Turtle Tower Restaurant

March 18, 2007

Just a couple blocks north of San Francisco’s Civic Center area lies a strip of Vietnamese storefronts on Larkin Street. Though the neighborhood is not huge, the concentration of restaurants serving pho and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) is large enough that the City decided that this area needed an official name to put it on the map. Sure enough, this sub-district of the Tenderloin has since come to be known as “Little Saigon”, although this term is not exactly universally recognized or used. The Little Saigon district contains a number of good restaurants that we’ll highlight periodically here on the Short Exact Guide. One of our favorite little gems in this area is the Turtle Tower Restaurant. (One note: Turtle Tower also has a branch in the Outer Richmond. We will definitely report on this branch in the future, but this review is only for the Tenderloin location.)

Contrary to what many Americans seem to think, Vietnamese cuisine actually consists of a great deal more than just pho noodle soups, and some restaurants that excel in their preparation of certain dishes may have rather average pho. Still, noodle soups are a prominent part of the cuisine, and when we have a hankering for pho (which, if you’re a regular reader, you can probably guess happens quite frequently), we often entrust Turtle Tower with the task of satisfying our craving. So far, they haven’t failed us once.

Turtle Tower’s menu is not especially deep, but it contains a variety of well-loved Vietnamese dishes, including pho, bun (vermicelli noodle salads), and rice plates. The restaurant also serves chao ga (chicken porridge), and a few sticky rice dishes. Filtered coffee and a variety of teas and juices round out the menu. Vegetarians beware, though; as is often the case at authentic Vietnamese restaurants, almost everything on the menu involves beef, chicken, or pork. The exception to this would be the grilled fillet of catfish served atop vermicelli noodle, but even this dish would not be of interest to strict vegetarians. The service here is courteous and friendly, but as you might expect, it is characterized by that brisk sort of efficiency that typifies crowded noodle houses. The only noteworthy point here is that if you are dining solo, you might be asked to share a table with another solo diner. Short Exact personally does not mind doing this, but if you prefer to not sit with strangers, we recommend that you dine at an off-hour or go in a group.

If you order the pho at Turtle Tower, you will notice a couple of key differences which set it apart from the majority of pho joints in the Bay Area. Most restaurants will give you a variety of sauces (including sriracha, soy, and hoisin), basil, bean sprouts, lime, jalapeno, and assorted sides — all of which are useful in giving some life to what sometimes turn out to be pretty tepid broths. Turtle Tower, however, only supplies lime, jalapeno and sriracha. These are useful in adding a bit of kick to the broth or lightly brightening the flavor, but very often, we just leave the soup as it is given to us. This may seem minimalist, but the broth here is really good, based as it is on a solid stock lovingly cultivated from the bones. Turtle Tower serves Northern-style pho, which tends to emphasize the cleaner, more natural stock flavors, while Southern-style pho tends to use more star anise and other spices and herbs to make up the difference. These two styles yield considerably different flavor profiles. Short Exact’s taste tends to align more with Northern broths rather than the Southern ones, but the style you prefer is really just a matter of taste.

On our most recent visit to Turtle Tower, we ordered the pho ga long,


the noodle soup with chicken meat and intestines. If you aren’t a fan of eating “innards”, you needn’t worry, because you can instead order the regular pho ga, which will only use chicken meat; the pho ga long, however, provides a greater diversity of flavors and textures. As you can see in the picture, a wider rice noodle is used, instead of the ubiquitous vermicelli noodle, and these fresh noodles had a nice softness that helped them soak up the flavors in which they were steeped. The soup was packed to the gills with generous chunks of fresh, clean-tasting white chicken meat and also with the promised innards — including some delightful chicken livers that were almost creamy. Another great touch is the addition of the baby yolk of an unborn chicken egg (sometimes also called “unhatched egg” or “young egg”). It is a rather traditional item to stick in these chicken soups, but we’ve only managed to find a few places that do it, and Turtle Tower itself doesn’t even do so consistently.

As usual, Turtle Tower did not disappoint us, and the broth was the star of the show. As we mentioned earlier, so many restaurants will compensate for a true lack of true chicken or beef flavor by increasing the use of oil and herbs, but Turtle Tower’s broth is always a delight. The broth in the pho ga long was light, balanced, and clean; yet, it featured a deep chicken flavor that sang clearly on our every sip or slurp. The cilantro and scallions provided a contrasting texture, flavor, and color that only further clarified the flavor of the broth. Best of all, the broth had permeated to each and every piece of meat in the soup. The flavor of the meat and the flavor of the broth were a perfect complement to each other. There was a resonance between the liquid and solid portions of this soup, each enhancing and amplifying the other, so that the combined flavor was somehow more than just the sum of its parts. This is simple comfort food at its best: well-executed, with no corners cut.

What more can we say? Whether you’re in the market for some un-pho-gettable pho (sorry, we couldn’t resist!), or you are simply looking for some of the best chicken soup in town, run, don’t walk, to the Turtle Tower Restaurant.



631 Larkin Street (at Willow St., between Ellis St. and Eddy St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415.409.3333
Hours: Mon, Wed-Sun: 8:30 am – 7:30 pm. Closed Tuesdays.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Tenderloin

How to get there: Muni bus lines 2, 3, 4, 5, 19, 27, 38, 47, and 49. The restaurant is about 6 blocks from both Powell and Civic Center stations (BART, Muni lines F, J, K, L, M, N, and T).

NOTE: This review only applies to the Tenderloin location of Turtle Tower. One day, though, we will get around to reporting on the branch in the Outer Richmond.



  1. I love that dish, particularly with the young eggs.

  2. Yeah, same here. So delicious, and the young eggs are key. I only wish more restaurants would include them.

  3. You are the second blogger who has reviewed Turtle Tower positively! That speaks volumes of this place. I am going to have to try it out–especially because it has Short Exact’s seal of approval! The first blogger that introduced me to Turtle Tower is actually my co-worker and friend. http://tastetests.blogspot.com/2007/03/turtle-tower.html

    My office is actually relocating to the Civic Center area in a month or two, so I have to get reacquainted with the good restaurants in the Civic Center area. Thanks for helping me to find this one!

  4. PE, thanks for pointing me to your friend’s blog! I hadn’t run into it before, and it looks really nice. By the way, that story about the hoisin sauce is great. I think about every other time I go to Turtle Tower, I’ve heard someone request hoisin, and then they have to be given the huffy explanation about how hoisin should not be used. 🙂

    That’s great you’ll get to try out Turtle Tower soon. I hope you like it, and I look forward to your review!

  5. […] we personally prefer the clean purity of the Northern Vietnamese broths (such as those found at Turtle Tower) to the more dressed-up Southern-style broths, and we are partial to Turtle Tower’s fresh […]

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