Keflavík Pt. 3 Skip to content

Keflavík Pt. 3

Words by
Ragnar Tómas Hallgrímsson

Photography by

keflavík iceland


The noon traffic is picking up inside Langbest, a fast-food restaurant in the Ásbrú neighbourhood of Keflavík, which has been a fixture of the local food scene since 1986.

Langbest serves pizza, hamburgers, and chicken wings – and it’s owned and operated by Ingólfur Karlsson, a jovial, bearded fellow, who sits us down in a corner booth and lets us in on his secret. Consistency.

“We’re at about the third generation of people eating here,” he says. “It’s become a kind of tradition. People grew up here, and they come back here for something familiar. You could say that it’s seeped into their subconscious.”

As I dig into a bowl of chicken wings, jab my fork at the salad – Langbest’s most popular dish, it turns out – and nibble at some pizza, I understand the appeal. Not to mention all the history. Near the entrance, there’s a wall of photos from the time of the naval station.

The building, which also houses a hair salon, was constructed in 1957 and consecrated by famed army cheerleader Bob Hope. It was initially christened “The Viking Mall,” a shopping and community centre that later came to house a rotation of fast-food restaurants: Wendy’s, Subway, All American Food. Since Langbest opened in 2008, the kitchen’s remained almost unchanged. Every now and then, a former soldier drops in.

Ingólfur recalls opening his doors one morning, and an elderly gentleman and his wife walking in. The two of them sat awhile at a table in the back. Ingólfur walked over and clarified that if they’d like to order, they could come on over to the cash register.

“I know all about that,” the man replied.

The man’s name was Thomas F. Hall, and he was the former Commander of Fleet Air Keflavik and the Iceland Defence Force, he explained: the one who had spent the first five-dollar bill at the original Wendy’s – the same five-dollar bill that had been pinned to the kitchen wall in remembrance of the act. When the naval station closed in 2006, Thomas Hall had returned as part of a special closing committee. After all of the military’s equipment had been packed up and readied, he had sat on the aeroplane and awaited its take-off – when he remembered that five-dollar bill. He sent a soldier back to the base to retrieve it. It was the last thing they took.

Ingólfur began working at the naval base mess hall at the age of 15 and stayed there for 12 years (he worked five years for the navy and seven for the air force). When the army left, he got laid off, but by that time, he had been operating Langbest in downtown Keflavík for almost a decade. Not long after losing his job at the base, he was called into a meeting with Kadeco and invited to open a second Langbest in this building. Ingólfur agreed. He spent almost ISK 60 million [$436,000] on renovations, and when Langbest opened its doors in Ásbrú in 2008, the banking collapse was in the offing. He operated two Langbest restaurants between 2008 and 2014 but closed the one in town during that latter year.

Langbest in Icelandic is a compound word made up of lang, meaning, roughly, “way” (as in “way better”) and best, meaning, well… Asked about the origins of the name, Ingólfur recalls that it derives from an argument between the original owner of the place, Axel Jónsson, and his brother, a waiter. His brother wanted to give the restaurant an Italian name, but Axel, the chef, disagreed. During their argument, they continually said, “No, it’s way better to…” And so the third brother, overhearing the argument, interrupted: “Why don’t you just name it Langbest?”

“If you paste the name into Google Translate you get Second to None – which is a great name for the restaurant,” Ingólfur observes.

“If you have to eat at other places in town,” I ask, “where do you go?”

“I like Issi’s Fish and Chips. His fish is good. Fresh. Consistent.”

Issi Fish and Chips

Jóhann Issi Hallgrímsson has an impeccable beard with a moustache that curls up on each side toward his rather striking eyes. He’s serving fish and chips from his food truck in Fitjar (which is, technically, outside this article’s purview, given that it’s not in Keflavík).

Issi grew up in nearby Grindavík and operates Issi Fish and Chips with his wife Hjördís. The two dated briefly during grade school before splitting up. They found each other again 20 years later, got married, had kids, and founded the company Tralli (named for his grandparents’ dog) in 2016.

“None of this would be possible without her,” Issi says, with a glint in his eye.

He’d actually founded the business while working another job. As the two roles grew more difficult to juggle, Issi was called into a meeting with his former superiors. They began to reprimand him until Issi interrupted: “I’m gonna have to stop you; I have to give notice.” The meeting ended on amicable terms, and Issi’s been his own boss ever since.

keflavík food

Like for most people in the business, COVID was a setback – but the volcanic eruption in 2021 provided an opportunity. As soon as he heard the lava was flowing, Issi revved up his food truck and headed off toward the volcano. He parked his truck at the trailhead, knowing that the people would come. Despite spending a month there, and, in his own words, making a good buck – he never bothered to visit the eruption itself. He was too busy frying fish.

