Issan Thai Street Food review

King lunch for one: The tum tard platter is the best of all worlds.
King lunch for one: The tum tard platter is the best of all worlds. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

16 Paisley St Footscray, VIC 3011

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Opening hours Daily 11am-10pm
Features Licensed
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Payments eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9396 1218

A salted crab can be a lot to take in. If you've never had the pleasure, picture yourself facedown in a rockpool at low tide. It is a briny and funky time. Even so, salty scuttlers are probably one of the less challenging proteins of Thailand's Issan region – the north-east area known for some of the country's best-loved dishes such as charcoal-grilled chicken and som tum salads, but also for its love of snacking on bugs.

You don't get a shot at much of this latter action in Melbourne (which is a shame considering bugs-as-protein is supposedly the way of the future), but you can now get an invigorating thwack of funk in the traditional som tum pu la ra at the second coming of Issan Thai Street Food.

Issan food is having a bit of a moment, if you count two places as a trend. Isan (sic) Soul is harder to miss, what with its open-to-the-pavement Bourke Street, Melbourne, location and technicolour world of bright ephemera and tuk tuks.

Footscray's Issan Thai Street Food is built for fast furious service.
Footscray's Issan Thai Street Food is built for fast furious service. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

Issan Thai Street Food insists itself far less. Aside from a fluoro pink "Same Same but Different" light on the wall and tall bamboo posts wrapping the kitchen and bar, this is a room of bareback tables and canteen chairs built for slinging its street food fast and furiously. It is also in Footscray, a rare Thai find in the banh mi belt.

This is actually shot two at the title for owners Noi and Vince Tirotta, who originally opened on Droop Street in 2017. An unsafe building squashed the dreams. But now they're back and about to bring a liquor licence with them.

Not all the dishes here are Issan street foods, and regionally specific soups (at night especially, these become far outnumbered by your pad Thais, duck curries and pad see ews, which are flying out the door with Uber drivers) but I'd argue 90 per cent of the dishes you want to come here for are. And that means you really want to time your trip for lunch.

Tom saap is a hot and sour pork bone soup.
Tom saap is a hot and sour pork bone soup. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

It's then you get the biggest crack at those more regional dishes – the large bracket of sticky grilled meats and spicy ground larb with hunks of crisp cabbage, bright som tum papaya salads done three ways and a couple of soups, including the rich blood-infused boat noodles, only available by day.

Everything is listed with zero explanation, which is a bonus challenge if you don't know your tum tard from your peek gai yang. But it's pretty hard to steer wrong. That crab som tam is probably as challenging as things get, thanks in part to the liberal sloosh of pla rah, a pungent fermented fish sauce beloved in the north and neighbouring Laos.

Elsewhere, this is accessible, addictive stuff lifted with lots of citrus, chilli and crunch. The tum tard is the best of all worlds and king lunch for one. A silver platter is dropped with a standard som tam at its heart. Far less fishy, the young papaya, peanuts, Thai basil and tomatoes is bashed fresh and still has whole chunks of lime. Around this is a little tumble of vermicelli, crunchy bean shoots, a boiled egg, puffed curls of pork crackling and Thailand's lesser championed but excellent version of fried chicken.

Kor moo yang (grilled pork).
Kor moo yang (grilled pork). Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

It's easy to overlook one of the best soups, listed separately to the noodled versions. Tom saap moo, is a spicy sour pork bone soup, with galangal, lemongrass and coriander doing a fragrant little dance with tender cuts of pork spare ribs.

This truly is a festival of meats fried, grilled or ground. Both the larb (fine mince of pork or chicken) and the house specialty num tok moo (salty slices of pork neck and belly char-grilled to sticky caramel), are tumbled with fistfuls of herbs, ground toasted rice and a full electric charge of lemon juice and house-made chilli powder.

Is the john dory stir-fry or the luminous red duck curry something to cross town for? You probably have one you like just as much (possibly more, and with juicier meat in the case of the duck) that's closer to your house, but dunking fingerfuls of sticky rice, favoured grain of the north, into the liquor is always a good time.

There is more delicate roti around (this is excellently buttery, mind) served in prettier restaurants where there is more showy service and less draft from the delivery drivers leaving the door open.

But if Footscray's dining landscape is changing, surely the people deserve the joys of sour soups, stinky crabs and leaf-wrapped, sweet, warm packages of banana and glutinous rice? It can't all be dudes riding in on a New York slice.

Pro Tip: Go for lunch, when most of the Issan dishes are on.

Go-to Dish: Tum tard ($18.90)