Beyond the bowl: the story behind Turtle Tower
Pho connoisseurs who have had the hearty noodle soup at different establishments will tell you that no 2 bowls taste exactly the same. Even within America, subtle changes characterize each store’s unique flavor—a little sweeter with more star anise here, more cinnamon with a larger variety of meat there.
Each bowl of pho tells a story, and for the family behind Turtle Tower, their tale spans 2 continents and multiple generations.
For those unfamiliar with Turtle Tower, by now one of the most well-known Vietnamese restaurants in San Francisco, the first store was opened in 2000 by the Pham family in the Tenderloin. Named after the most famous landmark in Hanoi, the store is known for its phở gà, or chicken pho, which swaps out the beef broth most identify the dish with for a light but robust chicken broth. Uber Eats recently visited the restaurant’s SoMa location during a bustling afternoon and spoke with Kathy Pham, the eldest daughter of the Pham family, about the story behind this SF cult favorite.
“When a lot of people think of pho, they jump right to beef, which before was the more accessible form of meat, especially in Vietnam,” she explains. “Chicken was definitely a luxury in Vietnam, so when [my father] came over here, he was like, ‘It’s not easily accessible, even for people in Vietnam, to enjoy a chicken noodle soup, so why don’t I create that here?’”
The Pham family arrived in San Francisco from Vietnam as refugees in 1991, hailing from the northern city of Hanoi. Focusing on the region’s own proud culinary tradition, Steven Nghia Pham, Kathy’s father, made a “deliberate choice,” she says, to feature phở gà, a northern specialty, as the centerpoint of his store.
“A lot of the Vietnamese that are here are only aware of the southern tradition just because that was the large population that emigrated here after 1976, after the Vietnam War,” she says. “He wanted to really hone in on the northern tradition, the one that people don’t talk about anymore.”
One of the key factors to Turtle Tower’s enduring popularity is its dedication to quality, such as using free-range, organic chicken only, sourced from local farmers who deliver from Tracy, California.
“The flavor that my dad created and the ingredients he puts in really allows the natural sweetness of the chicken to come out and still is very full-bodied, like a beef soup,” Kathy says. “Often when we think of chicken we think simple and mild, there isn’t substance, but my father was able to test out recipes and go, ‘This is just as good as the beef broth,’ because of his innovative ideas about how he wants to present his food.”
Now boasting 3 busy locations across the city (with the SoMa location available on Uber Eats), each bowl of pho that customers happily slurp up is another manifestation of the Pham family’s success story. In each bowl is also the story of the hard work, passion, and struggles that come with an immigrant family’s pursuit of the American dream.
Steven Pham was born into a restaurant business in Hanoi—his grandfather was working for the French when Vietnam was under colonial rule, and he later established his own fusion Vietnamese-French restaurant. Growing up with the business, Kathy’s father had over 50 years of experience in the restaurant industry by the time he arrived as a refugee in America with his family.
Like many who leave their home country for a new land, however, Steven Pham initially set aside his passion to make sure the family could land on its feet.
“My mom was a nail manicurist, my dad was driving taxis, he did some construction, he did some housecleaning, he did a host of other jobs,” explains Kathy. “After 10 years of living in the United States and doing various jobs, he realized his love and passion was still food.”
And so, the first Turtle Tower location opened its doors in 2000. But the initial reception was far from hearty, a familiar greeting for new restaurants in SF’s saturated dining industry.
“We basically started with nothing,” she says. “Finding a place that would be budget-friendly and something that we felt like we could connect with, the Tenderloin was that identity. Most, if not all, the immigrants come over and stay there.”
This also meant they were smack dab in Little Saigon, which Pham describes as a “compliment and a constraint.” The location meant they’d now be competing with Vietnamese restaurants that had been long established in the neighborhood. “We were the oddball,” she adds.
The community was not initially receptive, and the whole family had to grit their teeth through the first few years, mostly due to a lack of awareness for the restaurant.
“We struggled for the first 3 years,” she says. “My sister and I, we grew up in the family business, so oftentimes that’s what we ended up doing—going into the kitchen, helping out, doing the dishes.”
But Steven’s belief in the product, the collective hard work of the family, and unyielding insistence on quality finally paid off with a 2004 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, igniting a wave of popularity that would prove enduring. “After that, we were out of the hole,” says Kathy, who cites the restaurant’s expansion to multiple locations as her proudest moment. “So it took only one recognition, and, granted, it was a huge recognition, and that still to this day has been the catalyst that allowed us to expand like that.”
And just as Kathy watched the store grow and evolve, Turtle Tower is also a place where she changed and grew up over the years, first as a child helping out and now as someone who takes an active role in running the family business, learning important life lessons along the way.
“[I learned] that your passion, your perseverance, your hard work will take you further than anybody that says otherwise,” she says. “There were times that, of course, as a child, I thought the world was so cruel—we’re offering something that we feel is unique, it’s ours, yet they are butchering it. People can be very nasty when their experience is different from what they’re used to, and that was what they experienced with us—this dining experience is something completely different.”
Learning to work with people at such a young age taught her a lot, and that became vital as she became more and more involved in the business. It wasn’t something she had initially planned on, as she originally envisioned herself as a health professional or teacher.
“Being immigrants, my parents didn’t speak English very well, [so] I kind of assumed the role since I’m the eldest,” she explains. “But it taught me more than any university could have ever provided for me as far as learning the trade. The business has grown, but it made me who I am, someone who is hard-working and can deal with people. As much as I didn’t choose it, it chose me. It has helped shape who I am.”
Her attitude toward pho also evolved over the years. While she resented it as a child because it seemed to be all there was to eat, at the store and at home, the dish has come to represent something more meaningful.
“As a child, I was totally against it. I was like, ‘Why do I have to eat this every day?’” she says. “And now as an adult, I actually find that this is my comfort food. I eat this every day—when I don’t have it, I feel like I’m missing something.”
While Kathy attributes part of that change in perspective to growing out of childhood, a bigger part comes from a better understanding of what goes into making a bowl of pho possible. Beyond just the ingredients and labor, it’s a continuation of the passion for food that’s been passed down throughout her family, her parents’ leap of faith in establishing Turtle Tower, and the years of hard work that followed, allowing it to thrive.
“Working with the product, I realized how such love and quality goes into it,” Kathy says. “As a child, when you’re eating it, you just have a bowl, you don’t go through the hard work of making that bowl happen. Working in the business, I go from the bottom up, and to see the result in a bowl is that much more valuable to me.
“The meaning of pho is home, my comfort, my cure and remedy. To me pho is not just another meal.”
Just as a bowl of Turtle Tower pho is special for Kathy, capturing her evolving understanding of the product and her background, it’s special for everyone in the business in their own way. For Steven, it was not only a return to his restaurateur roots but also the planting of seeds that would create an extension of those roots in America, helping to spread the cuisine he loved with the people in his new home.
“It’s his whole life, his whole legacy,” says Kathy. “It not only solidified his position as a citizen of the US, it also allowed him to carry the culture over and share it with the rest of the people that might not otherwise have known there was any difference between regional cuisines.”
And as for Kathy’s favorite type of pho at Turtle Tower? The answer came with no hesitation.
“Hands down, I have to pick the chicken noodle soup because there’s nowhere else I can get something like it.
“There’s no replacement.”