Oslo used to have a consistently great Pho place in the shape of Hai Cafe. The large, gloomy interior with it's rather cold service, but warming bowls of soup were a highlight of any hunger pang. With rent prices hiking they gave up their location promising to open a new shop. The years have rolled by without any hint of a new place opening yet, so we were forced to return to the mediocre haunts or try new ones in the hope that something, somewhere could come close. Could Oslo muster TWO good Pho places? The answer is yes.
With the main problem being consistency, we are drawn into the murkey waters of recommending places based on them at their best, and fully aware that if someone visited on a bad day, they would wonder what the hell the fuss was about. Understanding this, the seven bowls crushed were Pho Mai, Xin Chao, Far East, Lille Saigon, Da Lat Cafe, Sea Sushi and Mama Pho.
In the spirit of top ten lists, we'll stick to a seven bowl review with the worst, first.
The Kids Aren't Alright
Ultimately there will always be pretenders. I could almost smell the falsehoods arriving to this "trendy" restaurant that you find in every downtown in every city. Suspiciously vacant of any spine of authenticity, playing more on the "hip casual" curse that pervades with its deep reach, where care in the kitchen is traded in for money spent on interior decorators and social media accounts. You can bet your bottom dollar the food will be mediocre, the prices just a hair below choking range, and the service friendly but not warm.
To cut to the chase. The broth was overly sweet, and unduly aggressive on the black pepper. The meatball had a very firm, tough texture. The noodles were not great. The actual beef slice was fairly prepared, and the tiny smattering of accompaniments took the entire joy out of having a heaped plate full of culantro, cilantro, basil, lime, chilis, etc with which to conjure magic.
At 189 kr for a bowl that wasn't even half-filled up, i'd say the price point was also disappointing.
I really hope they get their act together and start taking more care with the details, otherwise I think the people seeking out Oslo's best pho will be forced to look elsewhere.
lille saigon 1
Time has woven it's forgetfull fabrics over my memory and I decided to re-visit this popular Vietnamese spot to truly gauge the quality of the other spots in town. I found the furthest corner avoiding other species and ordered the beef pho, readying my camera to capture the elation or grief.
Spooning in my first mouthfuls of broth was underwhelming. There was a beef flavour but overall the taste was quite watered down with no aromatics pushing through. Along with the two kinds of noodles, the oddly textured beef pieces (some tender, some chewy), the plate of bruised herbs and a smattering of bean sprouts, I found the bowl grew tired the further I explored.
One of those Pho bowls where you leave more than half the broth even after attacking it with all sorts of condiments like a rabid heart resuscitator trying to pump life into it, but alas, to no avail.
I've never been a fan of the overly sweet, overtly spiced broths. Some people slurp them up like their oxygen supply is linked to gulping, smacking their lips with sweet abandon as the star anise and cinnamon flavoured broth slides down their esophagus. I, however, have always favoured the more savoury options where the whole spices are blended in with the other ingredients.
Xin Chao does a good bowl of Pho. Is it great? No. The broth is too sweet, the noodles are not the kind I personally prefer. Positives? Extremely friendly service, the beef was super tender and tasty. That's as far as it goes.
Broth being the God of the altar, this baptism was a lukewarm ritual, and at 199Kr a bowl, it's bordering on abuse.
da lat cafe
Dalat was visited once almost a decade ago, and I remember not being overly impressed, and honestly quite put off by the over-riding smell of wet dog and marinated arse. Times have changed, and without Hai to tempt my hardly earned Kroners, and others more recently tested, I made it a point to give them a second chance and see if things had improved.
In short, they had.
The smell was rather more pleasant. The service was friendlier than I remembered (tho i'd take a grumpy asshole and retching odours if the soup was up to par). I ordered their Beef Pho and sat watching the ice cubes in my water glass melt quicker than was reasonable. It was a scorching day.
Bowl came a'balancing, and I sipped the broth clean before pouring and tearing in condiments and improvements. It was better than I remembered, but also had that over-sweet taste that I wasn't the biggest fan of. Too much cinnamon or star anise tilting the balance. The beef was rather dry and chewy, the meatball standard and the noodles were as expected. Garnishes aside, since they generally are raw ingredients bought in, the chili garlic paste had a pleasant kick, and added much needed tempering of the sweetness.
Ultimately, the bowl was a good substitution for the vacuum left by Hai, but ranked as the fourth best bowl of Pho i've tried so far in Oslo.
To rank this higher than Da Lat is controversial. I do hammer it home that for me the most important thing is taste, even tho price does come into play. A bowl of Pho at this darkly lit homage to the 70's comes in a jaw-dropping 180 Kr.... Yes.... almost twenty euro for fucking broth, rice noodles and a few speckles of meat.
This alone should have placed it firmly in last place, but the argument can be made for the quality and quantity of the food. Broth being the carrier of truth, this place was definitely well balanced (tho a touch heavy on fish sauce), the meat was the normal offerings and the condiment plate came as expected. One slight downer was the noodles were mushy, which does add a bit of misfortune to the overall experience.
However, the service and the flavour of the food was overall better than at Da Lat, and the place was vacant of the smells associated with the aforementioned haunt.
I'd give this a third place finish as far as I've gotten in my quest to try every place in Oslo serving a form of Pho.
This was the second time I ate at Pho Mai, the first visit being a good one. Having heard numerous reports from friends that the quality varied drastically from almost sublime, to bath-water, the knot in my stomach tightened with every labored step. I arrived to find the lights off and doors locked, 2.10pm, said they opened at 2 online. I decided to call my sister for a few minutes and lo and behold, during my call the owner came out and opened the door.
Inside I just ordered the Beef Pho, forgetting to even look at the menu. I chose a vantage point that offered my back to the counter, and a view through a window. My bowl arrived after 5 minutes, placed down by the cheery older owner. He mentioned he was from Saigon, and beamed at the bowl before me quietly adding "This one is better than in Vietnam". Tho I won't call him a liar, he was stretching the truth. The Pho in Oslo doesn't hold a candle to most places in Ho Chi Minh, but far be it from me to go down memory lane now.
Rumours from the interwebs/dark secrets told in bars, speak of a rift in the management at Pho Mai which has resulted in the expulsion of the previous cook and a mediocre replacement. So tread carefully, tho we cannot substantiate these claims, we feel the need to warn you.
Never one to turn down a tip from a "local", I was urged to head here to try the authentic Pho. Regardless of my initial doubts of it being a popular sushi place, compounded by the fact the menu offers Thai, Viet and Japanese cuisine, I trusted the instincts of another soul and ordered a bowl.
Mind and matter were transformed into immediate reverie. This was the holy grail I had hoped to find in Oslo, but been constantly disappointed. What may have been a generic looking sushi restaurant had someone working in the kitchen that had magic hands.
Everything was faultless. I couldn't quite believe I was eating this in Oslo. The broth was clear, deep, beefy, aromatic but kept its relevance the further down the bowl you dove. The meat was fine, the noodles regular, the herbs as you'd expect, but damn, the broth is all that matters and this place nailed it.
For once, a place in Oslo that I could happily eat at every week, and for a decent price of 159kr a bowl, you're not shooting your foot in anger afterwards either.
A deserved winner.
p.s. If you're willing to step outside of your comfort zones, then we highly recommend a trip to Strømmen to try the authentic Pho at Ganh. It's truly worth it
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.