Having trouble finding Soi 38? Just follow your nose. While the address is equal parts intriguing and perplexing, the heady scent of Thailand – its star anise, galangal, chilli, lime and herbs – will lure you inside the multi-level poured concrete carpark down a laneway off Bourke Street.
Don’t go thinking this cheap-eat champion is big on the novelty and low on the substance. The brightly coloured haunt in the middle of the urban jungle can claim to have introduced Melbourne to authentic Bangkok-style boat noodles. Lurking in a pungent, funky soup broth
with a host of add-ons (braised pork or beef, a pork ball and crackling, bean sprouts and
coriander), the springy noodles ballast the sort of one-dish wonder that encompasses the
entire food pyramid, big on flavour and even bigger on comfort.
Owners Andy Buchan and Top Kijphavee kicked off in 2015 serving just boat noodles and prawn wontons in tom yum soup. But the people have spoken, and they’ve incrementally added more menu items (all hail the duck larb, a spicy, crackle-textured delight) before throwing caution to the wind with a dinner service as well.
Boat noodles aren’t on the menu by night, but the Thai barbecue and hotpot provide ample
consolation, albeit one cloaked in the agony of indecision. Will it be the pork skewers known as moo ping, the fatty meat first marinated in fish and soy sauce and mollified with a post-grill brush with coconut milk, or the swatches of golden calamari with a pungent lime-forward dipping sauce? DIY-ers will love the moo kra tha – otherwise known as a hefty platter laden with raw beef, pork and seafood, served with a barbecue hotplate (and instructions, should you need them) while the same goes for hotpot, with a smorgasbord of noodles and tofu, meat and vegetables to dunk onto a rich pork broth base. Balance the meaty yang with the yin of a bright papaya salad thrumming with the edible funk of salted crab and a heavy slosh of fish sauce.
Whatever time you front up, the system is as easy-going as the crowds. Grab a table, check off the tick-a-box menu, place your order at the counter, wait with giddy expectation. The recent addition of bijou wine shop (as cute as the mothership, La Cave Garage has colonised a former ticket booth across the street on McIlwraith Place) specialising in sustainable and natural wines expertly chosen to be smashable with Thai food’s troublesome spices.
Now that the world has opened up again, any traveller heading to Bangkok will want to head to Soi 38’s website for the must-visit hitlist of the owners’ favourite street food spots (trust them, they’re experts). But for those stuck in Melbourne, the boastworthy brilliance of this surprise package means travelling on the wings of desire to a destination every bit as compelling.