It has been a great year for fans of Thai food; 2023 has seen several new additions to the top end of Bourke Street in the CBD, lending greater credence to the idea that the precinct has become Melbourne’s unofficial “Thai town”.

Bangkok-inspired Khaosan Lane, named for the nightlife hotspot and decked out with string lights, metal stools and photo collages of Khaosan Road opened in the GPO. And there’s Rosalyn Thai, which differs from many of the city’s other offerings because it specialises in breakfast foods like Thai-style pork ball congee and khai katha (pan-fried eggs served with a brioche roll) from the north-east region Isan.

But three restaurants – all serving region-specific cuisine – caught our eye and have remained at the top of our list since they opened: Pa Tong Thai on Flinders Lane, Thai Baan on Bourke Road (which, with places Nana Thai, Thai Tide and [Isan Soul Thai Food] and more, has become something of an unofficial Melbourne Thai Town), and the tiny 20-seat spot Nora Thai in South Yarra.

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They’re all operated by duos of women who moved to Australia from Thailand and missed certain dishes from back home, like boat noodles for the pair at Thai Baan and bai liang pad kai, which the duo behind Nora Thai struggled to find in Melbourne.

In business they say if you see a gap in the market, you should fill it. That’s exactly what these women have done. The results? Delicious (and often extremely spicy).

Pa Tong Thai

The duo behind boat noodle spot Pinto Thai Food opened their second restaurant, Pa Tong Thai, this winter. The casual Flinders Lane spot is run by Boonruxsa Sangmanee and Masarat Bumrungpongsinchai – who go by Milky and Hally respectively – and showcases popular, relatively easy-to-find Thai dishes like pad thai and tom yum, as well as chef specialties.

As she does at Pinto, Bumrungpongsinchai leads the kitchen and her curry paste stars in dishes including spicy sour yellow curry with pickled lotus stems and barramundi, and snail coconut southern curry. The chef makes multiple curry pastes for both venues, and the secret to the citrus-tinged sweetness of many of her dishes is the pulverised galangal she uses.

Diners entering the restaurant are greeted by Sino-Portuguese interiors – an architectural style blending Chinese and Portuguese design elements commonly seen in Phuket. Cobalt blue walls are adorned with baroque photo frames and vintage plates, while chandeliers with tangerine-coloured tassels hang from the ceiling. Dishes are served on vintage crockery, adding to Pa Tong’s charm.

Thai Baan
This Isan street-food-inspired canteen run by owner Jirada Ponpetch and chef Saifon Wichian has been attracting queues for its spicy and sour boat noodles and sweet pok pok noodles since it opened earlier in the year.

Ponpetch learned the restaurant’s boat noodle recipe growing up in Isan, in north-eastern Thailand, where her family ran an Ayutthaya noodle stall for 30 years. Similarly, Wichian (also originally from Isan) learnt how to cook at her mother’s restaurant in Bangkok. Her mum was known for her pok pok noodles, which are served in a clear, slightly sweet broth, and nam tok or “waterfall” salad, served here with grilled pork cheek or beef brisket in a dressing of ground rice powder, onion, shallots, lime juice and Thai herbs.

Thai Baan dishes are spicy, though most can be made mild, or at least with slightly less chilli. And the spice can be tamed with the help of drinks including Chang and Leo beer from Thailand, apple soju and Thai milk tea.

The casual eatery’s joyful decor is inspired by Thai temple festivals. Brightly coloured bunting hangs from the ceiling, and a mural embellished with LED fireworks adds to the bustling energy of the space.

Nora Thai
This casual 20-seat restaurant in South Yarra is run by friends Thunyaluk “Palmmy” Aninpukkanuntin and Duangdao “Kana” Bannakorn, who both grew up in Surat Thani province on the Gulf of Thailand. They opened Nora Thai to showcase the dishes they missed from home but struggled to find upon moving to Melbourne.

Aninpukkanuntin focuses on the business side of things while chef Bannakorn leads the kitchen. The menu features spicy petai beans – sometimes called “stink beans” because of their gassy aroma – with prawn-and-pork mince, and a fiery dry red curry called khua kling, which blends turmeric, lemongrass and makrut lime leaves with pork mince.

More highlights include the bai liang pad kai, a stir-fry of egg, malindjo greens and a sweet-savoury sauce with a heavy hit of garlic, and the sour fish curry, which uses shrimp paste to add deep umami flavours.

Aninpukkanuntin and Bannakorn have made the most of the small space. Wooden furniture spills onto the footpath while a curtain divides the dining room from the kitchen. The restaurant is named after Nora, a traditional form of dance theatre with roots in Thai folk tales and Buddhist teachings. It’s known for sharp, expressive moves and towering golden headdresses, which have become a well-known image of south Thailand. The restaurant has been so popular that the duo plan to open a sibling spot in the CBD next year.

Additional reporting by Claire Adey and Irene Zhang