Ritchie Nguyen Vietnamese Le Petit Boui Boui Montreal restaurant

Montreal chef Ritchie Nguyen serves Vietnamese comfort food at le Petit Boui Boui

We feasted on some iconic Vietnamese dishes at a Petite-Patrie restaurant cheffed by Nguyen, a cook we’ve become familiar with from his time at Maison Publique and Dandy.

I first came across le Petit Boui Boui by way of an enticing Instagram story showing off an impossibly crisp-looking báhn xèo — the iconic savoury Vietnamese crêpe. Golden brown, with a perfectly lacy texture, a good báhn xèo is like a juicy hamburger or plate of generously sauced pasta — it makes me want to eat. So I set out to do exactly that.

I was delighted to find out that le Petit Boui Boui was owned and cheffed by Ritchie Nguyen. My first introduction to Ritchie’s food was back in the summer of 2018. He and Harrison Shewchuk (of Salle Climatisée) were both cooks at Maison Publique and teamed up to do a Dim Sum and soy chicken pop-up at le Diplomate. A year later, I came across him again when he was running the kitchen at Dandy — the beautifully designed breakfast/lunch spot owned by Michael Tozzi.

Le Petit Boui Boui Vietnamese restaurant Montreal
Photos by Clay Sandhu

In my experience, Ritchie cooks with technique but without becoming overly technical. What I mean to say is that he makes a great deal of effort to make dishes correctly, be it a ricotta pancake or delicate har gow, without veering into reinvention. It’s a trait that I particularly admire — so many chefs feel the need to put their mark on a dish or to try to do something entirely original, both of which are very difficult to do successfully. To have the skill to faithfully execute dishes at a very high level while also showing enough restraint to allow a great dish to exist as it was meant to be is, to me, a sign of a mature and self-assured cook. 

I have to admit that my exposure to Vietnamese cooking is limited. With the exception of a few weeks spent in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the bulk of my exposure to Vietnamese cooking comes from the handful of spots around Montreal that I frequent. My lack of exposure was part of the reason that I was so excited to try this spot, which opened back in November, 2021. Here was a relatively new Vietnamese restaurant with a tiny menu specializing in dishes that aren’t exclusively limited to phở, bún and báhn mì. While reviewing the menu online, I noticed the bánh cuốn — a dish rarely seen on menus in town and something altogether new to me — available in very limited quantities per day. More on that to come.

le Petit Boui Boui Vietnamese Montreal chef Ritchie Nguyen

The restaurant is on a particularly good-looking corner of what is otherwise a pretty forgettable section of Bélanger E. We arrived in the evening with the waning summer sun falling like a spotlight on the front door. An auspicious welcome, if there ever was one. Le Petit Boui Boui gets its name from a somewhat pejorative expression that equates, more or less, to a greasy spoon. It’s a bit self-deprecating, if you ask me. Sure, the place isn’t lavishly decorated but it’s tasteful and simple. You enter the restaurant and are immediately flanked by the long open kitchen and bar on the right and the small dining room on the left. Decor-wise, the terracotta coloured floor tiles play off the sturdy chairs which are partly upholstered with red vinyl. The room is full of healthy plants that spend the day soaking up the sun through ample corner windows, and the skirt around the bar is made of what looks to be corrugated aluminium. It all feels very indoor/outdoor, which can easily come across as contrived, but le Petit Boui Boui pulls it off in a way that feels sincere. 

On this particular evening, the kitchen was being run by Ritchie alone and the room was managed (with poise and good humour) by one single charismatic server. Decidedly casual, the menu is only available online and features just nine dishes in total: two entrées, five mains, two desserts. The beverage program is also very simple — beer, kombucha or tea. The concept, as I was explained, is pretty straightforward: they make comfort food and you drink beer with comfort food. Fair enough. We ordered both entrées (both salads), the bánh xéo and the bánh cuốn — plus a couple beers to wash it all down, naturally. 

le Petit Boui Boui Vietnamese Montreal chef Ritchie Nguyen

The first dish to arrive was a carrot and green papaya salad. This is something you see quite commonly, with variations throughout Southeast Asia. Boui Boui’s carrots and papaya are cut a bit thicker than I’m usually used to seeing, but I found the texture quite enjoyable. Sweet, sour and spicy with a bit of torn mint and fragrant roast peanuts, the dish is, as it always is, a wonderfully fresh way to begin the meal. It was nothing special, but nonetheless delicious.

