The freezing gale spat us inside like chewed skoal. Past the yellow façade with the green palm tree silhouette and into the wonderfully gaudy pan-Asian dining room decked out in the international language of the prefab Chinese restaurant: Foo Dogs, ornate panels and all-gold-everything. For a period in the mid-‘90s, Reykjavík was home to at least five restaurants more or less identical to Asía.
Eating ethnic food in Iceland used to be a trip to a fantasy land—a tour of a plastic theme park, a way to temporarily escape the bleak midwinter and indulge in some national stereotypes. But the times have changed and now Icelanders are clamouring for trendy Brooklyn bars, sushi and dainty dill stews in jam jars. Twenty-four years young, Asía stands strong, a remnant of Iceland’s fanatical food fixations, and an attempt to rectify our utter lack of edible Chinese takeout.
Asía boasts a classic old school Chinese restaurant menu with well over a hundred individual dishes, which is just insane enough to be impressive. But the emphasis is on their prix fixe lunch specials. We ordered the satay (1290 ISK), spring rolls (890 ISK), Szechuan lamb (2,290 ISK) and moo shoo pork (2,090 ISK). We ordered some prawn crackers as well, but they never made it. We soon discovered how they managed this dazzling array of dishes on the menu: by ironing out any wrinkle of variety. Those hoping for an elegant, cyclopean wall of carefully balanced flavours should brace themselves for the bland sameness of 100 plus dishes cemented together by the same oily gloop. I honestly suspect them of lathering the same sauce base over everything and only manipulating the colour and level of sweet and sour sauce mix. Neither of us was able to taste anything other than salt, oil and sugar.
The plastic tablecloth was a sensible choice. Any other fabric would have been permanently drenched by the deluge of grease flowing out of that kitchen. BP oil-drowns fewer animals in a year than Asía manages in a single afternoon
Oh, and the dessert was a deep-fried banana with ice cream (790 ISK). The banana had almost definitely been deep-fried in the same oil as the pork, causing it to be infused with a hefty pork aroma. This complemented the bargain bin vanilla ice cream and imitation whipped cream the way an amputee might lop off his remaining arm for improved balance.
I am not comparing the Chinese restaurants in Iceland to some unapproachable ideal. I’m not expecting haute cuisine and I’m not comparing this to actual Chinese food in actual China (I’ve never been). I’m comparing them to the cheap Chinese takeaway I’ve had all over the world. The Chinese joint I did the most business with was a hole in a bulletproof glass shield in a dugout in Crown Heights; next to the hole was an aquarium full of dead fish. Not that hard to beat.
Asía used to be a decent restaurant and maybe it’s not beyond repair. I’m not one for nostalgia, but I must admit a little sadness at seeing the state of the cooking there. Let’s just hope it won’t be replaced by yet another trendstaurant. You might wonder why people still go there to eat. Why did people post “Perfect Day” to Facebook on the day Lou Reed died? Why do we love playing that song—Lou Reed’s ode to heroin use—at weddings? Why do people with functioning taste buds see food primarily in terms of its nutritional value? Why can’t Icelanders eat sushi without deep-frying it? Why does “Baby” by Justin Bieber have 920 million views on Youtube?
The answer, my friend, is frying in the wok.
What We Think: Sigh
Flavour: Chinese (mostly)
Service: The service was actually pretty good
Price for 2 (with wine): 12-15,000 ISK
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