A 6-foot-tall Buddha, illuminated by the piercing glow of electric blue light and stainless steel ornamentation, appears out of place in the heart of a soccer-mom haven like Wallingford.
At first glance, some might say May looks like overflow from hip Belltown; its presence on a street that prominently displays Radio Flyer wagons and tea cozies seems accidental. But after dining there and chatting with owner James Weimann, who also opened Fremont’s Triangle Lounge, El Camino, and Ballroom (not to mention Pesos in Lower Queen Anne), I realized that May’s lavish decor is an attempt at Thai authenticity, not another case of trendiness run amok.
Weimann and co-owner Auzie Oxford (formerly the general manager at the Triangle and El Camino), along with May’s general manager and namesake, May Chaleoy, purchased the entire facade and most of the indoor ornamentation in Bangkok and northern Thailand. They combed the country like a giant rummage sale, bringing back a bounty of eclectic treasures, from silverware and light fixtures to an entire 150-year-old Thai house, which they loosely reassembled around the inside walls of May’s elegant second floor. “Made in America” labels don’t apply to May at all, figuratively or literally, unless you count the original 1910 Craftsman home that Weimann razed to create the restaurant’s superstructure.
The food at May is also the real Thai deal. Weimann is particularly proud that chef Art Trakulphat eschews the American tradition of substituting ketchup for tamarind sauce in pad Thai. “They don’t even have ketchup in Thailand!” he says. Alas, I’ve never been to Thailand, so I can’t attest to the precise authenticity of every dish at May. Still, there’s an overall sense of wisdom in the cooking. The heavy, heartburn-inducing American take on Thai cuisine is wonderfully absent. Instead, my companions and I had the pleasure of sharing a meal full of light, carefully crafted flavors.
We started with pla meuk yang ($5), a dish of refreshing cilantro and chili- infused grilled squid; goong satay ($5), a teepee of giant prawns served in a deliciously textured satay sauce that we practically licked off our plates; and tom ka ($6), an unexpectedly tart interpretation of Thailand’s trademark lime-coconut soup, which gave refuge to the meanest peppers I’ve ever bitten into. It occurred to me, midpepper, that we hadn’t been asked for our spice-level preferences when we ordered! But perhaps that’s just another aspect of May’s authenticity.
Our dinner included pad kee mao ($9)—rice noodles with holy basil and roasted chili sauce that, even without ketchup, resembled the flavor of Americanized pad Thai—and pla gapong tod ($18), striped bass atop Chinese eggplant, well paired with a spicy black-bean sauce.
Best of all, May’s staff wasn’t bothered by the fact that we practically established residency in our comfy booth. That, in my opinion, is one mark of a great restaurant: zero pressure to dine swiftly in order to appease the salivating folks eyeing your table. (Though the night we went, there wasn’t exactly a line out the door.)
Shimmering grandly against the backdrop of Wallingford’s Restaurant Row, May is architecturally unlike any other eatery in Seattle. But beyond its showy design, the cultural integrity preserved by Weimann and company merits recognition and respect. And who knows? May just might become the most successful Belltown restaurant ever to open in Wallingford.
May, 1612 N. 45th St., 206-675-0037, WALLINGFORD. Dinner 5 p.m.–1 a.m. daily; bar closes at 2 a.m.