How good can instant ramen get? Good enough for Pok Pok's Andy Ricker, Portland's best-known chef and the restaurateur behind one of The New York Times' top restaurants of 2012, who likes Thai Mama-brand noodles enough to have served them at the now-closed Ping, and at his newest venture, Sen Yai.
Curious how they would do at home, we convinced Sen Yai to sell us a sealed package of Mama ramen for $3. We came across the same package for 49 cents at Beaverton's Uwajimaya market, and got excited.
Then we got carried away, grabbing about 50 types of imported instant noodles for a taste-off. Six college-aged summer interns—plus WW's technically homeless vandwelling columnist, Pete Cottell—sorted through them and picked out the most appetizing. We prepared them dorm-style, following the cooking instructions as closely as we could in our humble office kitchen, and serving them with plastic forks in mismatched ceramic bowls, warped Tupperware and one extra-large coffee mug. In the end, we had regrets.
Wai Wai Brand Oriental Style (60 points)
Other than "oriental style," the packaging says nothing about the flavor. These Thai noodles looked like the kind you can get for 10 cents at any college-town supermarket, but they were virtually tasteless, leaving only an unpleasant, burning aftertaste.
Good Bean Vermicelli—Tom Yum Kung (56.6)
None of us was sure what "tom yum kung" flavor actually was at first, and we're not sure if it's meant to go with thin, clear Italian-Vietnamese noodles. This one comes with mysterious bits of unidentified fish (crab?) meat floating in the broth.
King Chef Authentic Kimchi (56)
Korean "authentic" kimchee flavor straight outta Vietnam, this soup smells a good deal like what they say they are; the noodles themselves, however, mostly just taste like salt.
Lucky Me! Instant Pancit Canton (55)
Imported from the Philippines, this one made us a little nervous. The soup is murky and brown and smells nothing like chilies, but tastes spicy.
Hao Hao Mi Tom Chua Cay—Hot-Sour Shrimp (53.3)
The packaging proudly declares: "Made with Japanese technology," but these noodles are actually from Vietnam. One of the strangest parts of this soup was the actual lack of soup in it: We cooked it with the amount of water recommended, but the noodles soaked up almost all the liquid.
Tu Quy Chicken (52.5)
While it looked and smelled exactly like chicken-flavored Top Ramen, some in our group thought these Vietnamese noodles tasted more like cinnamon than chicken.
Bah Kut Tea Noodle For Vegetarian (50.7)
These Taiwanese noodles are for vegetarians in denial; there's no actual meat in them (although chunks of meat are pictured on the packaging), but it comes with packets of artificial meat flavoring.
IndoMie Beef & Lime (49.3)
Approved halal by Indonesian clerics, these noodles actually taste a lot like the packaging description. But make them without the included chili powder; you'll never be able to taste the quite pleasant citrusy beef flavor if you do.
Moo Nam Tok—Boat Noodle With Pork (47)
The only thing not in Thai on the package are the words "SERVING SUGGESTION" (we had to get the product's name transliterated at a Thai restaurant) and the cooking instructions. This murky soup tastes like a mix between artificial beef and artificial Oriental; the saddest part is that we can actually tell the difference between them now.
Pho Chay Vegetarian (46.4)
One thing you'll quickly notice about vegetarian ramen is the unhealthy-looking, radioactive orange glow many of them seem to have. If you can get past the floating globs of oil in the broth, the reward is an unidentifiable and overpowering sweetness.
The packaging of these Korean noodles has the subtitle "Flavor, Culture, Human." We're not entirely sure what that means, but the soup itself has no flavor, leaving only a strong burning sensation.
Mama Artificial Duck (43.2)
Once you realize you can tell the difference between real and artificial duck, you know you've eaten too much ramen. At least these Thai noodles do it pretty well: Regular, dull, dorm-room flavor.
Neo Guri Spicy Seafood (42.5)
It smells and tastes like seafood, but it isn't really all that spicy. Unfortunately, the unappetizing and ugly orange broth might turn you away.
Super Bihun (41.3)
This Indonesian ramen looks like what would happen if you mixed a bunch of noodles into some chowder; it isn't all that bad, though, albeit a tad flavorless. It would go well with some meat in the soup.
Bun Rieu Cua—Sour Crab (39.5)
This Vietnamese ramen sure smells like crab, but the broth and noodles are flavorless to the extreme. It's also got that disturbing orange glow and little chunks of soggy crab meat. Avoid.
Kung Nung Ma Now—Spicy Lemon Lime Shrimp (38)
The entire package is in Thai, and it's got a mean-looking anime girl on the front. With a strong citrusy flavor, this one made many of us cringe when we tried it.
Mexi-Ramen Chicken Habanero (38)
This one smells and tastes a lot like taco-truck fare. It claims to be chicken flavor, but none of us could taste it.
Mama Oriental Style Shrimp (22.5)
This is the same flavor of Thai Mama noodles Ricker uses at Sen Yai. Seasoning packets give the broth a radioactive orange glow. The strangest part? It tasted it bit like a spicy shrimp-flavored margarita.
Sapporo Ichiban Shrimp (22)
In Japanese, "ichiban" means No. 1. To us, it's No. 19. This one looks and tastes a lot more like chicken than shrimp, almost to the point where we're worried they packaged the wrong flavoring packet.
Ve Wong Artificial Mushroom Pork (19.4)
This Taiwanese ramen smells a bit like pork, but no trace of either mushroom or swine is detectable.