Saturday, October 04, 2008

Dish on Dining: Turtle Tower

A Local Favorite Serving Up Steaming Bowls of Pho
631 Larkin St. (at Willow), San Francisco
Civic Center/Tenderloin
PH: 415.409.3333
Open Mon., Wed.–Sun., 8:30 a.m.–7 p.m.
No reservations, cash only

One weekend after spending a day at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, I wandered the Tenderloin neighborhood in search of pho, the Vietnamese soup noodles. That’s when I walked by Turtle Tower and its crowd of people standing outside waiting for a seat to taste the widely talked about Northern-style pho.

Turtle Tower has grown so popular that it attracts a mixed crowd of local Vietnamese families, young Asians and those who read about the restaurant on Yelp. There was a long list of names on the clipboard hanging in the front, but since I’m the Single Guy and was by myself, the host sent me to the back.

I was a bit confused and started walking toward the kitchen when he told me to walk around outside. So I walked out and went around the Willow Street alley and found the second entrance to Turtle Tower, almost like a banquet hall with round tables filled with patrons.

I was directed to sit at the round table in the back, sharing it with other couples and singles. This is like bar seating but without the alcohol.

I looked over the menu, and Turtle Tower emphasizes that its cuisine is from North Vietnam around Hanoi, as opposed to the more familiar Saigon/Southern style cuisine.

Wanting to try something different, I ordered the wine-braised beef pho ($6.95). My large bowl came with a slight wine tint and a tiny side of slice jalapeno peppers and lime.

Pure Northern style pho does not come with the side plate of bean sprouts, basil leaves and lime. True to that theory, Turtle Tower only begrudgingly provides a tiny bit of jalapeno and lime. Nothing else.

Another distinguishing factor in Turtle Tower’s pho compared to others I’ve tried here and in Vietnam is that the rice noodles are more milky in color, more soft in texture, and more wide in size. They’re very similar to Chinese flat rice noodles. If this is the type of rice noodles you like, then you’ll be happy with the pho at Turtle Tower.

But I’m more a fan of the thinner, slightly translucent and a bit al dente rice noodles I’ve had at other places. It’s a matter of personal taste, really.

Other than the noodles, the meat itself was tender and had a distinctive red wine taste. It really tasted like beef stew cubes. They were good, but not amazing. The flavor was one-dimensional, mainly red wine.

I returned a second time to test the famous pho ga (or chicken noodle soup). This time I sat in the front, which was still crowded despite arriving in the late afternoon.

The pho ga ($5.75, small) was topped with clean strips of chicken breast and I could tell the broth was clear and light. The broth, which glistened with the tiny pearls of fat, was satisfying and I can see how it would be good when you have a cold or otherwise under the weather. Still, I didn’t consider it life-changing like how some people have talked about it. I do give Turtle Tower points for freshness, though.

I also decided to try one of my standard dishes, grilled pork over rice ($6.95). I love the taste of thinly sliced marinated pork that’s been nicely grilled. The plate that arrived looked disappointing because the pork pieces looked a bit small and dry. When I bit into them, I was right. The only thing that saved the meat was me pouring the accompanying sauce of sugar, fish sauce and chilies.

I find Turtle Tower to be similar to other Vietnamese restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland’s Chinatown, but it’s more crowded because of the unusual word-of-mouth it’s received. But since I’m not a fan of its wide, rice noodles, I’m content with getting my pho near my home in Oakland. Turtle Tower definitely uses fresh ingredients and the broth is light and clear, but is it really worth all the hassle waiting for a table? I don’t think so.

Single guy rating: 2.5 stars (for Northern pho purists)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Turtle Tower on Urbanspoon


foodhoe said...

I've been interested to hear about this, besides all the positive yelpness! It looks good, but seems pretty far for just a good bowl of noodles. If you had said it was phenomenal though...

Jon said...