The other salad, however, is something I have never seen before. Similarly structured, this salad is made up of thin batonnets of daikon and bamboo shoots tossed in a creamy tamarind-based dressing. The lot has some Thai basil mixed in and is served with homemade shrimp crackers. The flavour is significantly deeper on this one — it’s got that characteristic funk that comes with daikon (and bamboo shoots for that matter) but it’s offset by the sweet and sour tamarind and brightened by the anisette quality of Thai basil. The dish reminds me of the first time I ate an olive as a kid. At first, you’re a bit taken aback but after a few bites, you’re hooked for life. I know that analogy won’t ring true for olive haters but I suspect that this dish won’t be appreciated by all — but to many, I’m sure it will become a new obsession.

With the salads out of the way, the next course was the bánh cuốn. The dish is essentially a steamed rice roll filled with minced pork and wood ear mushrooms. It’s not dissimilar, in look and texture, from Cantonese cheung fun. The dish is served with a bundle of fresh herbs and cups of iceberg lettuce, which serve as a fortifying structure when dipping the rolls in a bowl of exquisitely sweet and sour nước chấm. The rolls were delicious; the classic pairing of pork and wood ear mushroom made for a rich filling that held its own against the fragrant nước chấm and bright herbs. My favourite aspect of the dish, however, was the homemade chả lụa — an emulsified pork sausage cooked in a banana leaf. It’s commonly found sliced thinly in báhn mì, but when served with bánh cuốn, the sausage comes in a thicker, more generous portion. 

Finally, the dish that I came to eat: the báhn xèo. This crêpe is famous for its perfectly crisp texture and golden brown colour, which comes from both the frying process and the turmeric used in the batter. Boui Boui’s bánh xèo is classic: a massive paper-thin crêpe served folded over a mound of bean sprouts. Suspended in the artfully bubbled batter are plump shrimp and thin slices of tender pork belly. The idea with bánh xèo is to take pieces of lettuce and fill them with torn pieces of the crepe and a handful of herbs and dunk them in a bowl of nước chấm. It’s a wonderfully tactile eating experience — one that shares many similarities with dosa, pani puri or tacos for that matter. My companion and I gleefully tore into the crêpe whose audible crunch in our mouths is the telltale sign of a great bánh xèo. Of all the dishes, this was our favourite, easily living up to my expectations. The beer was a welcome accompaniment, too.

For dessert, we opted for the crème caramel, which in actuality was a set coconut milk pudding with coconut caramel, desiccated coconut and a bit of lime zest. It was a lovely little dessert to eat, but it was lacking somewhat in appearance. It was by no means a low-point in the meal but not much to write about either — simply something sweet before the cheque. 

My one criticism, and it is hardly one at all, would be that I felt the cooking lacked a bit of the confidence I’m used to seeing in Ritchie’s cooking. The food itself was delicious — there wasn’t a single morsel that I didn’t enjoy. I just know that he is capable of even more. In a way, the experience seemed like there was a level of uncertainty, like they’re still asking themselves the question, “Are we actually any good?” The answer is a resounding yes. My hope is that the operation gets a modicum tighter and that they’re able to further explore the depths of Vietnamese cuisine. That’s the restaurant I long to dine at and I can hardly think of anyone better suited to do it than Ritchie Nguyen & co. ■

This article was originally published in the July 2022 issue of Cult MTL. 

For more on le Petit Boui Boui (1498 Bélanger E.), please visit the restaurant’s website.

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