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Northern Vietnamese at Turtle Tower, SF

Ruth Lafler | Aug 28, 200308:16 PM

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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