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When I get the assignment to eat and review a bunch of packages of instant pho, I have $14.79 in my checking account. I also have a close-to-debilitating flu; I can’t stand up for more than a few minutes, I’m alternately hot and freezing, and I sort of think my dog is plotting to kill me. The assignment is a backhanded gift. On the one hand, I get free food. On the other hand, it’s food I could actually afford to buy for myself. But I represent a huge chunk of the packaged-pho industry’s target market: people who want to spend between 50 and 250 cents on a meal and don’t want to spend more than five minutes cooking something. So I accept the assignment.
Before I begin, I establish some ground rules: I’ll follow the instructions on each package exactly; I’ll always eat the whole thing, broth and all; and I won’t add extra fixings or meat (though I’m sure that’s what a lot of people who buy instant noodles do, and that it would be an easy way to make everything taste better). I’m looking for the purest experience possible—to taste the handiwork of the artisans at these pho companies as they intended me to.
Butterfly Pho Bo
This is top-notch packaging. Everything you need for the meal (fork, oil, seasoning packet, noodle brick) is contained in one sturdy plastic two-piece bowl. The oil is unusually viscous and difficult to squeeze out of its packet. The noodles are actually ramen-style noodles, but they boil up pretty okay. It might be the fever talking, but I love the broth. It’s mostly just a spicy burning flavor. It makes me sweat, my eyes start to water, and, honestly, for a second after my first gulp I feel closer to death than I ever have. But then I drink some more, and I’m more alive than ever.
Mama Pho Bo
This one’s packaging is similar to Butterfly’s, but flimsier. But HOLD UP NOW, it has a folded-in-half fork nestled in the noodles that you can lock in place for Maximum Fork. Whoever’s responsible for fork innovation at Mama is frankly a genius and needs to be made president of the company.
The noodles seem closer to what I’d expect to find in pho. But once I start eating, it turns out I’m just back at the trough for another broth fix. It is richer and saltier and not as spicy as the Butterfly Pho Bo. I love it, just in a different way. It makes me think about the infinite possibility of these broth flavor packets and what I could bring to the game. If the executive producers of Shark Tank are reading this, please contact me—I am hoping to start an artisanal-broth flavor-packet company. I’m willing to work with you on the name, but I personally think it should be called Hot Water Flavor Packet Company. There’s a huge unexplored market here.
Another foldable fork! I’m going to keep all these forks in my pocket from now on so I can whip them out in any emergency eating situation. My girlfriend likens eating Mama Cup’s noodles to eating tiny dusty ropes. She also tells me that all of this sodium might be dangerous to consume, and I have no idea what she’s talking about. It turns out that too much salt is bad for you, and I didn’t know this, and I’m a grown-up adult, so maybe it’s useful to print that here? I appreciate that this soup comes in a cup, because what I really want to do is pour the noodles out and drink the super spicy broth.
Snapdragon Vietnamese Pho
The branding and package design of Snapdragon makes me think this is gonna be some bullshit. No offense if you’re the lead designer for Snapdragon though, it’s probably the higher-ups at the company keeping you down. I would definitely grab any of the other packages listed here on the shelf before this one.
Sadly, the flavor is as bland as the label. The broth is a bit oily, and there’s a sort of sterile, chemical under-taste. I think the dry flavor packets look kind of pretty all mixed together though, so that’s one good thing.
Oh! Ricey Pho Ga
This is the best of the bunch to me, without question. The seasoning packets are generous, the noodles are nice and flat and don’t get mushy very quickly, and furthermore, it makes for the most appealing-looking bowl here—the warm color of the broth, and all the little green things and fake veggies floating around there make for a pretty close approximation of a real bowl of pho. My girlfriend likes it, too, so if you don’t believe me, you should definitely believe her. Also, she eats a lot of the broth and I sort of get jealous.
Oh! Ricey Pho Bo
I think I’m getting a little tired of eating and describing soup, but this one tastes just like the last one, except with a spoonful of mustard. Which is: not bad.
Mama Oriental Style Instant Noodle Clear Soup
I was surprised to learn that this was a Mama product as well. Are there any oversight committees that can investigate whether or not Mama is doing something illegal by monopolizing the marketplace?
Antitrust law aside, if you’re interested in buying a Trump-style toupee for a small animal, I would recommend this noodle block. I’d also recommend it if you’re looking to simulate the experience of eating Donald Trump’s cooked, wet hair. The noodles also feel somehow endless, like they manage to multiply with every bite you take. I’m not a fan.
The flavor packet is divided in half: one portion is soup base, the other is chili powder, and the resulting broth, like the last Mama product, is incredibly spicy.
Mamy?! Come on, that’s so close to Mama. It’s just one vowel away, in fact!!! Wake up, people. This is clearly a poorly concealed shell company of Mama Corp. But it’s pretty okay, too. The broth is beefy and garlicky, and so spicy that I start to pace around my kitchen while rubbing my face in between slurps—it’s like a beautiful new dance craze. The design of the package is nice as well, replete with tasteful line drawings that accompany the directions.
Vifon Pho Ga
Another strong contender here, probably the second-best one. I’m actually surprised by how good it is. There’s a deep, sort of gingery flavor to it. By the way, the brands I like best are the ones like Vifon that separate the dried veggies from the soup base. Take heed, pho companies.
Vifon Pho Bo
I don’t know, it’s okay. If you have a choice between getting this one or the chicken one, please do me a favor and get the chicken one.