A Noodle Pick-Me-Up
Asian Quick Bowls
Generally I review bigger meals, combos from fast food joints or larger courses served at sit down restaurants. But outside of that are other food options, the kinds of bites you'll take with you to an office when you can't get out and get something to eat (and aren't interested in ordering delivery). These kinds of meals are still worth investigating because not all types of quick meals are made the same. If you're going to spend three to five bucks on a bowl of noodles you have to make yourself then you want to make sure that's money well spent.
As such, let's take a look at a few of the quick noodle bowls you can find in your grocery section:
Taste of Thai: Peanut Noodles
We begin with the quickest of quick meals: instant dry noodles. Thai Kitchen makes what are, essentially, dressed up packets of ramen. Dry rice noodles, a flavoring packet, an oil packet, sometimes a topping. You put it in a bowl, add some water, heat it up in the microwave, and enjoy. Well, hopefully enjoy. These are the cheapest of the items we're looking at, but for those with a gluten intolerance (such as my wife), option for a quick noodle meal are somewhat limited.
The noodles in the Peanut Noodle dish came out a little firm when cooked. They may have needed a little more time than the package described, although they weren't necessarily bad. Depending on how you like your noodles, on a scale of firm to super soft, you may want to adjust the cook time. The sauce was thick, coating the noodles well. Flavor was a tad heavy on the coconut, although not necessarily unpleasant. It wasn't bad, and for noodles that essentially started out dry, these were decent once cooked. Substantial, if not the ideal meal all on its own.
Thai Kitchen: Thai Peanut Rice Noodle Cart
Unlike the dry noodle packs, which resemble ramen in a way, these bowls contain moist noodles. The concept is largely the same otherwise, though: a sealed bag of noodles, a bag of sauce, a packet of veggies, and a packet of topping. In this case, you also add juts a little water to help with heating and moistening everything. These generally turn out well, giving a larger and more hearty meal... normally.
For the Thai Peanut Rice bowl, the first thing you'll notice is that the noodles are soft after cooking. Too soft, in fact, half disintegrating once the warming process is complete. It leaves the dish feeling more like mush than a proper noodle brown. If you can get past this, and for some this will be a texture that just doesn't work, the bowl itself isn't bad. The flavor is strong, tasty with hits tangy brown sauce. There was a tiny bit of kick, but not that anyone would balk if they can't handle spice. The veggies from the packet basically disappear once cooked, but then that's a problem with all of these bowls. They're there to say, "hey, we put in veggies," but they hardly count.
I didn't hate this bowl but it's also not high on my list. It was fine while I ate it but I wouldn't get it again. The poor texture of the noodles would keep me away.
Thai Kitchen: Garlic & Vegetable Instant Rice Noodle Soup
Another solid gluten free option, and this one holds up better than the other Thai Kitchen item on this list. With a soupier base (owing to more water being instructed for this meal), we get a fun Asian meal that actually works really well. The noodles hold up better here, and are long and solid. Nice and twirl-able, with a solid bite. Slurp-able by chopsticks, if that's your preference. They're tender, but not too soft, and they feel substantial in the broth.
The flavor is mild, tangy with a hint of onion. There's an herb-y quality to the flavor as well. Pleasant, really. Garlic forward, with a lightness. This felt more balanced, and worked as a better meal, than the other Thai Kitchen bowl sampled. Of the two, this is the one I'd lean towards.
Annie Chun's: Spicy Miso Ramen Soup Bowl
So this one also sells itself as a soup bowl. Thing is, despite Thai Kitchen and Taste of Thai seeming like the cheaper, low end options, both of these nail their concept. In the case of Annie Chun's options, there's always something missing to make these dishes good. For the Spicy Miso Ramen Soup Bowl, what's missing is both the taste of miso, and the spice as well. The soup base was just... brown. Like, a brown you see that tastes neutral. There's just a hint of salt and citrus, but it was more bland than interesting.
Noodles aren't much better than standard, cheap ramen. They're fine, but they don't have the substantial bite I was hoping for. Sure, it's "ramen" on the package, but for the price you need better than the cheap stuff. All around this was just a let down. Cheap, boring, and lacking all the ingredients they promised on the package other than ramen.
Annie Chun's: Chinese Style Kung Pao Noodle Bowl
And somehow this one is even worse. The bowl promises kung pao but that is a flavor Annie Chun's is just not ready to deliver upon; this one absolutely doesn't taste like kung pao. It's weirdly tangy while, at the same time, being very bland. The whole concept of Kung Pao -- hot peppers, peanuts, and chicken, cooked together for a distinctive flavor -- doesn't come across at all in a dish with no heat and no chicken... and where the peanuts are just a topping added on after the noodles are cooked.
The noodles themselves are fine. They're thick and firm, well cooked by the bit of water added to the meal. The problem is that everything around then noodles is just... bad. It's not inedible, but if you have any expectation of this tasting anything like what the package promises, you're going to be sorely mistaken. A totally bland misfire.