Churning out boat noodles by day and firing up the gas burner for Thai barbecue by night, Soi 38 specialises in regional variations of Thai food – if you’re expecting Australian favourites like pad thai or Massaman curry, head elsewhere.
Despite being tucked away in an unobtrusive corner of Melbourne – a concrete car park just a few levels down from the latest iteration of architectural space MPavillion – Soi 38 doesn’t suffer from anonymity. Thanks to the bowls of five spice powder- and star anise-heavy boat noodles, it’s been delighting office workers since 2015. When it started opening up for dinner earlier this year, diners started spilling out into the carpark. We, like them, jump at the opportunity to sample Soi 38’s expanded offerings without having to rush back within the hour, but we’d recommend making a booking if you don’t want to spend precious minutes resisting the heady smells from your place in the queue.
We don’t go down the Thai barbecue route on this occasion, but share several dishes from the grilled, deep fried, soup and salad sections alongside either rice or sticky rice. You order via a paper checklist menu that you bring up to the counter once you’re ready. The spice levels in Soi 38’s dishes has us reaching for our chilled bottles of Singha, but you can alternatively wash down the heat with bottles of Chang or Leo, a curated selection of organic wine, or Thai milk tea if you’re going alcohol-free.
Start with the kung chae nahm pla, a common Thai drinking snack where raw black tiger prawns are soaked in Thai fish sauce and lime juice and served atop tendrils of bitter melon. It’s an explosion of flavours and textures with every bite – simultaneously fresh, spicy, viscous and tart from the chopped, deceptively fiery red chillies and creamy fish roe – and the perfect precursor to heavier dishes on the menu.
The only dish on the menu to have a ‘recommended’ note next to it is the tom zap beef and tendon soup and for good reason – it’s a tamarind-rich, full-bodied soup with a heat that initially hits the tip of your tongue before radiating out to the back of your mouth. Eaters will be rewarded with cubes of gelatinous fat and stewed tendon steeped in the flavours of this pleasantly sour, thick broth with origins in Northeast Thailand.
Don’t go past the grilled menu – the thinly sliced black Angus beef in the crying tiger is melt-in-your-mouth tender. If you’re interested in a bit of trivia, the Thai name for this dish translates to ‘crying tiger’ because the accompanying hot dipping sauce is supposed to bring tears to your eyes, but don’t let that scare you off – Soi 38’s crying tiger sauce packs a punch without causing us pain. Also in the grilled section are the equally remarkable Bangkok street food delicacy moo ping (grilled pork) skewers. Thin slices of fatty pork shoulder are marinated in a savoury concoction of fish and soy sauce, threaded onto skewers, grilled over charcoal and brushed with coconut milk for a sweet fragrance.
For a light reprieve from the meat, we opt for one of Soi 38’s nine papaya salads. The classic tum thai (otherwise known as som tum), where strands of shredded unripe papaya are interspersed with dried shrimp and peanuts and the crunch of snake beans and carrots has bursts of cherry tomato punctuating every bite. Like the most well-known Thai culinary exports we love, it’s sour, salty and hot – the spice in this shoots straight up our nose but dissipates shortly after.
We can’t end our meal without sampling Soi 38’s larb, the salad regarded as the unofficial national dish of Laos and eaten a lot in the Isan region of Thailand. It comes in three different iterations, and we choose the larb moo with ground pork heaped over a fresh bed of lettuce. It has everything – the wonderful nuttiness of roasted rice powder, the crunch of sliced red onions, and the delicious acidity of makrut lime and lemongrass.
Hot tip: save space for dessert, though you may not see it on the menu. The seasonal mango with sticky rice is a surprisingly light denouement to a chilli-rich and carb-heavy meal. Salty fried mung beans scattered in amongst sticky rice are a savoury counterpart to the sweetness of the coconut milk and mango.
With travelling still a pipe dream for the foreseeable future, Soi 38 expertly conjures the energy and vibrancy of a Southeast Asian open air food court. The crowds packed into its narrow confines attest to its quality and novelty.