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Aug 28, 2003 08:16 PM

Northern Vietnamese at Turtle Tower, SF

  • r

Melanie and I had lunch today at Turtle Tower, which distinguishes itself from other Vietnamese places in the Tenderloin by serving food in the style of North Vietnam (the staff is from Hanoi, by way of Hong Kong).

Melanie had visited previously for pho, but she wanted someone else to come along so she could order something on the menu that intrigued her: cha ca va bun (grilled fish w/ vermicelli noodles). After some consultation, we ordered this and a bowl of pho ga (chicken noodle soup).

The cha ca va bun arrived in a small sautee pan, and was nothing like what either of us had expected. Melanie had referred to whole fish, but this was instead thin pieces of fillet, cut into pieces about 1.5 inches square, with a yellow hue that suggested tumeric. But the real shock was that the fish was tossed with mixture of sauteed scallion tops and... fronds of fresh dill?! As the unmistakeable aroma of dill wafted off the pan, Melanie and I stared in fascinated disbelief. In fact, as I remarked to Melanie, the dish looked and tasted very much like something I would prepare at home (albeit with chicken: sauteed in butter with dill and served with pasta) -- the ingredients and flavor palatte struck me as completely Western. Although it did come with a small bowl of white onions in vinegar and a dish of roasted peanuts, which gave it some of the tart/toasty flavors that characterize much of Southeast Asian cooking. Since dill is one of my favorite herbs, I thought that it was delicious, even if not what I was expecting. I'm not sure Melanie ever reconciled herself to it, though.

The pho ga was an unequivocal hit -- the broth managed to be both delicate and rich with chicken flavor. It came with fresh wide noodles, which I prefer, and with just a spritz of lime juice and a couple of slices of jalapeno achieved something pretty close to my chicken soup ideal. As noted in a recent NYTimes article linked to the board, North Vietnamese style pho is more pared down than the southern style: no plate of bean sprouts, herbs etc., just good chicken noodle soup. According to Patrick's first report on Turtle Tower, the pho ga is the house specialty, and it lives up to the reputation.


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  1. I've been here only once for the Pho.

    If I remember correctly, the noodles used here are more of a delicate, wide (think taglitelle) home-made style compared to your typical pho places, where the noodles are thin (think vermicelli) and somewhat rubbery.

    I found this to be a nice distinction.

    The broth, however, is definitely less intense and it too seems more "home-made" and natural.

    Hard to say which I prefer?????

    Anyhow, I'd go more often perhaps, but the place is usually overrun at lunchtime. Seems to be a favorite with Vietnamese locals in the loin.

    2 Replies
    1. re: JohnnyP

      Yeah, they use fresh noodles, so they have a much softer (better to my mind) texture, plus I always prefer wide noodles to skinny ones -- they hold the seasonings better IMO. And it's no more expensive than the other pho joints for the better noodles.

      1. re: JohnnyP

        Yes, the broth has a more direct and less adulterated flavor. The deep anise-y broths used to be my favorite. I still appreciate the style, but I've moved toward the cleaner and lighter style like here in my preference.

        I really enjoyed Turtle Tower. I'd been to the two previous restaurants in this location (both Cambodian), and the light-colored walls and light streaming through the new windows facing the alley way really brighten the place up.


      2. The beef soup has a wonderful stock as well, and the beef stew noodle soup adds a rich tender stew into the soup, instead of the usual plain beef. I also love their version of imperial rolls, small, filled with crab, and served with lots of lettuce herbs, and vermicelli for rolling up together, with a nice not sweet nuoc cham dipping sauce. One of my favorite spots in the Tenderloin.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Denise B

          Mmmm, the beef stew was going to be the next thing I try. It's described as "beef stewed with wine sauce" and is available in noodle soup or as a banh mi sandwich, which sounded especially intriguing.

          Another dish that I noticed a number of tables were enjoying was #11 Ga luoc la chanh, Steam chick with lemon grass. Each customer seemed to make a different selection of condiments. One person used straight sriracha sauce. Another had dish of fish sauce and a sprinkle of white pepper. And, one woman used just salt and white pepper.

