At Toronto’s oldest Vietnamese restaurant, the special ingredient is tradition
The rare beef pho at Pho Rùa Vàng Golden Turtle Restaurant is a sublime experience: The bone-marrow broth is flavourful, with notes of lemongrass and green onion and mint; the tender beef practically melts in my mouth; and the rice noodles absorb it all as I slurp.
I bite into a deep-fried pork spring roll and have to resist devouring the rest of the appetizer before I swallow.
This is not my first visit at Toronto’s oldest Vietnamese restaurant, and it won’t be my last. Golden Turtle has been an institution on the busy few blocks of Ossington between Dundas and Queen since opening in 1987. And it’s hard to miss: outside on its north wall, its iconic turtle mural holds court on Argyle Street. Inside the tight 60-seat space, traditional Vietnamese art hangs on the walls, including a six-foot-wide painting of nine horses running, representing the lucky number in Vietnamese culture.
Beyond the decor, the dining experience is steeped in family legacy and expertise, explains Linda Nguyen, the 33-year-old owner of the quaint restaurant first opened by her mother and great aunt. “We’ve seen a lot of Vietnamese restaurants come and go on the Ossington strip,” she says, referring to the area formerly known as Little Saigon. “We’ve never lost our authenticity, what makes us attractive to our customers.”
The menu is bursting with dishes: more than 15 varieties of pho, the famous Vietnamese soup made with broth, vegetables and add-ons such as beef, chicken, seafood and tofu; sweet and sour tamarind soup; vermicelli noodles, served hot or cold, blended with spicy satay beef, grilled shrimp and pineapple, or grilled chicken. “The menu used to be like a big book, with around 316 dishes,” Nguyen says, “but we’ve now pared it down to 100 or so.”
A tour of the kitchen reveals a streamlined and organized process, in which members of Nguyen’s family, including an aunt and uncle, prepare the day’s dishes. One station is for chopping veggies, such as green onions and bok choy, while another focuses solely on cooking the daily output of around 600 litres of broth. “We’ve become specialists in knowing exactly how much to make each day,” she says, “so there is nothing left over.”
What makes the perfect broth? “We slowly simmer beef bone marrow,” Nguyen says. “The difference between a bone broth and a bullion broth is that with the bone broth, you’ll have a nice, fat-trimmed layer on the top every time you cook. Once you sort out that fat, it leaves a pleasant (taste) in your mouth, which is really special.”
The pho expertise comes from Nguyen’s grandmother, who sold soup as a street vendor in 1950s Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where she passed her knowledge on to Huyen, Nguyen’s mother. Huyen arrived in Toronto in the mid-’80s and soon launched Golden Turtle at 148 Ossington with her grandmother’s sister.
After 10 years at that location, they moved to their current spot, hiring aunts and uncles and distant cousins to help staff the restaurant. Nguyen’s younger brother also works there regularly, helping to seat customers.
Nguyen — who with her brother bought out their parents’ shares in the business — lives with her husband and daughter in Etobicoke, while her folks, who still work regularly at Golden Turtle, live just around the corner from the restaurant.
Nguyen has seen the area evolve over the years, shifting from Vietnamese and Portuguese eateries to a gentrified Ossington now known for hip bars and indie coffee shops. Not wanting to cater to the boisterous late-Saturday-night crowd, Golden Turtle closes at 9 p.m. every day (except Tuesday, when it’s closed). “We have our loyal customers,” Nguyen says, “and we’re fine with that.”
The loyalty is born out of consistency, Nguyen says. “Customers know what they’re getting when they order, and we’re not big on following trends.”
Working with family may pose a challenge for some restaurant owners, but Nguyen’s relationship with her parents convinces her they’re on a frictionless path to success. “The great thing about our dynamic here is that even though I work with my mom and dad, I still have the authority to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’ and they will be supportive,” she says. “With most families, it’s usually not that sort of dynamic — ‘I’m your mother, and what I say goes.’ But not us.”