The green shoots of this new Thaitown in the CBD of Melbourne are fresh, fragrant, and bright with the flavours of Thailand.

What do you see when you picture the top of Bourke Street? If you’d asked yourself this question five years ago you’d probably be thinking of a broadly Italian scene – Grossi, Pellegrini’s, Spaghetti Tree – punctuated with independent bookstores. But right now, while those good places to eat spaghetti and leaf through novels are still going strong, you might be just as likely to think Thai food.

As much as people flock to the neighbourhood for the latest Christos Tsiolkas, a hot new cookbook or a plate of fettuccine, they’re turning out in droves for hoi toi, clamouring for boat noodles from Ayutthaya, and lining up for and bubbling, sizzling mookata. In the 1950s we anointed the eastern end of Collins Street the “Paris end”. Now, it’s Bourke Street’s turn; welcome to Australia’s new Thaitown.

“Thai people possess a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and food is an integral part of our culture and passion,” says Merica Charungvat. She’s the owner of Bourke Street’s Thai Tide, one of a growing number of regionally specific Thai restaurants to have jumped on a relatively inexpensive lease at the upper end of Bourke Street in recent years. From kaeng omm, a herb-driven curry from the Isaan region, and fresh fruit lashed with pla ra, the fermented fish paste to rot duan, a popular street snack of crisp bamboo worms and silkworm pupae, Thai Tide, like its recently opened contemporaries, is cooking Thai food with Thai palates front of mind. It’s an exciting new development in the rendering of Thai food in this part of Melbourne. But why here and why now?

“As the city emerged from the challenges of the pandemic, many operators were able to secure favourable deals on restaurant premises, especially considering the exodus of city workers and the unfortunate closure of numerous restaurants,” says Charungvat.

In the kitchen, self-taught chef Nutchanun Thongsawat seeks to showcase the nuance and ingenuity of regional Thai cooking, franking it in full with excellent Victorian produce. Like many of the new Thai restaurants dotting Bourke Street, Thai Tide is frequently jam-packed with diners, which could point to a growing understanding and engagement with Thai cuisine here.

“There’s a diverse array of Thai restaurants springing up in the area,” says Charungvat. “In terms of regional representation, we’re seeing a significant number of mookrata – Thai barbecue hotpot – Isaan som tum and other street food-focused eateries opening up.”

It’s a trend that Bourke Street hoi tod-specialists Thong Thai has clocked, too. Their calling card, a crisp fritter packed with mussels and laid out on a mass of juicy beansprouts, is a brilliantly beer-geared example of the Teochew-influenced street food of Bangkok. But it’s dishes like moo sub tom buay, minced pork with plum soup, and nam ngiao, a curry of soft pork bones, tomatoes, dried red cotton-tree flower served with blood pudding giving us pause to rethink the scope and detail of Australian Thai food.   

Across the road, the recently opened Thai Baan offers the street food of Isaan, among other regions, in a fast-paced diner filled with the scent of blood-rich boat noodles. “Our owner, Jirada Ponpetch, grew up in a small town in Isan known for real authentic Thai food,” says restaurant manager, Pornpawit Wongnorraseth. “With passion, she wished to create a profound taste that would depict what is like to be in the street of Isaan.”

Noodles arrive on a table dressed with plastic cutlery buckets and colourful tissue boxes, the restaurant at capacity and humming from the late afternoon, when it begins to attract a hungry queue. Diners jot down their order on a docket and hand it back to the waitstaff, who return hurriedly with everything from fried beef jerky and spicy papaya som tum to the cinnamon-scented boat noodles and other hits from the kway teow noodle canon central to the restaurant’s offering. “My family grew up with kway teow and has been selling it for more than 30 years,” says Wongnorraseth. “The dish tastes exactly like the bowl you would find on the street in Thailand.”

It’s a similar model to nearby Soi 38, which found success in 2015 channeling the high-octane atmosphere of late-night Bangkok from the basement of a multi-storey car park. Named for one of the city’s most famous street food strips, it’s a place where diners come together around plastic tables and order from a menu that takes in street food traditions from right around the country, just as they might in the Thai capital. As with Thai Baan, boat noodles were positioned as the initial hook, but these days on any given night you’ll find people queuing for the likes of whole deep-fried pig trotters and mango sticky rice, among other street-style hits from the nation’s capital.

“At night Soi 38 [the street in Bangkok] literally transforms into an open-air food court crowded with stalls, tables and customers, while at the same time the street is still open to cars who use it as a kind of drive-through as they order take-away through their car windows,” says one staffer.

Soi 38 added some serious table space to the floorplan last year when it annexed the garage next door in order to meet growing demand, and a couple of hundred metres down the road on Bourke Street, Nana Mookata Thai Hotpot & BBQ is taking a break from its own roaring trade to do the same. Known mononymously as Nana, Nuttanan “Mint” Lohayanjaree’s restaurant has played to a packed house since opening in March 2020, and is credited as Melbourne’s introduction to mookata: a hybrid of hotpot and barbecue cooked on a flame-powered grill plate girt by a moat of bubbling soup.

The sizzling and frothing continues just up the road at Heng, too – a mammoth 120-seater venue that houses three discrete restaurants. There’s an all-you-can-eat mookata spot, there’s Pick Prik for more Isaan-accented street goodness, and there’s Teow Teow, a boat-noodle specialist. There’s even a grocery.

Then there’s Thailand on Bourke. There’s Isan Soul Thai Street Food. Veer off Bourke Street into the Paramount food court and there’s Me Dee Thai Restaurant and Thai Asia Unique Cafe & Tavern. Factor in the hinterlands of Bourke Street – Pinto Thai on Exhibition, Pa Tong on Flinders Lane, Thai Town in QV, Nisa’s Thai Street Food on Swanston, JiYu Thai Hot Pot on Little Bourke, to name but a few. Only a small percentage were here five years ago.

“The growing number of new Thai restaurants reflects a drive to find unique niches and differentiate their offerings,” says Thai Tide’s Merica Charungvat. It’s high time for a new kind of Thai time, Melbourne, and where better to have it than in your very own, freshly minted and fish sauce-fragrant Thaitown.