Globalisation works in mysterious ways. Iceland is not host to any great Italian, French or Mexican restaurants, but we have good Thai, good Ethiopian, solid Nepalese and scores of vaguely authentic Japanese food of varying quality...and now Reykjavík boasts its first proper Vietnamese restaurant.
Most of my experience with Vietnamese food boils down to hanging out in the kitchen of my former girlfriend’s mother. She liked to feed chubby white boys and I liked to eat—we got along great. She even dragged me along to a few hole-in-the-wall places in Vietnam Town in Paris, a city where I must have tried every hole-in-the wall, dodgy but-tasty pho joint.
Having undergone the comparably gentle Frenchification process as a former colony, Vietnam retains the influences from the imposed lessons (lesions?) such as baguettes, pâtés, ridiculously strong coffee and carnage basted in political ideals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US has asserted a less significant influence on Vietnamese cuisine. Not that you would know by looking at the red vinyl diner seats, but we are mercifully in Iceland so there is no need to fret about sweaty summer dresses clinging to the polyvinyl chloride and sullying the reputation of Reykjavík’s chaste maidens.
Pho serves fried meats with rice vermicelli noodles and pho soup… with fried meats and rice vermicelli noodles. I definitely recommend the Vietnamese spring rolls as a side dish, which comes fresh or fried… with meats and rice vermicelli noodles (I’m beginning to sense a pattern here). Pho also offers lovely shakes with ingredients like jackfruit, avocado, strawberries and rainbow (sic).
The beef noodle soup (1,290 ISK) is excellent and all the soups come with bean sprouts and salad on the side. The soups are not as aromatic and dense as what you get at The Noodle Station on Skólavörðustígur—the Pho broth is lighter, tangier and has more of a ginger-peanut flavour. The broth isn’t spicy, but the tables come teeming with sauces, most of which are cut from the cloth of soy-garlic-chilli (don't expect soy sauce though) and you can flavour things to your heart’s content. I recommend not being shy with the fish sauce.
The spring rolls come fried or fresh (summer rolls). I recommend the fresh ones with prawns (990 ISK). The fresh spring rolls are decent; they contain bean sprouts, a bit of cilantro, lettuce and vermicelli. But they could have used more Thai basil and cilantro. The fried spring rolls are mostly made with minced pork as usual, but it seems that they can only be ordered as part of the grilled pork and noodle dishes.
The price is right. If you go all out on the menu then we are still not looking at much more than 2,000 ISK. Although the soups are mostly broth and noodles, the ratio of meat and veggies is no less than what you would see in a wrap purchased downtown (the bulk of which is the dirt cheap wrap itself). So you would pay less for a fresh-tasting dish of fried pork, spring rolls and noodles than you would for a lousy kebab wrap with French fries in most places. Oh and don’t delude yourself into thinking the chicken, which has been rolled around in oil, sweetener and flour, is any lower in calories than the fried pork. So you might as well just go for the tasty pork.
One last thing: At the time of writing, Pho has no website, Facebook page or listing on restaurants.is and is only listed under “Vietnamese restaurant” in the phonebook. So don’t lose this review.
Pho Vietnam Restaurant
Ármúli 21, 108 Reykjavík
What We Think: Pho may not be in the top 10, but it get points for authenticity, very reasonable prices, quality ingredients and for adding variety to the Reykjavík restaurant scene.
Flavour: Pretty much standard Vietnamese food. Fresh. Lighter than you’d think if you’re used to Chinese take-out.
Ambiance: When you look around and see that you’re the only non-Vietnamese person in there then you know you’re probably in the right place.
Service: The blonde girl working did a great job of imitating the stone-face somnambulist service I’ve come to expect at Vietnamese restaurants (no sarcasm intended, sycophant servers are worse than Stalin). But next time I want my coffee after the meal.
Price (for 1): 1,300–2,000 ISK