When we first sat down at May's Café in Allston, owner/chef May Pan spotted us as newbies and asked how we had found her restaurant. We told her one of us lived nearby, and she nodded with understanding.
"I ask because most people come by referral or they live near here and walk by," she said. "Because otherwise nobody knows I'm here."
For the five years that this 18-seat Taiwanese restaurant has served as the lone dining outpost in an apartment-studded corner of Allston, Pan has done no advertising. She hasn't needed to. Word of mouth about her cooking has kept her off-the-beaten-path eatery humming with regulars.
They come for the "Taiwanese home cooking" that's proudly announced on the menu, and some likely return as well for the comforting feel of the yellow walls, wood tables, and stay-as-long-as-you-like vibe. But what's most important about the homestyle food here is that the home refers to Pan's -- and Pan is no ordinary cook.
Rather, Pan is a healthy eater. Whole grains, fresh foods, and modest use of healthy cooking oils are all part of her personal routine. So when she began cooking the foods of her native Taiwan professionally, she carried with her not only tradition but also her own culinary ideals into the restaurant kitchen.
"Most people, they just want to taste something delicious, but they don't really care what is the consequence behind [it]," she says. "So my goal here is to tell people, You should take care of who you are. You are what you eat."'
We'd be happy to be any of the flavorful but surprisingly light appetizers we feasted on, such as the fresh steamed greens ($4.75), which came in a savory garlic and soy paste broth with a hint (rather than the all-too-common overdose) of soy sauce. (Pan doesn't want her customers to consume too much sodium chloride.)
Five-spices calamari ($7.95), which we expected to arrive fried and dusted with Chinese five-spice powder, was instead so light it could qualify as spa food. This refreshing toss of tender flash-boiled squid with crunchy sprouts and carrot slivers came drizzled in a low-cal, high-flavor sauce bouncing with May's own blend of fresh flavors: garlic, ginger, parsley, Thai chilies, and sesame oil.
A crispy, pan-fried scallion pancake ($4.75) was greaseless, a luscious oyster omelet ($7.95) that traded the usual oily, fried patty for a light scramble of egg and yam flour with briny fresh oysters ($7.95). Both the ginger-spiked, homemade steamed dumplings ($4.75) and spicy wontons ($4.75) were stuffed with a not-too-fatty pork.
Like the elegant, Japanese-inspired marinated tofu and seaweed ($4.75) dotted with homemade hoisin-like sauce, most dishes came drizzled with their own distinct, fresh sauce. This complex cooking style justifies streamlining the menu from 68 to 45 items starting this week.
That means some popular but complicated dishes, such as the flavorful squid nugget soup ($8.50), will be available only as seasonal specials. But we feel grateful that Pan is cooking at all since being a chef was never in her plan.
In 1997, Pan opened Café Soya on Brighton Avenue. But after a series of hired chefs "didn't put their love in the cook[ing] and business was bad," she and her mother took over the stoves, moved shop to their current location, and all's been well since.
That means you can feed a cold (or just an appetite) with one of May's huge, slurpy noodle soups: the nicely sour pork with mustard green soup ($8.50), which has a strikingly complex broth tweaked with Chinese black vinegar, or the spicy kim-chi ramen soup ($8.50), a hot-and-sour swirl of pickled Korean cabbage and fresh veggies.
Rice and noodle plates proved their worth with Formosa noodles ($8.50). This tasty tangle of ramen and julienned vegetables was seasoned solely by sweet caramelized red onions. Fat, soft, sautéed udon noodles ($8.50) with floppy squares of tofu were also easy to devour in their super-light oyster sauce perfumed with fresh basil.
The almost spa-like feel carries over to the colorful pottery used and the herbal teas such as true rosebud ($3.95 a pot), which Pan will sweeten with honey (rather than refined sugar) on request.
Even desserts feel like a good deed here. Fruit smoothies ($3.75) blend together more fruit and ice than milk and ice cream. And three new vitality shakes ($4.95) pair pure fruit or veggies with aloe and various energy and immune boosters.
The only catch is that to get to May's you have walk about five minutes from either the T (Griggs, Green B Line) or Harvard Ave. because parking is limited nearby. But somehow, a short, healthy walk before eating light seems a good match. In fact, you may soon find yourself telling your friends about it.