Wardour Street, a one-way path of highs and lows. Tourists clog up the road in search of the authentic London, smart media folk rush past with Blackberry in hand, and the Ann Summers clientele are abundant.
In the midst of this colourful chaos there’s Pho, a Vietnamese restaurant serving street food at its best. The first Pho restaurant was opened in 2005 by the enthusiastic couple, Steve and Juliette Wall, who were so inspired by the national Vietnamese dish “pho”, that they felt the need to bring it to London. By now, it’s no longer a newcomer, but an expanding chain that has four successful restaurants scattered across London. The Wardour Street branch is the latest.
Pho is a simple noodle soup dish and can be served in so many ways that yours truly was quite overwhelmed by the extensive menu. Luckily, for the indecisive, the staff are happy to share their favourites, and this certainly saved 20 minutes of dillydallying between the pork and lemongrass meatballs or the summer rolls – in the end I went for both anyway.
Like so many other Soho restaurants, Polpo being the forefather here, Pho has a no-reservation policy. This you can argue is good; anyone can get a taste of the Pho Bo Vien and you don’t have to be royalty (alas, so few of us are) to grab a table. On the other hand, if you’re like me and don’t like queuing, you’ll find this policy an inconvenience. Princess behaviour aside, Pho is rather great.
In short, the portions are generous, prices are fair and the place has got a real buzz. It was a Tuesday night and the restaurant was packed – mind you, it was still three days until pay day, which technically means people should be weeping in their empty fridges. This brought me great joy as I realised that I no longer have to schlep to Kingsland Road to get decent Vietnamese food.
The spicy green mango salad was fresh and light, and a perfect accompaniment to the heavier fried pork spring roll. Being a particular critic of meatballs (such is my Swedish heritage), I would’ve liked a meatier, porkier version of the lemongrass and pork meatballs, but there was nothing to complain about the citrusy flavour.
My dining companion ordered the Bun Bo Hue (a hot noodle soup with spicy brisket beef), which came with a side plate of herbs and chillies. Surprisingly, this had not only a beautiful taste, but proved to be so charmingly spicy and steamy that it gave him a “facial spa” while eating it. Quite a pore-detox.
My Bun Cha Gio Tom (tiger prawns) came in a massive bowl with fresh lettuce, vermicelli rice noodles and a vegetarian spring roll. Served cold, this is a perfect summer dish, as soup might give unpleasant hot flashes in July. It’s always good to plan your meal ahead.
Hanoi-haven was reached when I had my first scoop of the ginger ice cream. My unfurling flower tea was a pretty sight, but couldn’t quite compare to the banana fritters and ice cream which stole the show – calories often do. My ever brave dining partner had weasel coffee, which I expect kept him up all night as it had quite a caffeine kick.
Waddling out of the door, being the last guests, we looked at each other in agreement. Pho had delivered. The food was better than a chain restaurant and the interior with its wooden walls and exotic-looking red ceiling (a nod to the neighbourhood and the aforementioned Ann Summers crowd?) had character. What happens when the concept expands further, and it’s too good not to, remains to be seen, but what is clear is that Pho Soho is a solid gateway to the streets of Saigon.
Pho Soho, 163-165 Wardour Street, London W1F 8WN. Tel. 020 7434 3938. Website.