One of the above bowls of pho was homemade and the other two were made from instant pho products. Guess which was which? I’ve written about packaged pho that I keep around for super quick pho fixes. They’re from Vietnam (see the Vifon sample in the photo below) and contain MSG. Nevertheless, they are quite serviceable when you want a bowl in say, 3 to 5 minutes. Not bad for about 50 cents at an Asian market.
Since that post, several other convenience pho products have become available. Pacific Foods, maker of boxed broths and soups, sent me their new chicken pho soup base. Trader Joe’s recently announced a frozen beef pho so I added that to my must-try list. I also found the Happy Pho kit in a box at Whole Foods.
It was too tempting. I had to check them all out – side by side with homemade chicken pho, which I made earlier this week. I already knew that the homemade would be better but my question was this: Are there good instant or quick-an-easy pho products sold at mainstream markets that come close to the real thing?
I made them up and had my homemade chicken pho as backup in case the convenience stuff wasn’t great. My husband, food stylist Karen Shinto (she drove down to plan the tofu video shoot and was willing to do pho tasting duties too) and I sampled them. Here are our notes:
Trader Joe’s Beef Pho Soup
This pho product is designed to be a complete meal in a plastic bowl. No extra ingredient is needed. If you lunched in an office or lived in a dorm, this may be the pho for you. Inside the handsome box is a plastic bowl containing rice noodles, sliced beef (brisket, I think), thick dark sauce, and lots of vegetables:
What’s with the carrot and red bell pepper? I’m not sure. Trader Joe’s is careful to say that their pho (note the correct use of accent marks) is based on “a Vietnamese style recipe.” It’s inspired by something, though I’m not clear what. Maybe it’s a ‘complete meal’ concept and all food groups are covered.
Vegetables aside, it boiled down to the flavor. Instead of microwaving the bowl, I cooked the soup contents up in a saucepan with water, per the instructions. My husband took the first slurp and said, “This reminds me of strange airline food. It has a root beer flavor. The beef is good though.”
He was damning it with faint praise. The Trader Joe’s beef pho confounded me too. The broth looked hearty and rich but the flavor was mildly sweet-tart, probably from “extractive of lime.” There’s no fish sauce used, perhaps because it’s a ‘scary-sounding’ ingredient? The flavorless pieces of roast onion looked somewhat dirty and didn’t make sense:
The other convenience pho products we tried required additional ingredients to create fresher, personalized pho. Trader Joe’s aimed to offer a simple one-box, one-bowl solution but the result was lackluster. If that was my first taste of Vietnamese food, I would be disappointed.
Pacific Foods Organic Chicken Pho Soup Base
Despite the name of this convenience food, it is not a concentrate. It’s just the broth and you’re instructed to use it straight from the container. There were few ingredients listed so I was both curious and hopeful. Unfortunately, the broth was overpowered by star anise, sugar, and lime oil. You smell those elements after opening the container. So much so that it was hard to detect a chicken taste. Shots of fish sauce did not help. Among the seasonings of this product were garlic powder, onion powder, and rosemary(?).
The soup base was cloudy, which normally wouldn’t matter much, but for pho broth advertised as being “prepared in the traditional way – slowly simmered for hours…” we were expecting clarity. In the photo above, the one on the right is Pacific Food’s organic broth and the one on the left is my homemade (I leave a little fat for richness, which explains the shimmer).
Pacific Food’s soup base is meant to liberate cooks from having to brew the broth. All you do is cook the rice noodles and add some chicken and garnishes (bean sprouts, fresh herbs, hoisin, Sriracha, jalapenos, green onion are suggested). Sadly, the broth needs more thought. Pacific Foods is a smart company that should tweak a few things to produce a better chicken pho soup base. (There are beef and vegetarian versions, which I didn’t try. If you have, please weigh in.)
Star Anise Foods Happy Pho
The Happy Pho kit is made by Star Anise Foods, a Vietnamese-American owned company. The spice blend, according to the package, is based on a family recipe developed long ago outside of Hanoi, in the town of Nam Dinh where pho is said to have originated. Star Anise Food’s modern twist was to grind up the spices and combine it with dried green onion for the “spice packet.” They also use a novel dried brown rice noodle made with green tea. The strategy is that they provide the foundation, you add stock, protein, and herbs, then season to taste. The box packaging is eco-friendly (100% recycle).
The instructions mandated that 1 cup of cilantro and smidgen of minced ginger be added to the soup. To avoid having too much cilantro floating about, I used a noodle strainer to simmer those elements, then I discarded them. I deboned and sliced chicken legs for the meat. This is what I produced:
Karen Shinto and I both thought that Happy chicken pho was decent. A bit heavy on the star anise and cinnamon, the natural rust color of the ground spice mixture turned the stock a murky brown. The noodles added to that brown cast.
We gave Happy Pho a pass for appearances, because unlike the other pho products, it wasn’t totally off tasting. I was relieved that there was no lime or lemon juice in the product. Diners can add tartness at the table, if they wish. Adding tartness to the broth beforehand ruins the flavor balance.
Along with salt and pepper, I veered from the instructions and gave the soup a bit of fish sauce, and garnished the bowls with sliced onion, green onion, and fresh cilantro. Karen opened and sniffed the Pacific Foods broth and demurred from trying it.
Admittedly, my husband, Karen and I feasted on homemade chicken pho after tasting the various instant pho products. We gained an even greater appreciation for the scratch method. Nevertheless, it was good to know that there are options out there.
If you don’t want to commit to brewing pho broth and just want to doctor up storebought stock, try Happy Pho. Can’t find it? Consider Bon Appetit magazine’s “faux pho” recipe in the December 2011 issue. It employs instant ramen, whole spices, lots of fresh ginger, and beef broth.
If you’re near a Vietnamese or Chinese market, look for instant pho packages. Don’t use the entire seasoning package to avoid MSG overkill. Add leftover meat, fresh scallion, onion, and cilantro for a simple pho snack.
Or, simmer a pot of pho, then freeze the broth and cooked meat for future meals. Bank your efforts via that DIY instant pho kit.
Have product tips or tricks for quick pho fixes? Please share!
- Instant Pho Packages: The Low Down
- Faux Pho: What is it and does it matter?
- Pho in a box (I bought this in 2008 at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport)
- Chicken pho noodle soup recipe
- Beef pho noodle soup recipe