It doesn’t matter. Any excuse works. Going to Turtle Tower for a classic bowl of Pho Ga (Chicken Pho) is a trek I’ll make any day, for any reason.
There used to a be a time that I refused to go to Turtle Tower, prior to the opening of the Richmond location. Their original location is in the Tenderloin – and it’s dirty. It’s typical of the Tenderloin. It’s packed. It’s hot. It’s just so not me. While I am known to do virtually anything for good food — this is where I draw the line.
But then they opened the Richmond location. Brand new, this Turtle Tower location is fantastic. And, though some might ponder if it’s even possible, the soup is even better than the Tenderloin location. Service is much better, and on most days, you do not have to wait in an exorbitant line to get a bowl of heaven w/ noodles.
This is not the typical Pho that us Californians have come to expect — which is the Southern Vietnam type of pho. What they serve at Turtle Tower is a North Vietnamese pho — typically simpler, cleaner, and more “to the point” than it’s southern cousin.
It is also most commonly served with thick rice noodles, much like a Vietnamese form of fettucine. The noodles are soft, not “al dente” — and it’s supposed to be that way. There are no sprouts served up with this dish, or basil. They simply offer you a lime, and some jalapeno slices at Turtle Tower. Do not ask for the rest; they don’t have it and they don’t like being compared to the Southern Vietnamese pho.
On my first visit to Turtle Tower (Tenderloin), I was mortified when I was not offered the whole nine yards that southern pho comes with — and made it very well-known that I would never return to Turtle Tower. Two years later, the pho ga had grown on me, and within three years, I basically wake up craving this, and only this.
Yes — every single morning. If it’s raining, I want “TT” (what we call Turtle Tower). Sunny? TT. In a bad mood? TT! Turtle Tower is the answer to virtually anything.
And it works.
On Sunday mornings, while the rest of San Francisco stands in line at Stacks or Ella’s in hopes of eggs and pancakes, I will wake up late, stare at my ceiling for awhile, then call up friends and ask, “Lunch at TT?” Invariably, six or seven friends will find it hard to refuse, and we’ll all gather here for an awesome bowl of pho w/ delicious giblet and what we call “Special Sauce”.
First – let’s go over HOW to eat a bowl of pho ga at Turtle Tower . Yes, I am actually giving you eating instructions.
You will be served a bowl w/ noodles and if you order #10 — it will have the fabulous giblets which consist of a little bit of liver, intestines, eggs, and other “parts”. You need not know what they are to simply taste and understand one thing: it’s good stuff. This bowl will come with another tiny bowl of jalapeno peppers and a lime, one per bowl.
Request a small bowl of ginger and they will give you minced ginger. Toss a little into your soup; sprinkle pepper. Throw in a couple jalapenos and squeeze the lime in; stir.
Then comes what helps to make this meal magic. If possible, request it as you order so that it can be made by the time you get there. YC originally made this sauce for me, and since then — I can’t eat Turtle Tower pho without it.
Request extra jalapenos, and in a bowl, pour the fish sauce and Sriracha to your heart’s content. Toss in some black pepper and maybe a little bit of leftover ginger, if you like ginger. Mix it up – and let the peppers soak up the great sauce.
Now, take a big spoon, put a little bit of soup in it – and with your chopsticks, take your noodles and place onto the spoon. Take a piece of chicken meat or giblet (or egg), dunk in the hot pepper sauce and place it on your spoon with the noodles and soup. Take a piece of jalapeno pepper — and put it atop the whole thing. Inhale — smell – and open wide and let that wonder go down your throat.
Bliss, at last.
I get a bit obsessive about having the soup, noodles, and meat match up, spoonful by spoonful. It’s so good together, and with the salty/spicy special sauce, the combination works. It’s perhaps the only meal I opt not to drench in Sriracha, which happens to be one of my favorite sauces in existence. The chicken soup at Turtle Tower is SO good and fresh, it needs for nothing else.
Just follow the “eating instructions” I just gave you and give it a try. If you’re not addicted to Turtle Tower within two visits, I’d like to do some research on your blood because I need some of that. I’m so hooked it’s ridiculous.
Turtle Tower (in Richmond) is located at 5716 Geary Blvd in San Francisco, CA. It’s a tragedy that they close at 8:30 PM as this would make a fabulous late-night meal, too.
The other locations in Tenderloin and SOMA can be found on their website, along with the peculiar hours at the SoMA location.
Addictive Factor: 10/10
Overall Rating: 9.3/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.