Melburnians love a hidden secret. If the city’s best restaurants and bars aren’t on a high street, they’re camouflaged inside another bar, a Brunswick apartment or, like Thai diner Soi 38, a CBD car park.
For Soi 38 co-owners Andy Buchan and chef Chavalit Piyaphanee, the experience of eating Thai boat noodles and papaya salad among parked cars has long drawn in the crowds, but the idea wasn’t just novelty value – it’s their take on a classic Thai experience. “Soi means laneway,” says Piyaphanee. “Laneway number 38, that’s what it is because it used to be a really famous street food lane [in Bangkok]. At night, the whole lane transforms into street food restaurants.”
Soi 38 opened in 2015 and, due to the logistics of car park cooking (no gas and limited space, for a start), Piyaphanee served just two dishes – the signature Thai boat noodles and tom yum noodle soup with prawn wontons. Uptake was initially slow. “I was in the kitchen by myself, we only hired one staff, front of house, and I was prepping the food, selling it, and cleaning up,” says Piyaphanee. “At the beginning there was one time we were selling nine bowls of noodles a day, that was it.”
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The quality of those two dishes belied Soi 38’s slow start. Before opening, Buchan and Piyaphanee travelled to Thailand, adapting their favourite dishes to their own tastes, locally available cuts of meat and broader influences. “We like it this way,” says Piyaphanee. “I know the tom yum noodle, traditionally, there’s so many versions of it. We sort of did our version – it’s the wonton with the Chinese influence.”
Soi 38 really hit its stride around 2018, when word-of-mouth spread about the little restaurant with a quirky location and big Thai flavours. Despite the success, though, change is gradual. “Basically, we add one dish per year on the menu,” says Piyaphanee. “The set-up in the kitchen is really limited. So, when you put on a new dish you have to rearrange how you push out the food, really. We have no gas, everything is electric.”
For Piyaphanee and Buchan, the atmosphere afforded by the car park location has always been a bit of a double-edged sword. The small kitchen has long posed a challenge, but the team stays coordinated with the kitchen display system (KDS), a digital order display for the kitchen staff, and point-of-sale tech from Square. “It’s integrated well,” says Piyaphanee. “It makes all the restaurant – all the components of it, either front-of-house or the kitchen and the customers – they’re all integrated in one piece.”
In 2021, the team took a new approach with two menus – noodles at lunch and a sharing-focused Thai street food menu at night, including the likes of classic Thai larb salads, crying tiger (beef brisket that’s slow-cooked and grilled) and a mixed Thai hotpot. Classic spicy and sour tom yum noodle soups are on both menus, but take a different form in the evening. “At night, we serve it with Japanese scallops, squid, egg yolk and crispy pork, so it’s different,” says Piyaphanee. “And the noodles – at lunch, you can choose pretty much any noodle you want to eat. At night, it’s only instant noodles.”
A more expansive Soi 38 menu is on the cards, but it might not be in the Mcilwraith Place carpark. “We’re planning to expand the space, because it’s getting too small for us now,” says Piyaphanee. “And hopefully, at a new location, we would have gas usage so we could offer more menu.” Wherever Soi 38 ends up though, it likely won’t change the appeal of the restaurant. “It's pretty much going to be the same gimmick where it’s related to [the] car park, a lot of cars around,” says Piyaphanee.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Square.