38 Mcilwraith Pl Melbourne, VIC 3000
You have to love that one the most Melbourne dining experiences you can give someone is taking them to one of its most dedicatedly northern Thai heroes. Sydney may have its grandiose Icebergs and showboaty Bennelongs in the Opera House. Melbourne's stock in trade is taking out-of-towners goldmining in nefarious alleys. And nowhere scores you more Big Reveal points than Soi 38, the boat noodle specialist sporting a Blue Hawaii paint job which sits fragrantly in the McIlwraith Place car park.
True, Soi 38 is hardly undiscovered territory these days, appearing in umpteen best-of lists both for the depth of its broths and its excitingly unlikely abode. But what not everyone has cottoned onto yet is that since July 2018, daytime-only Soi 38 started leasing to Nuttaman Lohayanjaree, who runs moonlight project Nana Moojum, a barbecue and hotpot haven with some funky Issan dishes in tow.
Even if you've been before, the novelty never gets old. You'll still second-guess yourself as you walk into a completely normal car park, past the Redspot and Hertz signs (doubling back to the ATM every damn time you recall it's cash only).
The doubt remains until you're close enough for the smell of sizzling pork neck to pull you the final metres into a crowd who are not, it turns out, queuing for a ticket machine, but for a hitherto under-exploited style of Thai barbecue, which is also a hotpot in one.
For $30 you get a plate loaded with raw calamari, prawns, and a mix of pork bits from dark, glistening liver to slices of fatty pork neck and lean loin, cut thin and marinated in a sesame-flecked chilli paste. It serves two. Chunks of fatty skin are lobbed on top of the grill to grease the wheels.
Beneath your meat tray is a generous cache of cabbage, morning glory, enoki mushrooms, an egg and two kinds of noodles (vermicelli and egg) to drop into the grill's bubbling moat filled with a delicately fragranced pork and soy broth, which intensifies as everything reduces. Wave for top-ups, and do it in time lest you face the shame of smoking out the tightly packed room.
Livers aside, there's little to frighten the amateur grill or hotpot enthusiast. The rest of the menu, celebrating the spicy, funky Issan region, can change all this if you're game.
There is the familiar: a whole tub of bubbly golden pork rinds for $6, and a brilliantly vibrant, fiery pork larb – the classic warm salad of mince razzed with lime, fish sauce, coriander and a textural dusting of ground rice. This one has serious heat creep and bonus earthy notes from a few slips of pork liver.
For more advanced players the som tum pu – papaya salad with salted crab – is an acquired taste, its high fishiness as insistent as a low-tide rockpool, but this one is also weapons-grade spicy. Your call.
The challenges are there, but few hurdles are stop signs. If you're going to eat chitterlings – the pig's large intestine – having them battered, deep-fried and dunked in a punchy chilli, tamarind and fish sauce-heavy esarn sauce is as entry-level as you get.
Not game? Gelatinous and sweet strips of the jowly section of pork neck are your friend. If you're vegetarian, practically nothing here is.
Nana Moojum currently has all the joys and idiosyncrasies of Soi 38. At night, the daytime condiments are stacked in a corner to make space for the grills, but you'll still be using any reachable shelf to place extra dishes if you venture bonus snacks.
There are no bookings for the close-set red and blue metal tables. Lo-fi plastic stools are a thrilling game of chance. Extra beers – Leos or Changs – can be hailed if someone is passing, though water is harder to claim.
It's pure chaos that somehow magically flows like Bangkok traffic. If that's your jam, this is your call to arms.
Despite its oddball location, Nana Moojum has gained enough of a following that it will relaunch in fancier digs on the former Da Rin site at 169 Bourke Street in 2020.
I'm sure it will be just as good when it's out of the shadows. But go now to say you knew it when.
Drinks Leo and Chang beers, Thai iced tea, soft drinks.
Cost Most dishes $13. Hotpot barbecue set $30 for two people.
Pro Tip: Bring cash and run! It closes at Soi 38 on December 1, moving to 169 Bourke Street.
Go-to Dish: Hot pot barbecue combo for two, $15.