          I noticed that the tables are not set with hoisin sauce as a condiment.

          P.S. Good to have you posting again these last few weeks, Denise.

        2. Minh in Milpitas is another one that serves northern Vietnamese food. The grilled catfish has been a very popular dish to order there.


          1. j
            Josh Fredericks

            The cha ca you described is the traditional preparation- at least it's the way it's served at the cha ca thanh long restaurant in Hanoi (on cha ca street no less).

            Dill is in a bunch of vietnamese dishes, often as a condiment with soup. I'm not sure if the dill here is the same exact variety, or whether it's from French influence. I guess the French influence is more prominent in the North- at Minh's in Milpitas there's a delicious dish of fried calamari with butter, onions, and salt.

            I can't wait to try the restaurant- it sounds wonderful.

            5 Replies
            1. re: Josh Fredericks

              Josh is right in that this is exactly what traditional Cha Ca is to northern vietnamese: turmeric, scallions, dill & all. It's one of my most favorite dishes, something my mom would make often & still does whenever I come to visit.

              It's now almost a shame that southern vietnamese cha ca has taken over to the extent that people are surprised to see this northern style of cha ca. I would've been delighted for such a find; before I read your post, Minh's and a restaurant inside the Century Mall on Story Road were the only 2 places I knew that does this dish in what I consider, the authentic way). Thank you for your discovery!

              1. re: Alice R

                Hi Alice R, good to hear from you again. Is the place you're thinking of in the shopping mall, Pho Thien Long? Here's an older post from Hao describing the cha ca bun.


              2. re: Josh Fredericks

                Here's a link to Ruth's post on the General Topics board where she asks about the use of dill in this dish and other Asian foods. One of the replies mentions New Loi's on Taraval in the City as serving cha ca la vong also. Has anyone tried it?


                1. re: Josh Fredericks

                  ooh, yum! My husband and I luckily tried this dish at the restaurant described above.'s the only dish served at the restaurant--the oldest running restaurant in Hanoi (in the Old Quarter). You sit down and after a couple minutes they bring out this sizzling pan of fish on a small coal burner with a bowl of more herbs and a bowl of rice. I think the only choice we had was if we wanted beer or water with our dinner. It was awesome. Now I'm craving the cha ca...must go soon.

                  Do they have the Hanoi-style bun cha (the grilled pork served in a broth with noodles on the side)?

                  1. re: nerdigrrl

                    I have only had the pho ga at TT but I know that Bodega Bistro serves their bun that way at lunch.

                2. Ruth,

                  thanks to posters like you and others on this board (i am a chowhound newbie BTW), my chowhound hunting ground has dramatically been expanded by leaps and bound so to speak

                  in the past , i seldom have ventured out more than one block from either side of the mid jones street corridor - with few exceptions of course

                  now , after discovering this great chowhound site , i've seen the light ... of the chowhound kind , so to speak

                  i now feel like a baby chowhound eagerly following every (well some at least ... but it'd better be cheap places to begin with , mind you ) footstep that you have left a mark for my nose to sniff on

                  thanks again!

                  - cots


                  6 Replies
                  1. re: cots

                    Welcome, cots!

                    Please don't be shy about sharing any discoveries with us.

                    One way to dive feet first into the SF chowhound community is to come to the picnic, where you can both indulge in amazing food and put faces to the names of your fellow hounds. Hope to see you there!


                    1. re: cots

                      Thanks for posting the menu, chicken_of_the_sea. What did you try?

                      P.S. I did think of you when I was walking to Turtle Tower and spotted Star Thai's sign on the next block.

                      1. re: Melanie Wong


                        Guess what I had on my visit to the Turtle Tower last time. I bet you'd never have guessd correct on this one ...

                        i had #9 - chicken noodle soup. yup, it was difficult for me to decide; after staring at the menu for 3 minutes , i decided to order something familiar and close to my heart - chicken soup !

