DollarBouffe: Under-the-radar hit in Brossard serves regional Chinese cuisine

The food-court spot in Place Portobello stands out with Taishanese dishes that often aren’t found on menus.

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Just before the pandemic shut down restaurants in Montreal, I watched chef Jin Song Zhu ladle ground rice batter onto a large metal tray greased with onion and garlic oil in a food court in Brossard. Tilting the pan to spread the batter thinly, he slid the tray into a steamer rack in a machine about as tall as he is. A minute later, he removed the tray. The rice batter had bubbled up, but it quickly collapsed and appeared translucent until he scraped it toward himself, a third at a time, into a wrinkled bundle. The result was an edible magic trick: three pieces of what looked like stuck-together rice noodles that stretched like stringy melted cheese when pulled with chopsticks.

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Fast-forward 18 months into the pandemic and much has changed in the restaurant world, but Zhu is still the master behind these rice rolls at DollarBouffe, the almost six-year-old Taishanese establishment in Brossard’s Place Portobello. Customers order them stuffed with fried shrimp, beef, vegetables, chicken or in-house barbecue pork, then top them with a puddle of soy sauce or XO sauce, making for a deliciously salty hit with every pull and slurp. They’re so much fun and so tasty, it’s easy to forget to eat slowly so you can continue playing with your food.

I came to DollarBouffe after reading a report that a disproportionately large number of Google searches for Chinese cuisine in Quebec originated in Brossard. All that means is that more people in the area were searching for information about Chinese food, from recipes for Ricardo’s fondue chinoise to restaurants.

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But while people from Brossard weren’t necessarily searching for Chinese restaurants in Brossard, the area is an under-the-radar destination for Chinese cuisine, from dim sum banquet halls to all-you-can-eat places to strip-mall favourites. It even has a food-court gem specializing in regional Chinese cuisine: DollarBouffe, with its rice rolls and long-simmered congee (a rice porridge peppered with beef, chicken, seafood or more exotic options) — homestyle dishes not often found in Montreal restaurants. I also wanted to profile a family-owned Chinese restaurant serving something unique, after hearing that Chinese restaurants in North America were struggling because of reports of a then-new virus that originated in China.

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The team behind the family-run DollarBouffe includes John Wu, left, Linda Cao, Aida Zheng and Jack Zhu. The restaurant is a popular spot in Brossard’s Place Portobello.
The team behind the family-run DollarBouffe includes John Wu, left, Linda Cao, Aida Zheng and Jack Zhu. The restaurant is a popular spot in Brossard’s Place Portobello. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

When Zhu opened DollarBouffe in Place Portobello with his wife, Cao Xue Yun, in 2016, a handful of restaurants in the mall’s food court had recently closed. But Zhu says DollarBouffe started filling the food court with customers. Saint Cinnamon was about to leave, but signed a new lease. Mediterra also stuck around — its sign and Mediterranean menu now translated into Chinese — and a couple places have since opened, including the family-run Mexican spot ImpacTaco.

Martin Chan, a regular customer and family friend of the owners, said that before DollarBouffe opened he had only eaten at the food court once in 39 years. “We used to go to Jean Coutu and Maxi, and the food court was always empty. There might be one or two customers,” he said. But after DollarBouffe moved in, his parents started eating there almost every day. “It’s actually helped other restaurants here. Us, too, we eat at the Mexican place.”

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Zhu’s decision to open here was a practical one. “I live just on the other side of Taschereau and I wanted to be close to my home and my two young children. I didn’t think a lot of people would come,” he said. But the Asian and non-Asian communities have been supportive, he added, and word spread.

Zhu came to Quebec with his parents in 1995, when he and his wife were engaged. Montreal was an affordable and safe city with cleaner air than China, he said. Soon after arriving, he opened his first Chinese restaurant at age 26, in Louiseville. DollarBouffe is his fourth — he has sold or closed the others — but it’s the first time he’s making the food he knows from home in Taishan, an area of Guangdong in southeast China, near Hong Kong.

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Jin Song Zhu prepares rice rolls at DollarBouffe in early March 2020.
Jin Song Zhu prepares rice rolls at DollarBouffe in early March 2020. Photo by Christinne Muschi /Montreal Gazette

Not all of Zhu’s dishes are Taishanese — fried rice and Hong Kong-style barbecue pork are offered, too. But much of the menu — from the rice rolls to heaping plates of stir-fried noodles or rice topped with meats, salted fish and vegetables — comes from his village, he said. And lots of customers from Brossard’s large Chinese community like that.

“Brossard didn’t have a restaurant of that type,” said Zhu.

Jin Song Zhu scrapes batter to make rice rolls at DollarBouffe.
Jin Song Zhu scrapes batter to make rice rolls at DollarBouffe. Photo by Christinne Muschi /Montreal Gazette

There are other places to get rice rolls, congee and noodles in and around Montreal, including the chain Yin Ji Chang Fen, which opened in Shaughnessy Village in early 2021, a year later than planned. But if Zhu had opened in Chinatown, he wouldn’t have been able to serve the same food, he said, and definitely not at the same price. “In Chinatown, rent is very expensive. But here, rent is cheap.”

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As Zhu slipped back into the kitchen to prepare a noodle dish for a late lunch customer that day, Chan added: “In Chinatown, it’s big tables of 10 to 12 people — big family dinners with lobster, seafood, crab. I don’t think you’d be eating that every day. That’s why here he can give more affordable food, standard stuff, day-to-day food that we all like to eat.”

Pork rice rolls are a hit at DollarBouffe.
Pork rice rolls are a hit at DollarBouffe. Photo by Christinne Muschi /Montreal Gazette

While many restaurant owners in Chinatowns across North America were already reporting that their clientele had been scared away before the first shutdowns last year, that hadn’t been the case for DollarBouffe. In fact, Zhu only ended up fully closing for one week during the pandemic, as he was contractually obligated to stay open. He started selling delivery through Fantuan and DoorDash, and DollarBouffe managed to survive thanks in part to its residential location and community support.

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Now the food court is open for eat-in customers again. It’s about as full for lunch as it was before the pandemic, and regulars have returned — including Chan’s parents.

Unlike the feasts typical of Chinatown, DollarBouffe serves “more affordable … day-to-day food,” such as the rice porridge congee, says one regular customer.
Unlike the feasts typical of Chinatown, DollarBouffe serves “more affordable … day-to-day food,” such as the rice porridge congee, says one regular customer. Photo by Christinne Muschi /Montreal Gazette

It was fairly quiet after a busy lunch that day in 2020 — about half the tables in the roughly 100-person food court were full, which by current standards would seem packed, but at the time seemed slow. Regulars had come for noodles and congee; the homemade, baton-like pastry youtiao that you dunk in the congee basically inflates when heated on the grill, said Zhu’s son, Kevin, who has puffed plenty of them himself in this family-owned operation.

In the last year, Kevin has been focusing on his university degree as his parents have kept serving their loyal clientele. The menu has even expanded. But like all restaurants right now, it could use some new faces amid its customers — maybe some curious Montreal diners looking to improve the island’s results on the next report of Google searches for Chinese food, to support a family-run business that’s been waiting patiently for its day to shine, or those simply looking for a deliciously educational adventure. Whatever the reason, it might be time to cross a bridge.

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AT A GLANCE

DollarBouffe: 7250 Taschereau Blvd., Brossard; 450-500-0893; facebook.com/DollarBouffe

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