I’ve mentioned my love of Turtle Tower many times here and elsewhere; I often cite it as my top favorite pho place. Since my first visit 3 years ago, I’ve made a point to go every trip to the Bay Area I take. However, since my last such trip, I actually tried pho in two cities with much larger Vietnamese populations than NYC, so I was pretty excited to revisit and see if my memory held up and if the reality could live up to it.
The last time I’d been able to visit Turtle Tower (it’d been too long, to my sadness- which is why this is the very first place I visited when I had a meal to myself to choose, the second full day I was there), I’d had an incredible experience with strangers telling me enthusiastically about their food. I made a note of it in my post so that I could be sure to try their recommendations out on my next visit. Good thing I remembered – I pulled the post up on my phone to make sure I had it right – and ordered the Imperial Roll, which was basically a goi cuon or fried spring roll. It was good, but I’ve never been a huge fan of the fried spring rolls. I’ll be sure to tell my brother to try it though – he loves these. You order them by the roll, so I ordered only one roll.
The second dish was much more interesting; the noodles are fried first before being added to the pho. This adds to your wait time ever so slightly, but I really wanted to try it. I failed to take a photo of the noodles themselves – I was hungry! – but they were indeed stir fried first. You could taste a slightly roasty-ness to the noodles; it reminded me of ‘dry fried beef ho fun’ (gawn chow ngau ho) in its slightly chewy, slightly roasty taste. Of course, it was still pho – with excellent broth – but you could definitely taste an extra something to the noodles, which was nice. However, I didn’t like the additions – the celery or the beef ‘stew’ that topped it was very much not what I want in my pho. I can see myself ordering this every once in a while, but doubt I’ll get it with any regularity – just to switch things up.
Just a week later, I was hungry and decided to walk to Turtle Tower from the Mission on my way to Fort Mason for Off the Grid. This was met with shock and then a thorough lecture on my safety when I told my friends what I’d done… In any case, it was close to closing and they had half the lights turned off in the near-empty restaurant, though it was sort of dark outside, thus the strangely lit photos.
I chose to start with my summer rolls, though these come in pairs and can’t be ordered in smaller quantity. Unfortunately – perhaps they make them earlier in the day and just send them out as ordered? – mine were not very good. The outer skin was chewy, hard, and difficult to eat easily. You can see in the second picture that I picked off some of the skin I just couldn’t eat, and wound up eating only half my order. It was very disappointing for me, but since I seem to visit Turtle Tower alone all the time, I doubt I’ll be ordering these again – I don’t NEED to eat a bowl of pho and an entire order of summer rolls – especially when they aren’t the greatest. Sad, because I recall really enjoying them when they’re not old.
I stuck with a regular beef pho this time (the one with a bunch of stuff, but not tendon because I don’t like tendon). I will say that it tasted just the same as my memory said it would, but the beef on top looked really … unappetizing. It’s hard to see in the photo, but instead of neat slices of raw/mostly raw eye of round, it looked almost chopped/tenderized where it was falling apart and had to be pulled apart in order to be eaten. I didn’t find the resulting texture particularly pleasant, and wasn’t happy about that. BUT the broth was just as delicious as I remembered, and I happily slurped down my noodles and broth. I’m pretty sure the beef is the same as it always was; I think my standards have shifted slightly from exposure to more pho around the world, is all.
When Super Storm Sandy unexpectedly extended my trip for me by an entire week, I found myself back at Turtle Tower less than a week after my last visit. I’m sure the people who work there were starting to recognize me… This time, I went with chicken pho, which I’d had there only one other time but really enjoyed. There’s something about the clean, sharply sweet broth of chicken pho that really appeals to me. The noodles were the same, but the broth – I drank every last drop (along with the Vietnamese coffee I ordered – top right of the pic – which I thought was very mediocre, and won’t be ordering again). It seems so simple yet the complexity of the broth is just amazing. The verdant cilantro, the sweet chicken, and aromatics in the background… I love this pho, and think it may become my staple when I visit Turtle Tower again. (I learned a trick from DLS a while back that I employed here: the pho is served with just a small dish of sliced jalapenos and a lime; I always use the entire lime, but he showed me that if I add a few slices of jalapeno to the side, let it steep for a few minutes, then remove, it adds a mild background kick that is really nice.)
I’ll definitely return to Turtle Tower again and again, if only for the chicken pho / pho ga, though I do want to try some of the other pho as well. One of the nice things I’ve noticed at Turtle Tower – though they are famous for their pho ga, whenever I go, people are ordering an incredible variety of things, not just the pho ga. Oh! and the guy next to me ordered the chicken pho with chicken and I believe gizzards (and proceeded to pour almost an entire bottle of Sriracha in his bowl, along with all the jalapenos). I was amazed and a little curious to see if he’d go up in flames, haha… And YET ANOTHER great thing about Turtle Tower? there’s an intense variety of people who visit, from Vietnamese families to tourists to construction workers – the guy with all the gizzards was black, and his friend was Hispanic, and at our communal table was also a businessman, along with random people like me just enjoying lunch. They are friendly with efficient service… a great place all around.
I HIGHLY recommend giving them a try on your next trip to the Bay Area, or if you live in the area and haven’t visited, you are missing out! It is definitely one of my favorite pho places ever.