                        the chicken soup was yuMMy ! deliciOUs ! and so very cheap ! my three top priorities in chowing in the tenderloin , other than the fact that it needs to be within close proximity and walking distance to where i live : the mid Jones street corridor

                        one more thing about the chicken soup ...

                        the soup was extremely yummy ( i said that , didn't i ? ) ... so yummy that i sipped the whole bowl dry ! let me elaborate on the yummy part ...

                        when i ordered pho in the past , 99% of the time I would not drink the soup because they are very salty and taste like a bunch of msg and salt thrown in - i.e. instant soup as opposed to home slow-cooked over night with bone/intestines/meat/potato/carrots/vege/whatnots . however , this soup that i ordered at Turtle Tower that day was (at least my taste bud was telling me so at the moment) very 'homey' or home cooked . do not ask me why and how ... i don't know how to explain it.. it just did ....

                        well if i have to give a reason it would probably be that i went after i have read about all the positive posts and reviews on this place prior which possibly might have caused me to have a pre-conceived notion that this place must have yummy chicken soup ... naw that would not be it ... i know a good chicken soup when i sip one , damnit ! no one can tell me this chicken soup is a yummier chicken soup the other chicken soup across the street !

                        anyways , back to the chicken soup ...

                        i drank the whole bowl of chicken soup - noodle , soup , chicken , lemon and all . the only thing that I left behind was those hot green peppers (what are they called??) which I dipped into the soup for 4 minutes and then promptly took them out of the bowl 'cus if left in the chicken soup bowl permanently , they definitely will cause me to cough and sneeze uncontrollably and I have to blow my nose and then water would start coming out from my eyes

                        when i was done sipping the whole bowl dry (with the hot peppers left behind mind you ) i still sneezed uncontrollably and water started to come out from my eyes - a sure sign that the chicken soup that i just chowed down my tummy was : yummy ; good ; delicious

                        in conclusion ... i give this chicken soup (aka #9 on the menu) a big thumbs UP !


                        9 --- PHO GA (aka chicken soup) --- Regular: $4.50


                        1. re: cots
                          Melanie Wong

                          Ruth had commented that the jalapeƱo chili slices were unusually hot the day we were there. I didn't use them or the limes, preferring the clear, clean chicken-ness of the broth to wash over me. I did find it amusing when she mentions that adding the lime and chilis brought the broth to her chicken soup idea - no matzoh ball blandness for this girl!

                          I'm glad you enjoyed it. Better than the places closer to you?

                          The beef is also very good. I had actually wanted to order the chicken noodle with "intestines", which is actually the innards such as gizzard, liver, etc. But the server didn't think Ruth would like it, and we didn't insist.

                          I was a little surprised that you're not more capsicum tolerant. My impression was that you favor the thai and indian/pakistani places in your neighborhood, so I thought you were more into spicy food. You might appreciate reading Ruth's trials of sriracha to overcome her phobia, linked below.


                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                            lol , yes because of the state of the chicken soup - i.e., clear , yummy , and delicious - i did not want to ruin the flavor of this chicken soup by squeezing the lime (thanks for the correction - it was lime not lemon) in this clear , yummy , and delicious chicken soup ; i took in half bowl of this chicken soup before finally deciding to squeeze the lime in while it was still piping hot because *one* my mom used to tell me never waste any food put in front of you and *two* i wanted to compare/contrast what this bowl of chicken soup would've tasted like before/after the lime juice was squeezed in ...

                            conclustion : i liked them both and both tasted yummy , delicious and they both hit my tummy at just the right spot which is very important for me in deciding whether or not to plan for a return trip in the future

                            i look forward to returning to the Turtle Tower on Larkin between Eddy and Ellis in the tenderloin of San Francisco to try another dish which would most likely be different than chicken soup not because it did not taste yummy , good and delicious but because i found out there is more than chicken soup - naan and curry , and pad thai - out there in this wonderful chow city within the city of san francisco .


                            1. re: Melanie Wong

                              Upon reflection, I think adding lime and jalapenos is very consistent with my well-known predilection for "green" flavors: chicken, cilantro, green chile and lime may be the Platonic ideal expression of "green flavors."