As my companion and I arrive at Tao in the early evening on this particular Thursday, I park the car on the bustling strip of Adams Avenue. We pass a few local bars and small shops until we reach our destination. Tucked away in a small nook, I see a simple, modest sign out front flagging the establishment. The sign also advertises the fresh, homemade tofu and soymilk that is made here daily. As I enter the cozy, intimately lit dining room, I am instantly overcome with a sense of comfort and serenity. I notice that outdoor seating is not offered; however, there are about twenty tables indoors. There is a Chinese lantern hanging from the ceiling and two rooftop awnings protruding from the wall on each side of the room which gives me a slight feeling of dining on an outdoor patio somewhere in the Far East. The overall feel of the quaint dining room is peaceful. The walls are lined with strings of white lights showcasing words of admiration and the writings of the hundreds of customers who had been there before me. This is the only artwork adorning the walls and I can’t help but feel a sense of joy as I realize that Tao has gained much support and love from the community. In the far rear of the dining room, next to a large fish tank, sits the hostess stand that’s lined with bamboo and adorned with a cherry blossom tree gracefully extending its branches into the dining room. Behind the hostess stand I see a small opening in the wall revealing the kitchen. Asian tunes are playing in the background, completing the overall serene feeling.
After being seated at a table at the far end of the dining room, I am instantly hit with appetizing aromas coming from the kitchen. After a quick glance at the menu I first notice the wide selection of vegetarian dishes, many of which are created with Chef Tao’s famous homemade tofu. With a more thorough investigation of the menu I realize the difficulty in choosing my meal selections. There is wide array of soups, salads, rice, and both vegetarian and non-vegetarian noodle dishes. While contemplating the first course, we are greeted by our helpful server, Brandy. We decide to start our meal with a refreshing tea drink made with Chef Tao’s homemade soy milk called Thai Lemon Aid. Served on ice, the Thai tea mix is infused with lemon juice, sugar, and soymilk. With the first sip my mouth is awakened by the fresh zest of the lemon, followed by the sweet and floral notes of the Thai tea. All of the flavors work well together and are rounded out by the creaminess of the soymilk, making this a refreshing start to my anticipated meal.
I am still pondering my dinner when Brandy arrives with a small plate of Chef Tao’s tofu alongside a bed of mixed greens tossed with his famous citrus dressing. This complimentary salad is offered as a starter to our meal -- something that Chef Tao regularly offers his customers as an ideal way to sample his fresh tofu. With my chopsticks in hand, I carefully pick up a tender cube of the white tofu. The silky texture melts slowly in my mouth, while the tartness of the dressing that bathes the crisp greens excites my taste buds. It is both sweet and tangy, adding a level of excitement to the salad. The greens are also topped with chopped roasted almonds, giving the salad an earthy, nutty flavor and adding extra crunch with every bite. Before I know it I have cleaned the plate and find myself eager to move on to our next appetizer.
We decide on the Vegetable Spring Rolls. There are four large spring rolls served deep fried and lined in a row on a white platter. They are served Vietnamese-style alongside a plate of stacked lettuce leaves and a bunch of fresh cilantro, mint, and basil. I take a perfectly fried, golden- brown roll, wrap it along with each of the fragrant herbs into a crispy lettuce leaf, dip it into the tangy dipping sauce accompanying the dish, and then take a bite. The crunchy coolness of the lettuce on the outside contrasts with the soft and warm filling on the inside and the bright, floral notes of the herbs add a new depth of exotic flavor. The citrusy burst of the dipping sauce adds another dimension to the already complex flavors.
Next, as an entree, we decide on the Lemongrass Shrimp. The shrimp is lightly sautéed with lemongrass, shallots, and garlic, and is served on a platter surrounding a tower of white rice. It is also garnished with cucumbers, snow peas, and tomatoes for added freshness. As I devour one of the jumbo pieces of succulent shrimp I instantly pick up slight hints of the lemongrass and garlic that make for a pleasurable balance of flavor. I pick up another piece of perfectly pink shrimp and scoop it through the fluffy granules of white rice. The result is a heavenly combination and, with the occasional cool crunch of the cucumber and snow peas, gives the dish a well rounded texture.
One of Chef Tao’s most popular dishes, the vegetarian version of the Mango “Chicken” Rice, is our next entrée. This soy protein, also known as the “Mock Chicken,” is cut into thick chunks and sautéed together with fresh, ripe pieces of mango in a sweet and silky sauce. The dish is served with a blend of perfectly cooked brown, red, and whole grain rice, and garnished with pieces of red bell pepper and snow peas. As I take my first bite of the “Mock Chicken,” I am pleasantly surprised to discover that the texture and taste is surprisingly similar to the real thing. It is a tender, juicy bite of “chicken” that, when combined with the flavors of the juicy mango, adds an intensely sweet and pungent flavor to the overall dish. The rice is soft and flavorful, slowly absorbing the decadent sauce. With each additional bite I enjoy the rich and complex flavors and find myself longing for more as I clear my plate.
For the last entrée we order the Tofu Rice Vermicelli. It is served as an anchor of cold rice and vermicelli noodles, tossed with small ribbons of lettuce, mint, cilantro, cucumber, bean sprouts, garlic, and lemongrass. This is surrounded by a generous portion of lightly fried medallions of Chef Tao’s tofu, served warm and again giving us the pleasurable contrast of hot and cold. The tofu is a perfect silky texture, this time slightly firmer to hold up to the lightly fried outside. The cool strings of vermicelli are light and refreshing, and the crunch of the cucumbers and bean sprouts with the brightness of the cilantro adds extra contrast that makes the noodles come alive.
To our surprise, while Brandy boxes up our minimal leftovers, Chef Tao sends out a complimentary dessert -- a generous scoop of green tea ice cream. This is served on a white plate decorated with fresh pieces of strawberry and mango, and is drizzled with a sweet strawberry sauce. The floral notes in the creamy green ice cream cleanse my palate, and signals that my eating adventure has finally come to an end.
Suddenly I notice there are customers lined up behind the restaurant eagerly waiting for a table and I finally understand why. With a satisfied stomach I get up to go home, but not before I take out my ballpoint pen and sign my name on the wall as a token of my gratitude.