newspaper)
Image description
Shrimp Pangang ($26) comes with avocados or bamboo shoots. (Cynthia Zelaya/Community Impact Newspaper)
Image description
Brooke Villanueva has owned Merlion Thai since 2008. (Cynthia Zelaya/Community Impact Newspaper)
Image description
Merlion Thai has outdoor seating with a view of Galveston Bay. (Cynthia Zelaya/Community Impact Newspaper)
Merlion Thai, a Thai restaurant with an American twist, dedicates itself to making Seabrook locals feel like they are in a home away from home. The restaurant operated long before the current owner, Brooke Villanueva, came upon it. Originally Bay Thai in 1990, the eatery thrived under chef Gil Lobeck. His son, Andrew Lobeck, took over in 2005, reopening the restaurant at a different location.

Although of Thai descent, Andrew renamed the restaurant after a Merlion, a mythical Singaporean beast, to impress a sweetheart from Singapore. Although the relationship did not last, the name stuck around.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike destroyed Merlion. Brooke, looking to transition from a career in television, decided to take up the Merlion mantle.“I had a good friend that used to work for chef Andrew’s dad,” Brooke said. “I used to help her out on the weekends just for fun. After Ike, they lost everything, so my husband and I reopened the restaurant. It’s been in Seabrook for 32 years.”

She rebuilt a couple doors from the old location, and Andrew followed her to the current address.

Brooke said she and her husband, Ray Villanueva, poured their hearts and souls into the new building. Brooke decorated the rooms in cerulean, iron and white, matching the feel of Seabrook.

Her husband built the light-up bar and barn doors, each handle inscribed with room names or inside phrases. He also built a lot of the tables, proudly pointing to a pair that depicted a lion for himself and a mermaid for his wife.

Merlion Thai, which serves Thai dishes with an American twist along with locally caught seafood, has been a staple of Seabrook for decades, and the Villanuevas do their best to make guests and employees alike feel at home. They put an emphasis on special occasions, treating guests to champagne, rose petals and bundt cakes on their birthdays.

“Adulting is hard,” Brooke said. “You’re allowed to have your time out, to have a good time and enjoy yourself. That’s what’s important, especially after COVID.”

When COVID-19 shut the world down, the staff at Merlion Thai was fearful for their jobs, Brooke said. But she assured them they would have steady work and income. Through hard work and rearrangements, Merlion thrived, growing from 22 employees to 40.

Today, Brooke said she loves her employees, her business and the work she does.

“Eighty percent of your life is work. And if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, why are you going to be miserable for 80% of it?” she said. “I enjoy talking to people and doing things [at Merlion]. It fills my heart. That’s the important thing.”