Artemis Ln Melbourne, VIC 3004
|Opening hours||Sat-Thu noon-midnight; Fri noon-3am.|
|Features||Licensed, Groups, Accepts bookings|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9654 1555|
Is it really so strange that we're finding some of the city's most compelling eats inside shopping centres, when Melbourne is a city that famously earned its dining cred for building incredible spaces down grungy alleys? If anything, it's just an evolution of the trend.
Once, you experienced frisson stepping past an overflowing skip and into an elegant bar. Now you get that same "who knew?" buzz walking past QV's sterile sneaker shops and into the fizzing electricity of Thai Town – a retail shop, liquor store and market-style kitchen that is pumping at every shift.
You enter via a little deli section where Thai sweets are being prepared and put in display windows: tiny crepes spread with meringue fluff and bright shrimp-flavoured coconut that gives it a curious salty kick; luminous jellies floating in evaporated milk and cardboard pockets of sticky fried bananas.
Diners, mostly expats, might load up here before heading into the restaurant proper: a riot of bunting and fairy lights with a glitzy bar on one side producing fruity cocktails, and the kitchen, overhung with street food banners, pumping out Northern Thai dishes on the other.
There's no standing on ceremony. You aren't so much shown to your table as swept there as if on a current. I'm directed by the hostess to chase one of the headset-wearing waitresses who doesn't stop to get me or drop me, simply flicking a hand at an empty seat and carrying on her way. It's perfunctory, but efficient.
So is the kitchen, which pumps out a staggering array of street snacks, soups, noodle wonders and curries. The menu is deep, built for amateurs and pros. You can get your limey-fiery papaya som tam salads with or without the pro-player additions of preserved century egg, all dark jelly and sulphuric whiff, or the equally divisive pickled raw crab. Less challenging are stout Isaan sausages and sticky, fried pork riblets, both fermented for a slight sour tang.
This is not a restaurant designed for one. The fryer section delivers scored and deep-fried pork knuckles for groups to rip and dip in sweet chilli-lime-fish sauce nam jim, or whole fried barramundi washed in a sour curry that arrives bubbling over a lamp like a volcano.
The same groups are ordering icy strawberry slushies by the carafe and getting their Singha, Sapporo or Carlton Draught in self-pour beer towers. But you can make a fist of it on a solo mission if you can keep the FOMO at bay.
Pork blood gives rich iron depth to the sweet and five-spiced soup broth in their boat noodles, a signature of the north, which feature spongy processed pork balls and tender strips of beef among the thatch of rice noodles, water spinach (morning glory) and excellent bubbly crackling curls (available from the deli to buy).
A fried mackerel, looking somewhat pensive, is part of a solo feast for one, joined by crunchy snake beans, blanched carrots, wombok, eggplants and boiled egg around a rice tower stained prettily blue by butterfly pea flowers.
This is fast and furious cooking that goes as late as 3am on Friday nights. Sometimes, they miss. I watch my neighbours reject their grilled squid as undercooked, then their spicy ground pork larb salad for lacking enough prawns.
My mocktail of jasmine syrup and kaffir lime over pebbled ice is insanely sweet and reminiscent of bathroom freshener. Fermented rice noodles with mild fish curry comes with nice salty pickles and crunchy greens but it's otherwise pretty wan.
But the freshness is clear. Every leaf, every finely chopped onion, radioactive scud chilli and nip of ginger still has life force and hasn't languished in Tupperware. Packages of warm sticky rice come with a whole mango, freshly dispatched, to slosh in salted coconut cream. I collect a grilled pork neck salad for a colleague and even post travel, its slow burn and citrusy electric current stays live.
"Authentic" has become a problematic word in food, particularly when it's used to only deem (often Asian) restaurants "correct" if they cook traditional recipes, mostly because those dishes are the most familiar. But there's the intangible sense of the word too, the comfortable sense you get when you walk into a space that confidently knows itself and couldn't give a stuff what your agenda is.
You get it at Di Stasio Citta. You don't expect to find it in a supposedly soulless mall. But at Thai Town, you do.
Cost Starters $12-$20; soups, curries $15-$20; large share $25-$35.
Vegetarian Moderate options, but they're there.
Drinks Mocktails, cocktails, Thai whisky and beers, basic big label wines.
Pro Tip: Get extra pork rinds from the deli to take home.
Go-to Dish: Boat noodle soup ($9-$15.90).