By some estimates, there may be as many as 100 — but French-Canadian expat Sophie Mottet guesses there are just a few dozen of her fellow Quebec natives living in Bangkok. She’s only met a handful of Francophone countrymen in her year and a half in the city.
Unlike the huge communities of Americans, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos in Bangkok, French Canadians are scarce. And being most comfortable speaking their own — mostly Québécois — French dialect, they are not completely at home among the French or other North American foreigners.
But there is a tiny spot, tucked away on Samsen Road, just a few minutes from Khaosan, where they can ease their homesickness. There’s French Canadian pop on the stereo, the Quebec flag behind the bar, and classic poutine, Canada’s national dish, on the menu.
Bangkok Poutine has been quietly operating in this old section of the city since 2011. Owned by French Canadian comedian, actor, author, and athlete Bruno Blanchet — who one guest simply described as “a superstar in Canada” — and his Thai partner Onnicha Akkaradettayaporn, they serve up nine kinds of the comforting potato-based dish.
The small shophouse restaurant, which seats about 30 with a few stools outside as well, is where the city’s French Canadian expats gather, with those at nearby tables striking up conversation with you as soon as they hear the distinctive lilt of home. When it gets busy, Blanchet and Onnicha think nothing of seating strangers together, assuming they’re all going to end up talking to each other anyway.
The walls are a patchwork of notes thanking Bruno and Onnicha for the food, the friendliness, and the vibe. French Canadian backpackers leave messages for each other here as well, sending general greetings and travel recommendations to future guests or leaving specific messages for friends who they know are en route to Bangkok. As each person enters the restaurant, they seem momentarily transfixed by the endless messages on the walls.
As Blanchet walked me around the room, he said, “I wish you could read these messages, most of them are written in Quebec-style, with local slang and very funny. This, for example, means ‘fuck’ he said pointing at the word ‘tabarnak.’ We swear a lot,” he said with a shrug.
After he says that, I notice it on nearly every note.
Twenty minutes later, a guy built for lumberjacking walked in with his friends and greeted the room with a huge smile and hearty “Tabarnak!” (the word can function as a noun, adverb, or exclamation, just like fuck) and I start to feel like I’m following the niche narrative in this corner of the city.
Later, the whole restaurant broke out in a French version of “Happy Birthday” for someone at the front of the room.
Along with the food, atmosphere, and community, Blanchet is another reason this place tops lists of must-visit places in Asia for French Canadian travelers.
Young backpacker Benjamin Rosa, from Junquiére, Quebec, is on a long backpacking trip and had just finished a silent meditation retreat in Chiang Mai. He was at the restaurant to fulfill a directive of his mom’s — to stop in, try the food, and get a photo with Blanchet, one of guests’ favorite activities aside from eating poutine, reading wall notes, drinking, and shouting French Canadian swears.
He’d gotten the needed picture and was deep in conversation with another French Canadian who introduced himself as Dominic Gagné, from Stratford, Quebec, an expat who looked like a businessman and a few decades older than the backpacker. “What, no we just met!” he laughed when I asked how they knew each other.
The little poutine shop exceeded Rosa — and his mom’s — expectations. “When I got here I was really missing home, but now, I feel like I’m at home,” he said.
Bangkok Poutine is thought to be the first place in the city to serve up the Canadian dish, using house-cut fries, homemade brown gravy, and cheddar cheese curd — the only acceptable ingredients to true believers though, as Blanchet told me, “Every Canadian city has its own flavor of poutine.”
Though legitimate versions of the dish are now available elsewhere in Bangkok (and by that we mean at Fatty’s Bar & Diner), other city spots try to pass off plates of frozen crinkle cuts, canned gravy, and melted mozzarella as poutine. That ain’t gonna cut it with this crowd.
Gagné said that real poutine makes a squeaky noise when you eat it. “When I bit into this one, I felt like I was at a normal place in Quebec.”
Jonathan Chouinard, who works for a Canadian company in the city, said: “This is the only real poutine I’ve had in Asia,” noting that he’s tried finding a good one all over the region, including in Japan and Korea, but: “They are only kinda poutine, they might fill that space for like ten minutes, but this one fills a much deeper void.”
With just 1,500 Facebook fans, the restaurant exists on a different, more rarified level of fame and popularity than a simple social media presence can quantify. Word of it spreads by mouth, in hostels, and on French Canadian message boards. It’s even been mentioned on Canadian television, where Rosa’s mom heard about it.
It’s considered a de rigueur stop on the Southeast Asia backpacking trail for French Canadians and the restaurant hosts beloved parties on holidays like Quebec Day and Canada Day, where up to 100 drunken expat and traveling French Canadians fill the dining room and clog the street in front of the restaurant, some even arranging to be in the city for a Bangkok Poutine-style celebration.
At least one former customer, now settled with a wife and child in Laos, says that he would not be with his wife if it weren’t for a chance meeting at the restaurant.
As for the food itself — it’s great. The Classic (THB150) is homemade fries and curds with a chicken barbecue brown gravy. We also tried the La Galvaude (THB180), which Mottet called “so French,” topped with boiled chicken and mushy peas. The deeply comforting, heavy, and incredibly mild dish feels about as far away from Thai food as you can get. Curiosity got the better of us and we had to try The Thai (THB180) as well, which adds basil chicken to the classic lineup and tastes a bit weird, but it still works.
They also offer a veggie version with mushrooms and meat-free gravy, a schnitzel variation, an Italian poutine, and a Mexican one.
Since we are not Canadian and do not consider fries a meal no matter what they are topped with, we also tried The Monster (THB200) burger, a towering sandwich with a beef patty, fried egg, cheese, and bacon that threatened to topple when we shifted its top to try and get a good picture. Heavier than it looks, true pros will dip the whole thing into the poutine gravy.
They also do pillowy falafel balls on their own, in a sandwich or as a Falafel Plate (THB160) — which we opted for with pita, hummus, and a big pile of salad.
Though we, ostensibly, went in for the poutine, what we found in this small, out-of-the-way restaurant was more of an experience and, in the end, even more comforting than the homey dishes on offer.
35 Samsen Rd.
Open daily, 11am-11pm