NESTLED BELOW A KUNG FU STUDIO, ÉPICERIE HOUR HONG ON MONTREAL’S RUE SAINT- DENIS is at the epicenter of a culinary movement. Owner Chin Kong Han plays a key role as a supplier of noodles, curry pastes, and sauces to the city’s Thai restaurants, making all that pad Thai possible.
Han started his business 30 years ago when he realized that his day job in the aviation industry wasn’t doing it for him. “I didn’t even know all the products,”
Han says. “I learned from my customers, and then I knew I could make it.” The shop is lined with items ranging from bamboo rice steamers to the retro tard enamel tableware he ate off when he was a kid to pickled ginger and fresh lime leaves.
Quebec has only about 1,000 Thai residents, but they are over-represented in the dining rooms and comptoirs serving Thai food, says Jesse Massumi, co-owner of Pumpui, a curry shop and one of the 10 restaurants that Han supplies. Pumpui’s executive chef and co-owner Jesse Mulder’s uncompromising (read: spice level) menu has brought Thai nationals to tears for its authenticity, surprising diners not expecting exceptional Thai food in Montreal.
The city’s bona fide Thai food scene has even garnered the attention of the Thai Trade Centre in Toronto. “The Montreal Thai taste,” notes international marketing officer Yui Kiewboriboon, “is the real [Thai] street-food taste.”
It has been tough importing noodles and tea during a pandemic when product availability is unpredictable and transportation costs astronomical. But demand, determination, and gastrodiplomacy are all working together, and Han is excited. “It’s the ingredients and the fire,” he points out. “The vegetables have to be fresh and the wok has to be fast — and new chefs like Jesse have woken people up.”
Sukonta Beaulieu’s small plot on her husband Charles’s family farm supplies six Thai restaurants with morning glory, chilies, three types of basil, and eggplant varieties no one else is growing in Quebec. This native of Hua Hin, a seaside town south of Bangkok, never expected she’d be farming on Montreal’s South Shore, but three years ago, her own cravings for a taste of home plus a greenhouse at her disposal convinced her it was worth the risk. She uses an artisanal hand- watering approach for her precious crops (“You control it better this way,” she explains), keeping chemical intervention to a minimum. This year’s seeds came from last year’s vegetables — without a trip back home, there was no choice — and she’s learning as she grows.
The fellows behind Montreal’s wildly popular comptoir Pumpui (co-owner/executive chef Jesse Mulder; chef Jesse Grasso; co-owners Jesse Massumi and Xavier Cloutier; and partners Chitakone Phommavongxay, Chin Kong Han and Samuel Croteau) have now opened Pichai, a Thai plates-sharing wine bar. And while you wouldn’t normally expect non-Thai chefs to be preparing the most incredible Thai food, this team has captured the essence of culture and technique to make dining here feel like you’re in Bangkok.
Mulder, who is fluent in Thai, and Grasso (ex-Black Hoof, Vin Papillon) aren’t shy about bringing new flavours and ingredients to Montreal diners — think duck laab with a few hearts thrown in, green eggplant yum with Matane shrimp floss, and Thai tea- infused tiramisu topped with toasted coconut.
The natural-wine and local beer list is curated by Nora Gray’s Elisabeth Racine. Cozy banquettes and lunch-counter seating in a light-filled interior recall Asian shophouses. Chic yet unpreten- tious, Pichai’s sophisticated kitchen and approachable staff are perfect for their low-key Saint-Hubert location. The comfortable space has quickly become the place to savour flavourful spicy food and rub elbows with Montreal’s top chefs on their nights off.
“People are ready for real Thai food now,” Pamika Sukla says. The co-owner and executive chef of three restaurants and a line of bottled sauces founded her eponymous brasserie 10 years ago and is still full of ideas. Alongside her husband, Pascal Gonsales, she has opened two fast-casual comptoirs named after her mother, Mae Sri, which feature kuay teow reua (boat noodles) and her family’s rice dishes, all served on brightly coloured tard enamel serving plates. The large Saint-Denis space has enough room for a prep kitchen and a small-plates speakeasy planned for 2022. “Having all these Thai restaurants in town gives us healthy competition,” Sukla notes. “I just want to promote my culture.”
When Chitakone (Chita) Phommavongxay went back to Thailand for the first time as an adult, he took videos of every meal he ate. “I wanted to make sure I was doing things right,” says the chef/ owner of two-year-old restobar Thammada and a partner in the restaurant Pichai. Thammada might mean “ordinary” in Thai, but Phommavongxay means it in a good way. “We’re serving everyday food — street food, simple and authentic.” To wit: khao soi features prominently on the menu and the recipe is from the grandmother of his girlfriend and Thammada co-owner Siriluksa- mee (Nim) Rangthong. The coconut-based noodle soup is served in typical Lampang rooster-patterned bowls from Rangthong’s hometown. “We have a story to tell, and telling it makes my heart sing,” Phommavongxay says. By Ivy Lerner-Frank.