Although he has no direct connection to the naval base, he agrees that it had a big impact on the fast-food culture in Keflavík. When he lived in Grindavík, he used to compete against the Americans in basketball. It wasn’t so much the sport that was thrilling, but the oversized pizzas that they used to serve at Wendy’s. “Not to mention the Dr. Pepper.”

Issi’s grandfather, Jón Kristjánsson, was the first Icelander to open a fish and chips joint in Iceland (as far as he knows). It was in Akureyri, North Iceland, and was called Matarkjallarinn (the Food Cellar). It burned down in 1942. The family has since joked that the old man had gone out to drink with British soldiers and forgotten to turn off the frying pan.

Issi attributes the popularity of his food truck to the freshness of his ingredients. He gets all of his fish fresh from the ship Þorbjörn in Grindavík. He says he’s meticulous about cleanliness: regularly replacing the oil and keeping the sieves clear. He laments the rising prices of ingredients and says that some fish and chips vendors in the UK have closed their doors, as opposed to raising prices.

Asked where he eats in Keflavík, he says that he’s a regular at Pulsuvagninn.


Pulsuvagninn is, undoubtedly, the most famous fast-food joint in Keflavík. It’s operated by Vilberg Skúlason – called Villi – who was born in 1957 in Blönduós, North Iceland and raised in the south, in Selfoss. A trained meat processor, Villi came to Keflavík after being persuaded to come work at the now-defunct Víkurbær, the first supermarket in town, by its owner.

Pulsuvagninn first opened its doors in 1977. It was originally owned by “a few local boys,” Villi explains, one of whom had spent time in Denmark – from where he borrowed the famous hamburger recipe (it’s marinated in a special oil and served with red cabbage). In its heyday, Pulsuvagninn was a little shack on wheels that solely offered a hot dog with everything and soft drinks from a soda fountain.

food in keflavík

Villi and his wife took over the hot dog truck in 1980, and the hot dogs and original Danish hamburger have remained unchanged. Along with his wife, Villi operates Pulsuvagninn with Inga Hilda Gústafsdóttir, whom he met in 1978. When Villi bought Pulsuvagninn, Inga was working at a school cafeteria, but Villi persuaded her to come work for him. She now owns a share of the truck.

“She’s absolutely indispensable,” Villi says, with Inga standing next to him, in the staff quarters in the back of Pulsuvagninn. Inga explains that, these days, staffing is the toughest part of the business. “We’ve been forced to recruit younger and younger employees. All the way down to the 10th grade,” Inga says. “We used to employ housewives, but now they’re all working at the schools. People seem to be a lot better off – they can afford to work less. I understand it, of course, but the trend’s been problematic for us, nonetheless,” Villi observes, adding that some of the younger generation haven’t “learned to work.”

Pulsuvagninn (The Hot Dog Cart) is spelled with a u instead of the more widely-accepted y (Pylsuvagninn), which sometimes inspires criticism from language-sensitive customers. Villi recalls someone once stopping by and finding fault with the spelling, before replying in English – when asked what size of fries he wanted – that he wanted “medium.”

Thai Keflavík

The first time I saw the Grammy-nominated band Kaleo was at the Night of Lights festival at Thai Keflavík. JJ Júlíusson, the band’s frontman, belted out Vor í Vaglaskógi at least twice that evening, on account of popular demand, before the song had actually been released.

JJ and Magnús Heimisson, the owner and manager of Thai Keflavík, are “cousins” (JJ’s stepfather and Magnús’ father are brothers). According to Magnús, Keflavík residents spend something like 30% more than capital area residents on fast food. Hoping to open a food hall in Ásbrú, Magnús has recently been delving into the books of restaurants in the area – and some of the numbers, he says, have been quite astonishing.

“Pulsuvagninn, for example, unbelievable revenue! Makes me wonder what the hell I’ve been doing all this time.”

thai food keflavík

Digging into some Pad Thai, which is fantastic (the wife and I sometimes make special trips to Keflavík on account of it), I ask Magnús about the nature of his clientele.

“Icelanders? Foreigners? Thai people?”

“Mostly Icelanders. Thai people cook at home – they know how to make Thai food.”

“What was COVID like for you?”

“Shit, man. We were in our death throes. But it was good, ultimately, because people wanted to support local restaurants. Last summer was the biggest summer since we opened 16 years ago. Even without the tourists.” Magnús also mentions that the eruption helped, as well as quarantining tourists ordering delivery.

As far as the food hall in Ásbrú is concerned, Magnús is excited. He’d like to preserve some association with the naval station.

“Not that I’m going to open an army-themed food hall, but to keep some elements that pay homage to the history. Some of the locals would like to forget all about the naval station era. But the younger generation should take pride in their history. Besides, the tourists love hearing about it.”


Oriento is a family business situated in downtown Keflavík that opened its doors in August of 2019. The family, comprised of parents Mohamad Chikh and Natalia Bujorean, and their two children, Mahmoud Chikh (called Memo) and Nahla Chikh, moved here in 2017. They lived in Innri Njarðvík before relocating to Ásbrú and then settling in Keflavík.

