SHOPHOUSE MONTRÉALAIS: ÉPICERIE PUMPUI

In an article I wrote in January, I listed the best things I ate in Montreal in 2017. A chicken curry at Épicerie Pumpui listed among them. -JRS

The story of Épicerie Pumpui begins with Chak Wow, a delivery/pop-up project by Alberta transplant Jesse Mulder. (That story you can read about elsewhere, e.g. here.) As the name makes clear, Pumpui has a grocery/counter permit, which, in the convoluted cosmos of Montreal restaurant licenses, means they must limit their seating to only twelve. (I’m guessing these regulations have some reason behind them—although, this is the City of Montreal we’re dealing with.)

In any case, Pumpui recalls somewhat an Asian shophouse: barebones, unpretentious, practical. Focussed fully on the food. You come here to eat, or to take away; if seeing and being seen or lingering for hours lie among your priorities, you can do so elsewhere.

Pumpui rests at the bottom of Little Italy on St. Zotique. Inside, three booths line the wall, bar seats the window, and, in the warmer months, there is a table outside. The restaurant replicates well the feel of Thailand: the posters on the wall; the plates and bowls; the camping-style water cups; the condiments on the tables—e.g. chilli vinegar, fish sauce, sugar—that, ubiquitous in Thailand, let you season your food as you wish. (The vinegar in particular I love.)

Irresistible Thai food.

The menu lists a dozen or so items, and the food comprises two categories: prepared, cafeteria-style options sitting in hotel pans at the front and à la carte items. The majority of choices average around $13 or so, with a few coming close to the $20 mark. Most dishes come with rice and there are two vegan options on offer—wonderful news for vegans.

Below I list some things I’ve eaten at Pumpui, but I’ll begin by saying this: In 2015, I had the good fortune of spending two months eating my way around Thailand. The food there, almost without exception, was delicious; the food here, in the opinion of this writer, equals that.

Case in point, the Panang curry with beef: Thin slices of beef served in a nutty, orange-brown curry sauce. A lot going on here, flavour-wise—tender meat, chilli, kaffir lime, lemongrass, coriander, cumin—but everything tastes carefully balanced. The first time I tried this dish, it was hauntingly good, and remained on my mind for a week afterwards. (In fact, I’ve ordered this curry four times since—despite having every intention to try other things on the menu.) Superlative. $19.50.

Another item I love is the morning glory or water spinach, a type of green vegetable similar to Chinese broccoli in appearance and texture. Pumpui sautés these in a wok, adding a brown-coloured sauce with chicken stock, a ton of garlic, and some chillies. The result: just-tender vegetables in an intensely flavoured, garlicky liquid with a good punch of heat. Order these; eat your vegetables. $10 (or $12.50 with the addition of crispy pork).

Then there’s the catfish. Here, Pumpui takes the whole fish and chops it into thick slices, bones and all. These they deep fry and then sauté with thai basil, ginger, garlic, green peppercorns, chillies, etc. I don’t remember having a Southeast Asian-style fish dish this good in town, ever. Delightful. $17.50.

Other examples abound (e.g. a Massaman-like chicken curry, rife with warm spice flavours such as cinnamon; a pork belly and egg dish in a deeply-flavoured broth, tasting heavily of star anise) but, to keep a long story short: Everything is delicious. Order at will.

I should address the price: Some criticize Pumpui as being expensive. Frankly, I don’t feel cost is a legitimate gripe, for the simple reason that, well, you don’t have to eat there. That stated, be aware: You will pay more here than you would at the more ubiquitous Asian restaurants in town, anywhere from $20 to $40 per person. The real question is, is it worth it? Without doubt—not to mention, their use of oil and coconut milk makes the food very filling. One dish per diner would be plenty. Go with others, and share.

As far as drinks go, choices are limited. Given its permit, Pumpui cannot serve alcohol (although they do sell a number of craft beers to take away). This restricts your options to sparkling water, a number of juices, coconut water, etc. Pitchers of tap water and cups sit on the bar down the middle if you prefer to avoid paying for these.

I have eaten at Pumpui some six or seven times in the past month, and, quite frankly, I felt ready to write this review after the third visit. I went back—and will go back—because I love this food; it’s irresistible. Pumpui is, simply stated, wonderful. Neither a gimmick, nor a fad, this restaurant respectfully prepares exceptional Thai food. Go: If you haven’t been, you’re missing out.