From the outside, May Kitchen & Bar is unprepossessing in the extreme. It's a drab, curtained storefront along the brief stretch of the Vashon Highway that constitutes the island's main street. Except for the sign—which is quite small, above the doorway, unlit, and in Thai—you might mistake it for one of those dusty thrift shops you find in island towns that never seem to be open.
Inside, May Kitchen & Bar is absolutely lovely. The walls glow with carved teak and mahogany panels, which, the endearing host will tell you, were imported from a 150-year-old house in Thailand. Who is the gentleman in the photo—the one with the bowler, watch chain, gloves, and cane, his knee propped up on a tasseled chair, his face kind and maybe a little worried? Thailand's King Rama V, champion of democracy, hero of the people, she will tell you. The light fixtures with the gilded lotus petals, the old-fashioned clock, the carving of the bird-man-god, the golden-handled flatware—almost everything here is from owner May Chaleoy's native Thailand. May, the host will say with respect verging on reverence, wanted everything to be just right. May took a long time to make it so, she says. The smell of jasmine rice wafts in the air.
If some of this sounds familiar, you may have been to May Restaurant and Lounge on 45th in Seattle, May's original enterprise, which received a similarly exacting aesthetic transformation. She is no longer involved with that May Thai, and while it remains beautiful, the food is reportedly not quite what it used to be. To get the best Thai food in Seattle now, you have to take a ferry to Vashon Island.
The yum phak boong ($12) is a haystack of watercress that's coated in a rice-flour batter, then deep-fried in a miraculously nongreasy fashion. The server—as unfailingly nice as the host—explains that people sometimes pour the tangy tamarind sauce over the whole thing and attack it with forks, or you can feel free to use your fingers, and that either way, everyone always eats every last morsel. We used our hands, and every last morsel was super-crispy, ultra-light, and ingenious: In essence, this is a deep-fried salad. The pork satay ($8) was, by comparison, merely very good, with a street-food level of fat and chew to the meat, and a darker, more complex version of peanut sauce that may make you reflect uncharitably on all the other peanut sauce you've ever had.
We ordered phad metmamuanghimmaphan ($15), chicken with cashews and mushrooms sautéed in shrimp paste, just because of its extra-long name, which is as good a way to hazard a choice at May Kitchen & Bar as any. Its onions were slightly underdone, but it was deep, delicious, and just spicy enough with roasted Thai chili. As the menu instructs, "May prepares authentic Thai menu items which are not served on a star system," and items that are "inherently spicy" are noted as such. Otherwise, you're encouraged to use the condiments on the table to heat things up.
At May's behest, the server explained, diners are politely yet forcefully enjoined to have banana blossom in their pad thai ($15)—May wants you to try it the way they do it in Thailand. As at May in Wallingford, the server unfolds a banana-leaf package of noodles at your table, then offers to mix in small piles of chili, sugar, and ground peanuts, along with bits and pieces of blossom—which, depending on the bit or piece, have a pithy texture and a flavor that varies from mildly vegetal to bitter and astringent. The noodles are perfectly done, and if you ask for all three piles to be mixed in, there's a balance of heat, limey tartness, sour, and the barest hint of sweet. These noodles are transporting.
The food at May, you might have noticed, costs a few dollars more per dish than at other Thai restaurants. This makes complete sense in context—the gorgeous paneling, the rice served in a delicate hollowed-out coconut shell, the uncommonly wonderful food, the King watching over it all. The only faint complaint I can dredge up about May is that the lights, especially around the horseshoe-shaped central bar, seemed a little too bright (though even the lights are pretty and remarkable, with ceramic pulley systems to raise and lower them). And, of course, one wishes that May were not so far away.
The brand-new Fish Cake Factory in Belltown involves another local heroine of Thai food—Vimonsri Wongjaraen, the chef who was in charge for a long time at Bai Tong. (Bai Tong's Tukwila location, so the lore goes, was the favorite of employees of Thai Airways, who'd come from nearby Sea-Tac; a Redmond location opened more recently.) The space, on the lonely stretch of Fourth Avenue leading south from Denny, is basic but handsome, with hardwood floors and lightbulbs with good-looking filaments. On a dark night, it's windowed and slightly too well-lit, and on a dark Tuesday night, it felt more like a cafe—the other three customers were single men, two of them on laptops and one on a cell phone. A few more stopped in for takeout, greeting the extremely gracious host/server/barkeep/co-owner, Jo, by name.
The assortment of fish cakes includes the usual tod mun—those pleasantly rubbery ones that most Thai places serve as an appetizer—and flaky garlic trout, and spicy-sweet Indian yellow curry salmon with kernels of corn, and a gummy but tasty vegetarian version made with taro, and lots more. The sampler platter ($16.95) seems like it has dozens of kinds, each with a little identifying flag stuck in it, with three dipping sauces; while they're all good, trying to discern the differences gets old, and there's a bit of a sense of a gimmick.
The other food I tried here was a cut above your neighborhood Thai spot. The massaman curry ($10.95) smelled like the peanuts it contains but also, faintly and enticingly, of coffee; it was rich with coconut milk and thicker than most, and at two stars—FCF uses the usual spiciness firmament—it had enough spice to give a little electric buzz after each bite. And the garlic black pepper prawns ($10.95) were just great—a multitude of very fresh-tasting, un-overcooked, midsize prawns stir-fried in a sauce that was chock-full of tiny bits of chopped garlic. The portion is such that you'll probably have leftovers, and you'll probably drink the rest of the sauce out of the bottom of the take-out container.
If you're one of those Belltown guys who now have Fish Cake Factory as their to-go place, you're lucky. If not, you should stop by, as it could become your destination Thai (aside from May on Vashon, that is). Maybe don't bring your laptop.