Issan Thai Street Food
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This rambunctious little diner in Footscray is waving the flag for Issan cuisine in Melbourne
From the moment you step inside Issan Thai, you know you’re onto something good. The air hits you like a wave, warm and thick with sugar, fish sauce and lively chatter. Chirpy Thai-pop and ‘sawadeeka’s sing out, while immediately to your left is a bain-marie that houses not gloopy chicken cashews and orange pad Thais, but a rotating fiesta of Issan delights, like spicy and sour catfish stew, rubbles of fiery larb, and brow-mopping jungle curry.
Hailing from Thailand’s northeast, Issan cuisine is characterised by simple preparations (think grilled meats and soups eaten with sticky rice) and flavours that are punchy yet clean – you won’t see coconut cream cushioning curries, but rather a tendency to dial up with chillies and pickles. With Issan food still pretty hard to find in Melbourne (the ever-popular Dodee Paidang offers a CBD fix), to get best mileage here you’ll want to order adventurously. Coast past the pick-your-protein stir fries that prop up their roaring takeaway trade and head straight for som tum. It’s a powerful addition to the salad canon, a mountain of shredded green papaya dressed with dried shrimp, crushed peanuts, lime, garlic, chilli and fish sauce. For the full experience get the pla ra version, which invites the salty funk of fermented crab to the party.
At the heart of the menu are grilled meats ready to be bundled up with a leaf or tacky ball of rice, so if you like ssam, you’ll love this too. Here, it’s less about top-shelf cuts or exacting sear times but rather moreish marinades thick with spices and fresh herbs. It’s also a largely porcine affair, from salty-sweet kor moo yang dipped in nam jim to best-in-show moo narm tok, bite-sized slices of pork belly tossed in enough lemon juice, coriander, shallots, chilli and ground toasted rice to taste almost light. Even tom saap, a hot and sour soup intensely bright with lemongrass and ginger, seems merely a brothy vehicle for endless nubbins of soft pork ribs.
For solo diners, the tum tard is the ticket. It's like an Indian thali, an all-inclusive banquet for one served on a silver platter. For less than a lobster, a generous pile of som tum is orbited by moo yang, a couple of peppery fried chicken wings, curls of pork crackling, fresh bean sprouts, rice vermicelli and a boiled egg. Offering the whole spectrum of cold, hot, spicy, soothing, fried and fresh, it’s the kind of love that we wish all restaurants could show lone travellers.
The cookery at Issan is more homey than fine-tuned – a chewy cut isn’t rare, and fishiness and spice has been dialled down on certain dishes (not necessarily a bad thing for non-Thai audiences). But the hits are there, the flavours true, and the place is run by a multi-generational, all-female front of house team made up of the loveliest folk in Footscray. They've reached gentle teasing levels of intimacy with half their clientele. And now that you’ve ignited your taste for the fiery and fresh flavours of Thailand’s northeast, you too will struggle not to leave with a tub of black bean and coconut pud for dessert and a promise to be back soon.