Step off Bourke Street and into Isan Soul and you’re immediately hit with the smell of Thai herbs, curries and smoke from the charcoal grill. Tables buzz with chatter, and the shelves are crammed with knick-knacks such as old cassettes, gumball machines, baskets, vintage soft drink signs, china plates, bottles, radios, toys and more.
“Every single piece was imported from Thailand,” says manager Nas Prasertklinsakul. That includes the tuktuk (a Thai-style taxi) parked inside.
In a rare quiet corner, an intriguing grid of 28 cards grab my attention. “It’s like a fortune teller,” Prasertklinsakul explains. We each take a turn shaking a cylinder filled with numbered wooden sticks until the “chosen one” falls out. I pull the corresponding numbered card off the wall and Prasertklinsakul tells me my fortune. “You’ve got a little bit of a problem with your health, but if you asked for a good love it’s coming. Congratulations!”
I wonder whether I should be concerned, but before long I’m distracted by the things on the shelves – images of the beloved late Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej, tubs of Thai cooling powder used to soothe skin in hot weather, an old television, empty Coca-Cola bottles – that make this space, which opened late last year, feel a bit like an old garage somewhere in Isan, the north-east region of Thailand it’s named for.
Isan food borrows often from neighbouring Laos, and dishes such as som tam (green papaya salad), larb (a fiery minced meat salad) and kai yang (grilled chicken) tend to pack more heat and sourness than central Thai cuisine, with enhanced flavours. The region is also known for serving sticky rice with dishes rather than non-sticky long-grain rice.
Co-owner and head chef Ben Kunchairattana began his career as a kitchen hand at Sydney’s Sailors Thaibefore moving to Melbourne and opening Bangkok Terrace in Hawthorn East in 2011.
At “Bangkok Terrace you choose [fine-dining] service,” says Prasertklinsakul, “but here I would like you to enjoy how we eat, because this is our daily life. Sometimes if we finish work, we go for some street food like this.”
Kunchairattana serves a mix of street-style snacks and heartier dishes: a whole steamed barramundi arrives on a hotplate with a still-bubbling lime and chilli sauce; fish balls come with sticky-sweet chilli sauce; and spicy grilled chicken pieces come speared on wooden sticks. There’s also a rich red duck curry, wok-fried soft-shell crab in curry powder sauce and crisp chicken spare ribs. To drink, there’s sweet Thai milk tea and caffeine-free Butterfly Pea tea made from ternatea flowers, which turns purple with a squeeze of lime.
The team plans to mimic Thai street vendors using the (still operable) tuktuk as a hot bar soon, providing a faster takeaway option during the lunchtime rush.