Mohamad is Syrian and Natalia is Moldovan. They met in Greece, where they lived for seven years leading up to the economic crisis in 2008. They moved back to Syria until war broke out and they fled to Iceland. Memo, their son, sits with his parents at a table in the back of the restaurant and translates. His sister’s off today.

keflavík food

“What do you think of Keflavík?”

“It’s okay. It’s a little bit boring. For any kind of diversion, you need to go to Reykjavík.”

“Do you go often?”

“Not really. Not to mention how expensive gas has become.”

As I taste the lamb Souvlaki, which is rather good (I’m so full at this point that food has lost all meaning), the family appears a little worried that our interview will cut into time with customers.

“It’s the second of the month, so we’re quite busy,” Memo says. “Yesterday was crazy. They just kept coming. No breaks.”

I learn that Memo’s father has worked here every day since they opened their doors three years ago, from 9:00 AM to 1:00 AM, without a single day off.

“I think the only day he took off was Christmas Day last year – because no one else was open,” Memo observes.

food keflavík

“And how long is he going to keep this up?” I ask. Memo turns to his father.

“He doesn’t know. We’re trying to find staff, but it’s been difficult. Most people want to work off the books (svart, or black, in Icelandic), but we can’t do that.” He says that some people collect unemployment benefits and then work off the books to supplement their income.

I ask Memo what his father’s going to do when he finally takes a day off.

“Sit in the sun. Either that or close the restaurant for a week and rent a summer cabin.

keflavík iceland

But he worries that if he closes people will become upset.”

“I think most people will understand if he takes a few days off,” I reply.

The conversation turns to more troubling aspects of their business. Oriento’s been robbed twice since the family opened its doors. They have photos of burglars’ faces, but the police haven’t done anything.

“They can’t catch them – or they don’t want to,” Memo says. “I don’t understand it. The last burglar took money from the cash register, and we knew the person who robbed us before that.”

Memo explains that they found the culprit on Facebook – a familiar face to the police. He was a friend of a former employee, who had probably known that his father was saving up money, which he kept at Oriento, to open a restaurant in Reykjavík.

Memo regularly visits Langbest. It’s the only fast-food place that he really likes. “The food is just good. It’s got a lot of variety. It’s not expensive.”

Anton's Mamma Mia

Anton Narváez was born in Chile. He studied boat building in Denmark before moving to Iceland in 1967. He opened his first restaurant, El Sombrero, in downtown Reykjavík in 1984. Four years later, he constructed Argentina Steakhouse – one of Iceland’s most famous steakhouses – from scratch. Over the next 35 years, Anton would open eight more restaurants.

In 2019, he had planned on opening his eleventh and final restaurant, Mamma Mia, at Garðarshólmi (constructed in 1909) in Keflavík. But while renovating the house, he died suddenly from a heart attack.

Prior to starting the project, he had approached Eyrún Anna Gestsdóttir, called Eyja – whom he had met in Kaffi Duus some years earlier – if she’d manage the restaurant. Upon his death, Anton’s son pulled out of the project, and the building stood empty for three months.

Sitting across from me at Anton’s Mamma Mia, at a table next to the window – it’s probably the smallest restaurant in Keflavík, a total of eight tables, or 28 seats – Eyja recalls how her mother’s death in 2016 altered her perspective on life.

“Life is so short, in the end, and you should do what you want to do. If you fail, you fail – but at least no one can accuse you of not having tried.”

Moved by this epiphany, Eyja approached Anton’s family and received the green light to open the restaurant on her own.

“Anton had wanted to call the restaurant Mamma Mia, but I got permission from his children to call it Anton’s Mamma Mia, to honour his memory,” Eyja remarks.

“Has owning a restaurant been what you expected?”

“Darling, no, sometimes I want to go in the back and shoot myself!” Eyja goes on to explain, with a kind of salt-of-the-earth bluntness that’s thoroughly charming, that opening a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic was a challenge, although she wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Anton’s Mamma Mia specialises in pizza. I ask her if the recipes originated with Anton.

“No, the menu is mine. My baker Sigter helped me with the recipes. When it came to naming the pizzas, I cracked open a beer and improvised.”

Eyja was born in 1976 and raised in Reykjanesbær. Her mother’s father was an American soldier from Oklahoma.

“Did he and your grandmother have a long relationship?”

“There was no relationship. I never met my grandfather. Nor did my mother – but she bears his name: Combs.”

“Any plans of going to Oklahoma, tracking down your family?”

“Nope. I’ll be here. Focusing on this place.”

Nauseous from the day’s gluttony, I dig into a 9-inch Combs pizza (with garlic, bell peppers, onions, lobster, shrimp, Camembert, and arugula) and enjoy it. As far as that’s possible.

Share article