30 April 2011

Pho, London - Restaurant Review

Pho first opened in London’s Clerkenwell in 2005. It is the brainchild of British couple Stephen and Juliette Wall, who first set upon the idea while backpacking in Vietnam. Although it’s been around for a few years now, Pho feels like a newcomer and there's still an exciting buzz about its relatively novel (in the UK at least) menu of Vietnamese street food. Indeed, it sort of reminds me of Wagamama circa 1994, and I suspect the ambition here is to do for Vietnamese food what Alan Yau did for Japanese ramen at the wildly successful, if imperfect, Wagamama – which is no bad thing at all in my opinion.

As of writing, Pho has four branches in London and one in Brighton. I’ve eaten at Pho a few times, although all have been at their Shepherd's Bush branch located in that love-it-or-loathe-it temple of consumerism that is the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd's Bush.

The menu at Pho is centred on the Vietnamese national dish of phở (took me ages to find those accent marks), and the restaurant offers 11 different types of the famous rice noodle soup. There are also a variety dishes like bún chả (vermicelli noodles with greens and various toppings), gỏi (Vietnamese salads), bánh xèo (filled savoury crepes), gỏi cuốn (summer rolls), cari (er...curry), and of course the legendary cà phê chồn a.k.a. weasel "poo" coffeeUnlike at Wagamama, the food at Pho is prepared fresh at each site and is not serviced by a central kitchen.
A side dish of chả giò (fried pork spring rolls, £4.45) was fine, if a bit bland, tasting like it had been cooked some time earlier. The sweet chilli dipping sauce livened things up a touch. But this was ultimately a forgettable dish.
Another side of gỏi cuốn tôm (summer rolls with prawns and herbs, £4.25) was much better. Plump prawns and herbs were wrapped in a translucent rice wrapper. The freshness of this dish really shone through, especially with the liberal addition of coriander and mint.

A main course of phở bò viên (rice noodle soup with beef meatballs and fresh herbs, £7.45 – pictured at the top) didn’t do much for me. The broth had a pleasing mild aroma of star anise, cloves and cinnamon but it tasted watery and lacked any beefy depth of flavour. The beef meatballs were OK but needed a bit more seasoning. At the side of the bowl was an array of sparklingly fresh herbs, fresh lime, chillies and bean sprouts with which you could jazz up your bowl of noodles. The addition of some extra fish sauce and hot sauce worked wonders, lifting the dish significantly.
On another occasion I tried a bún gà huế (hot & spicy soup with chicken, £7.95) and found this to be much better than the meatball phở I tried earlier. The broth it came in was deliciously punchy, with a lovely depth of flavour to it. The sliced chicken breast was also well cooked, retaining its juiciness – no mean feat when you’re cooking in this sort of ‘fast food’ environment. The one let down was the noodles, which seemed to have knitted themselves into a large claggy ball, making it pretty difficult to eat with chopsticks.

I know next to nothing about Vietnamese food, so it's hard to judge whether this is as authentic Vietnamese street food as Pho claims it is. But who cares? I know what my taste buds are telling me and the food served at Pho is mostly tasty, fresh and a cut above many other places at this price level. On the whole I'd give Pho a cautious thumbs up and I'll certainly be trying more of their menu.

Food:         6 / 10
Service:     7 / 10 No table service, you order at a counter, but staff friendly enough
Ambiance: 5 / 10 (The one I went to was in a shopping centre)

Various locations
United Kingdom
Pho on Urbanspoon
Square Meal


  1. Lovely post: but next time your in London try the shoreditch "pho mile" kingsland road way better than pho. Cay Tre or Viet Grill. They are both authentic, cheap and cheerful. :)

  2. Thanks Jingan, I've heard much about Hackney's 'pho mile' and I imagine that it's *the* place to go for authentic Vietnamese food in London. I'll have to make sure I stop by one day.