Holly and I tried to visit the much-touted new Vietnam Sandwich place last week, but my "directions," consisting of "I think it's around here somewhere," did not lead us there. Instead we decided to try one of the many Vietnamese establishments on Larkin.
We chose Turtle Tower because it looked full and advertised pho. When we walked in everyone turned to look at us as we were the only non-Vietnamese people in the place. Always a good sign.
We were seated at a table shared by another diner, an older Vietnamese woman who was nibbling at her pho delicately. As we perused the menu, she leaned over and asked us if we had ever eaten here before. She explained that Turtle Tower's pho is prepared in the Northern Vietnamese style. She also said they were famous for their chicken pho, which was their house specialty.
I ordered my standard Pho Tai (with rare beef slices) and Holly tried the Pho Ga. They were both quite different from the pho we are accustomed to.
I'll focus on the Pho Tai's differences since I haven't had pho ga much.
The first difference I noticed was the plate of condiments provided with the soup. Instead of a leafy pile of lime quarters, basil, bean sprouts and jalapeno, there was a small dish with lemon slices and a few slices of red ripe jalapeno. Our tablemate later showed us how she mixed nuoc cham with a little broth and dipped her chicken pieces in it with a tiny bite of red chile.
Another distinct difference in the pho tai is that the beef was not as thinly sliced. Instead it looked like a very well-pounded steak, much thicker and with a nubbly texture. It was about 1/8" thick and retained its rare beef flavor much longer than the paper-thin slices I am accustomed to. The broth, too, was much simpler and somewhat coarse; it eschewed the flavors of anise and cinnamon and instead tasted just like a strong, rich beef broth flavored intermittently with ginger, shreds of which were floating in the soup. Our tablemate noted that the rich flavor was characteristic of a broth that used a lot of bones in the making.
The most pleasant discovery about this pho was the noodles, though: fresh, hand-cut rice noodles obtained from Chinatown. They were so tender and slippery and delicious that it will be difficult to go back to the dried variety.
I still like the southern style pho, with its aromatic broth and pile of greenery, but Turtle Tower is now on my list of places to visit whenever I should find myself in the vicinity. And we were grateful to our tablemate for freely and kindly providing so much insight and information about the food.
631 Larkin St, SF
Open 9-5 daily except Tuesday