Bún mắm Pasthyme Michelle Vo Vietnamese food Montreal

Bún mắm

Pasthyme makes what might be the best Vietnamese food in Montreal

Self-described Vietnamese street food dealer Michelle Vo spoke to us about reclaiming ancestral cuisine.

Late last year, one of my favourite restaurants in Chinatown, Dobe and Andy, started posting on Instagram about a crimson-red, potent-looking chili oil. That was my introduction to Pasthyme, the moniker of Michelle Vo, Montreal’s self-described Vietnamese Street Food Dealer. I recently tried her food for the first time and after tasting it, it’s now my opinion that Michelle is making the best Vietnamese food in Montreal. 

Take a scroll through her feed and you’ll see that I’m far from the only one who feels that way. People swear by her food — they’re begging her to start a subscription service and they clammer to reserve the last bowl of noodles before she sells out for the week. What’s most interesting, to me, is that Michelle doesn’t cook the dishes we most associate with Vietnamese food. There’s no Bánh mì or gỏi cuốn, and though she’s made countless bowls of noodle-soup in the last year, she hasn’t made phố once. Vo’s food is regional and specific, highlighting dishes rarely seen in Montreal. 

Michelle Vo of Pasthyme best Vietnamese food Montreal
Michelle Vo (Pasthyme makes what might be the best Vietnamese food in Montreal)

It would be easy to slot Pasthyme into the narrative of the increasing relevance of regional cooking, but her food is so much more important than just happening to coincide with a shift in the scene.

When I spoke with Vo, she shared an experience common to so many children of immigrants: school lunch embarrassment. That experience is often one of the first and most marking experiences of otherness that children of immigrants experience in their lives and It can contribute to a distorted relationship with food.

Vo is among a growing number of second generation immigrants who are reclaiming their roots, taking pride in them and staking a claim for their ancestral cuisine as wholly legitimate, serious and worthy of praise. It’s a move that her mom still questions: “Are you sure they’ll like that?” she asks Michelle as she plans this week’s menu — but when Michelle is cooking, they like everything. In a way, she is doing something that seemed unthinkable to generations of cooks before her: cooking real Vietnamese food, to her taste, without fear of judgment. 

With projects like Pasthyme, we tend to rally around the idea that the food is “authentic.” But authenticity as a concept is difficult to grapple with because it’s not definitive and is often used as a catch-all term that paints cooking as either black or white, which it isn’t always. 

Vo calls her food uncensored, which I like much better. To me, it’s an expression that speaks to what we’re really after when we talk about authentic food: dishes cooked in the chef’s vision without compromise. Regardless of whether we’re talking Roman pasta, Isaan laab or a Keralan fish curry, I want food that represents its maker. Pasthyme delivers exactly that. 

And don’t get it twisted. Vo has plenty of appreciation for the Phở and Bánh mì spots in Montreal but she feels like the diversity of Vietnamese food is sorely underrepresented. A perfect example of her style of cooking is the Bún mắm I ate last week. Bún mắm (sometimes called Vietnamese gumbo) is a noodle-soup with a chicken broth base to which fermented fish, shrimp paste, crispy pork belly, eggplant, steamed fish and plump shrimp are added. “I don’t go light on real flavour with any of my dishes,” Vo assured me. “Put your fan on,” she joked, “it’s going to smell like seafood!” The flavours of the soup are deep, complex and endlessly satisfying. True to form, the dish is fragrant with the scent of seafood, but no more so than, say, a bowl of whole Matane shrimp, their caviar still intact.

The dish was abundant with flavour and, when garnished with a dollop of the chili oil, a full-body sensorial experience. And with that in mind, I would offer one small bit of advice: the chlli oil is delicious, but believe her when she says it is fucking hot. If you’re like me and have a decent tolerance for spice, you will enjoy it — with a modest amount of suffering. But for those with a palate more sensitive to spice, adding too much (or any at all) could ruin your experience. Be warned. 

Pasthyme best Vietnamese food in Montreal
Bún-riêu-cua (Pasthyme makes what might be the best Vietnamese food in Montreal)

Part of what I loved most about my experience with Pasthyme was being served by Vo herself. Like her food, she is uncensored and happy to tell you to go to hell (if you deserve it) but she is also the embodiment of hospitality, humility and gratitude. I’m speculating here, but maybe that’s because she doesn’t come from a restaurant background.

True to its name, Pasthyme is something Vo does on the side — on the day-to-day, she manages a dental clinic, and has done so for over 11 years. Part of what makes her so successful is that she is a wonderful ambassador for her brand. I think of chefs like Chanthy Yen of Touk and Anita Feng of J’ai Feng who have carved out a place for themselves in Montreal’s restaurant scene in which they can cook the food most meaningful to them. Vo’s food, like that of Yen and Feng, speaks for itself but all three share something else in common: they are extremely likeable people. When customers order from Pasthyme, they are investing in Michelle Vo as a brand — they want to see her succeed. That fact that the food is also incredible is just an added bonus. 

To order from Pasthyme, follow the account on Instagram and send Vo a DM to reserve the dish of the week, but act quick as she commonly sells out shortly after announcing the menu. Each week there is one dish served with two spring rolls for the very reasonable price of $18.50. The dish changes from week to week and while it might be tempting to wait for a more familiar dish, from speaking to people who eat her food regularly, the consensus seems to be that it doesn’t matter what Vo is cooking, just get it — it’s going to be good. ■

For more information about Pasthyme, please visit the Instagram page. This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on the Montreal restaurant scene, please visit the Food & Drink section.