You usually can’t go wrong with food at Trader Joe’s. When they recently missed the mark with their Low-Fat Chicken Chow Mein I didn’t expect to run into trouble again, so soon, with another Asian, noodle-based dish. However, here we are. Trader Joe’s Beef Pho Soup is a total let down across the board and should be studiously avoided.
The flip side of delivering such high-quality results, time and time again, is that you set the bar high. Even in Trader Joe’s frozen food aisle, I expect anything I pick up to be better than average. That’s something to be proud of, but it makes your failures absolutely shocking by comparison. This beef pho soup is one such failure.
Before I go any further, it’s probably necessary to clarify that “pho” is pronounced “f’uh” not “fo”. It’s simple fact, but one that some pho shops – such as the Beverly Hills based “9021-Pho” – get wrong, while other shops – such as “Pho King” – get so, so right.
Pho, for those of you who have yet to enjoy it, is a hearty Vietnamese noodle soup – generally served in the largest soup bowls that you’re ever likely to see. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone drain an entire bowl of pho in one sitting. There are many, many variations on the soup, but all of them feature the same basic template – a clear broth (usually chicken or beef) heavily spiced with clove, star anise, coriander seed, fennel, cinnamon, black cardamom, ginger and onion, a hearty portion of rice noodles and some sort of meat (again, usually beef or chicken – though any meat can be used). Pho is then served piping hot with a heaping plate of traditional garnishes, such as chili peppers, cilantro, lime, bean sprouts, and Thai basil.
Grappling with the mountain of sprigs and garnishes, is part of the fun of eating a pho. It’s an Asian dish that retains something of it’s cultural uniqueness, despite it’s adoption on American shores. It’s a simple dish with complex underpinnings, yet the many restaurants I’ve enjoyed it at have all, without exception, delivered a hearty, spicy, and most of all delicious dining experience.
So it’s really, really shocking that Trader Joe’s fails to achieve what the dingiest, strip mall pho house can nail. The problems with Trader Joe’s take on pho are numerous, but it boils down to the fact that their pho is bland. So bland. Bland and limp. Bland, limp and lifeless. Conceptually, it’s like eating a gruel made out of C- report cards. I don’t know how you could decide to make a pho but forget to put any of the spices in, but Trader Joe’s has done it.
The first mistake I made was heating the dish up. In its frozen form, Trader Joe’s Beef Pho looks clever and smells appetizing. The marbled beef cubes look intriguing, the frozen noodles look elegant, and the scent of spices, while not strong, still suggests the fragrant, green richness of a true pho.
It’s really a huge a surprising let down, then, when you heat it up and everything goes limp and flavorless. From the bland broth to the thin, flavorless noodles, to the limp, mushy vegetables, there is literally nothing to recommend this soup. Trader Joe’s tries to cover up for it’s deficiencies by urging you to “add a squeeze of lime” on the box, but it would take far more than that to turn this pho around.
If you enjoy pho, you’ll want to avoid this soup and try any of Trader Joe’s other wonderful, delicious Asian cuisine options. If you’ve never had pho before, you’ll also want to avoid it. Instead, look for literally any pho restaurant in your town and eat there instead. Unless a gas main ruptures explosively while you’re in the building, it’s guaranteed to be a better experience.
Would I Recommend It: Only to jailers looking for ways to further erode the human spirit.
Would I Buy It Again: I’ll by the dehydrated kimchi before I buy this.
Final Synopsis: The only truly bad pho I’ve ever had.