Join the nightly queues in the car park outside Soi 38 Melbourne and tuck to some of the best – and cheapest – Thai food in town. The location might be unusual, but this tiny restaurant is a true culinary icon.
Location: 38 Mcilwraith Pl, Melbourne, VIC 3000
What would you think if you head out on a first date and your new suitor leads you to a busy CBD car park?
Would you dump this (obviously) weird potential partner and run for the nearest boujee wine bar to get over the shock?
Well, if you did, more fool you. Why? Because your would-be wooer clearly knows their food and was about to introduce you to some of the finest Thai cuisine in Melbourne.
Yes, the location might be usual, the interior design minimal and the smell of car exhausts a little off-putting if you have to stand outside for too long. But stand outside you almost certainly will. Such is the reputation of this humble little eatery that it is jammed full of customers from the moment it opens until the kitchen closes.
And not just because Soi 38 serves some of the best value for money meals around. Everything on their menu is also delicious.
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Popping a Thai restaurant inside a small, brightly lit metal and glass box next to the lifts in a car park is – quite honestly – baffling.
And make no mistake. Soi 38 Melbourne is very much inside the car park, not on the street next to it.
On a weekend when the car park is busy, the fumes from exhausts can make you almost dizzy if you spend too long waiting for a table. But as you inch closer to the door, the toxic smells give way to alluring aromas. The tantalising scents of of lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce and garlic waft over you and fears of carbon monoxide poisoning are replaced by the demands of hungry stomaches.
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Once inside, Soi 38 Melbourne is all cheap and cheerful charm. Stackable stools in a rainbow of colours surround plastic-topped tables. The back wall features a number of pictures, including portraits of the Thai King and Queen. And the place truly buzzes. Customers pack in and happily slurp their way through steaming platefuls.
If you love your Thai flavours spliced with Japanese cooking techniques, or a combo of Vietnamese and Chinese fare, see our piece on the Best Asian Fusion Restaurants in Melbourne.
What’s more, the fluorescent tube lighting is utterly unforgiving. However, if you ever ate along Bangkok’s famous Khao San Road in the 90s, it’ll probably bring back some vivid memories of fiery noodle soups and a banana pancakes.
Lastly, if you manage to snag a coveted spot at Soi 38, be aware that you will be watched. Large windows ensure that both those queuing enviously on the pavement and people getting the elevators up to their cars can see you eating. And given the unusual location of this venue, many of those car owners will stare at you in amazement. But that’s all part of the fun.
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Legendary. And for good reason.
Soi 38 Melbourne champions the comforting, spicy attractions of Bangkok Street Food. In fact, check out the link on their website and they include a list of dining spots in the back streets of the Thai capital that have influenced their food.
This was one of the first places in Melbourne to serve Bangkok-Style Boat Noodles to an enthusiastic lunch time crowd. The key to this dish is a flavour-rich broth based on Thai herbs and spices and funky goodness. To this base, a multitude of ingredients can be added – from tender Beef or Pork to Bean Sprouts and fresh Herbs to fat, filling Noodles.
These days, the menu has expanded considerably. The Tum Pla Plara ($15) – Papaya Salad with Salted Crab and Fermented Fish Sauce – is a riot of salty, sweet and citrusy elements. Meanwhile, the Larb Tuna ($18) – diced Raw Tuna bathed in Lime Juice, Chilli, Fish Sauce and Roasted Rice – dances on the palate.
The food of Vietnam is another cuisine packed with strong, bold flavours. Click here for our Best Vietnamese Restaurants in Melbourne
Whilst the Deep Fried Pork Knuckle ($40) with Spicy Sauce and Sweet Soy Sauce might not be to everyone’s taste, its gloriously authentic. And if you’re up for sharing – or totally famished – the Thai Hot Pot ($40), with it’s mix of Proteins, Noodles and Veggies, is a DIY banquet.
Finally, you may have noticed that all plates at Soi 38 Melbourne are very reasonably priced. It’s worth noting that this unconventional Thai restaurant regularly makes the Best Cheap Eats in Melbourne lists. The good news is that the food is both budget-friendly and superb.
Even the Drinks List at Soi 38 is unusual.
There are Thai Beers – Chang, Singha & Leo – at $7 a bottle, or Singha on Tap ($14). Milk Tea ($5), Iced Coffee ($5) and Coconut Juice ($6) are all popular. However, the ‘Buckets’ ($30) – literally a plastic bucket of a colourful concoction and matching garnishes – are a must-have if they are available.
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Lastly, just across the pavement from Soi 38 Melbourne, within the car park, is the quirkiest bottle shop in town. La Cave Garage. This dinky little bottle-o is a converted kiosk, operated by the Soi team. Here, you’ll find an array of wines, complete with tasting notes handily displayed on a monitor. You can amble over from the restaurant, choose a bottle guided by the helpful staff and then nip back to Soi to enjoy it.
How cool is that?
For more sophisticated drinks and ambience, see our review of Nick and Nora’s Melbourne
The only real question you need to ask yourself is. If you haven’t tried Soi 38 yet, are you truly a Melburnian?
After all, if you want authentic, no fuss, tasty Thai fare, this is one of the top spots in town.