You may have heard about the lady in the lake, but what about the turtle in the lake? In 2000, chef-owner Steven Nghia Pham debuted Turtle Tower in San Francisco’s Tenderloin and has since added locations in the Outer Richmond and SoMa. The Ha Noi native named his restaurant for an old turtle with mystical powers, which Thap Rua, aka Turtle Tower, signifies on an island in the middle of his native city’s central Hoan Kiem Lake. The Northern Vietnamese restaurant specializes in pho ga, chicken pho, featuring free-range birds, a clean broth, and minimal accouterments. Don’t expect to find bean sprouts, basil or hoisin sauce, which are all verboten in Ha Noi pho bowls.
Behind a navy blue awning and glass front, you’ll find canary yellow walls, wood flooring, and a sea of pho-topped tables. Apparently this design is an upgrade from what most of my friends agree was once a dingy destination.
Cha Gio were soft, and not especially crispy, but juicy, filled with crunchy vegetables, glass noodles, pork and more. Dip in fish sauce bobbing with carrot slices.
A small order of Pho Ga Long ($7.75) was still substantial, featuring clean-sipping soup springy noodles, pulled chicken, chicken giblets, liver, egg-stuffed intestine, and tiny barely-formed chicken eggs, all showered with scallions and cilantro.
Beef-focused pho is also worth ordering. My father went with classic beef pho – Phở Chín ($8 large) 0 featuring well-done flank and brisket.
Xoi Ga Lap Xuong was the only clunker at my family lunch, featuring sticky rice with bone-dry white meat chicken and Chinese sausage garnished with cilantro.
Café Sữa Ðá, iced Vietnamese filtered coffee with condensed milk, is my drink of choice.
Turtle Tower also sells banh mi and porridge, but stray from pho and results are uncertain.