1612 N 45th St, 675-0037
5 pm-2 am daily (dinner served until 1 am).
I had lost faith in Thai food.
It wasn't always that way. Back in college, when I first tasted Thai food, it thrilled me, all that tamarind tang, the sweet rich coconut milk, the totally new flavors of lemongrass and fish sauce and galangal. But somewhere along the line-with the exception of some standouts in London, San Diego, and Syracuse, NY-all Thai restaurants merged in my memory, rendered nameless by a slow slump into conformity. With each outing the curries seemed to get thicker and sweeter, the meat shreds seemed to get more bark-like, the tablecloths pinker, and the menus-well, they all seemed to emerge identical from a single printing press.
Even the much-praised Thai Tom on the Ave (with their menus printed on wooden slabs) failed to win me over-everything tasted singed. And so I pretty much stopped going out for Thai food, and limited my consumption of it to the occasional last-minute takeout-a notch less desperate than grocery store chicken. When I heard that there was a flash new Thai place in Wallingford, a neighborhood populated with mediocre ethnic fare, I wasn't too responsive. I chose not to commit to a dinner date until I'd flirted a bit with the food. I got takeout. But even packaged up in little cardboard boxes, May Thai refused to blend into my Thai food murk.
The takeout was packaged with tenderness: I felt like I was getting a care package from my mom (that is, if my mom were a nice Thai lady). Each cardboard box was lined with fragrant, jade-green banana leaves and sealed with a custom-printed sticker. This is particularly remarkable, because as a cook, I am inclined to hate people who order takeout. It takes just as long to prepare their food, even longer if you have to hunt around the storeroom for the to-go containers. And they almost never tip.
The boxed-up food tasted wonderful, too: Pompoms of watercress, studded with shrimp bits and fried in a feathery batter, were strangely delicious ($7). Pad thai-spelled pud thai ($12) at May-lacked the coral glare of ketchup that you find in most American pad thais. Instead, the noodles were tinted light tan from cola-hued tamarind paste and a little wok browning. They were less sweet than the American pad thai standard, and made more intense with a funky underpinning of pickled vegetable. But it was the duck ($17) that made my head spin. Too often, in Thai restaurant cooking, the meat is a mere afterthought, incidental to a dish. In May's Gang Ped Ped Yang, however, a light red curry sauce full of chilies and sweet spices was utterly reliant on silky, musky slices of duck breast. Each seemed unable to exist without the other.
With a simple takeout meal, May managed to break through my Thai skepticism. Why bother, then, to actually eat in the restaurant?
For one, you can't take cocktails to go. (May has a great list of frivolous, not-too-sweet $8 drinks, including a perfectly tuned lychee number and a lime-leaf vodka and tonic.) Beyond that there is the atmosphere. I didn't go for May's filigreed exterior, cobalt blue and dominated by a banister of rusty steel scrolls, but inside, the upstairs dining room is one of the prettiest eating spaces I've seen-a high A-frame of teak paneling apparently salvaged from an old Thai house. It is calm and elegantly stylized-a little gilt here, some quaint picnic containers hanging in the corner over there. And the pretty brass and earthenware serving pieces only made May's food taste better. Tender grilled squid hummed in a chili-lime dressing ($6); coconut lemongrass soup ($9), a warhorse for sure, suddenly seemed urgent and bracing again; chicken on the bone ($14), boiled first, then charred with lemongrass and coconut, redeemed years of bad Thai chicken; and even boring old fried rice ($9) shone with morsels of pineapple and just the right amount of stickiness.
Not every dish was memorable. A salad made with well-done flank steak ($14) failed to reach the tangy heights I love in a good Thai salad. And vegetable dishes, like gai lan with tofu ($12) and eggplant in a soy sauce (12), tended towards the bland.
But thanks to that duck curry and that chicken and that squid, my palate has been cleansed of years of dull canned coconut milk and readymade curry pastes. I am a born-again believer in Thai cookery. Praise the lord and pass the pla meuk yang.