Pad thai maan gung

Montreal Thai street food restaurant Thammada is a love letter to Thailand

This is one of the best Thai restaurants in town — or just best restaurants in general.

Nearly a year into the pandemic — I promise I’ll keep the clichés brief — I’ve found myself asking one question to my wife nearly every day: “What do you feel like eating?”

There’s this wild paradox of choice that the pandemic has created for us. Our access to good food at home and the variety of choices we have is incredible. You could order take-out from a different restaurant every night for a month and never eat the same thing twice. But, at the risk of sounding like a spoiled brat — knowing that I can have nearly anything I want delivered to my front door has made it harder and harder to choose what I want to eat. These days, the answer to that question tends to be Thai food. It’s cold, winter’s been bleak and Thai food offers a perfect blend of comfort and vibrancy that just hits the damn spot. 

As of late, a place that has really been doing it for me when I’m craving Thai is Thammada. Well into its second year, the Outremont (of all places) street food shop has carved out a place for itself as one of the best Thai restaurants in town — or really, just restaurants in general. Authenticity is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and Thammada’s website even promises authentic Thai flavours. While it’s true that chef-owner Chita Phommavongxay carefully sources the proper Thai ingredients and that Phommavongxay has spent time in Thailand learning techniques and recipes, his food isn’t a replica of what you’d find in Thailand, it’s a love letter to a place that moved him.

Thammada street platter: chicken satay, chicken wings, crispy rolls, pork rinds, green papaya salad

I don’t have any real credentials to judge the authenticity of his food. I’ve been to Thailand twice and I’ve eaten my fair share of street food, but I’m far from an expert on the subject. What I can say is that his food embodies the feeling you get when you come across a great street vendor. The food isn’t precious; it’s cooked with purpose, allowing the flavours to speak for themselves. 

I think about the first time I ate a satay skewer at a night market in Bangkok. I was doing the thing where you walk up and down the rows just scoping out what looks good. One vendor grabbed a skewer off the grill and pretty well just handed it to me. He knew that my search would be over when I tried it, and he was right — I ate five skewers. 

If you have even a passing knowledge of Thai food, Thammada’s menu will be familiar: a couple of curries, papaya salad, pad thai etc.  It’s the flavours, the richness and deepness that really set it apart.

The satay is a great example: The chicken is tender and perfumed with smoke shimmering in the light thanks to its sticky glaze that’s slightly blackened on the grill. To look at it, it’s far from revelatory, but to taste it — I’m standing at the stall in the night market, my clothes and hair slowly taking on the smell of charcoal. 

For a true revelation, try the Pad Thai Maan Gung (Pad Thai with shrimp). Even the most novice Thai food eater has had a rendition of this dish, but Chita’s is different. He does everything the long way — he roasts his own peanuts so that their natural oils are fresh, the shrimp he uses are whole, head-on shrimp. The shrimp themselves are plump and flavourful, but it’s the heads that are of interest in this dish. Chita reserves the sweet, boldly-flavoured heads for an infused shrimp oil that serves as the cooking fat for the pad thai. It makes for a version of the dish that is infinitely more complex and flavourful than any other I’ve had.

The papaya pokpok salad is fine — it’s a crowd pleaser. It’s the kind of dish you might order if your picky aunt is coming to dinner. It hits all the right notes but lacks the special character I love about Chita’s cooking. 

The Som Tum Isaan (Isaan being a region in the northeast of Thailand bordering Laos and Cambodia) is what you should get if you’re looking for something special. This dish is spicy, fragrant and funky thanks to a homemade fermented fish sauce — a staple of the region and a cross-border ingredient that also appears in Cambodian and Laotian cooking. Contrary to the light version we’re used to seeing in Vietnamese food, the fermented fish sauce is rich and potent. It adds a base onto which spice is built and subsequently tamed by palm sugar, brightened in the end with a generous spritz of lime. The mixture serves as a dressing for green papaya, long beans and cherry tomatoes. 

Beef pad-se-eew from Thammada

The Gyo Pedd (roast duck dumpling) are filled with Cantonese-style roast duck and are served with a dark soy sauce that tastes of molasses. It’s a dish that gives a nod to Yaowarat Road  (Bangkok’s Chinatown) and is an homage to the influence of Chinese cooking on Thai food. The dumplings taste like Peking duck with hoisin and arrived at my house still remarkably crispy.

I can go on and on about the slow building spice of the Gaeng Khiew Waan Gai (green curry with chicken) or the brilliance of the vibrant and spicy Beef Nam Thok (a cold beef salad with coriander and powdered rice) but suffice it to say that they are delicious.

Chita does things the right way — no shortcuts are taken. There’s a romance in this cooking. He doesn’t go the extra mile as a flex or out of ego, he does it purely because he wants to do justice to the food he loves so dearly. I have endless respect for people who cook that way. The last time I was at Thammada, Chita told me about meeting his girlfriend Nim, who grew up in northern Thailand. It was she who introduced him to Isaan food and through her, his love for Thailand and Thai cooking was formed. Many of the recipes and techniques he uses were taught to him by Nim’s aunts. As much as it’s clear that Thammada is a love letter to Thailand, I wonder if it isn’t also a love letter to Nim. ■

This feature originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Cult MTL. Thammada is open for takeout and delivery via Uber Eats, Chkplz and Doordash. For more, please visit their website.

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.