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[whitespace] Sing Wong
Photograph by Skye Dunlap

Mai Tai One On: Sing Wong serves up the signature drink at Tao Tao's cocktail lounge, one of the most engaging watering holes in the valley.

Tao Tao Philosophy

Sunnyvale's Tao Tao takes diners back--way back--to a time when Chinese food first stepped into American hearts

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS I've pondered the existential possibilities of the entrances and the exits of the Tao Tao. It's hard to tell which one is which, and thinking about them long enough leads to a vision of reality that is neither here nor there.

The entrance off the parking lot seems like the logical way in. But on closer inspection it also seems like the logical way out, with the other entrance (or exit) on Murphy Avenue the logical front door. I've gone so far as to question the workers about which is which; the answer so far is "both." But never mind that, because once one gets inside and wraps a paw around a mai tai and a deep-fried chicken wing, everything starts to make sense.

For the full effect it's best to enter from Murphy, stepping directly into a claustrophobic inlet full of flickering shadows and muted sounds of chopsticks tinkling against porcelain. Immediately to the left is a pay phone, a lonely looking thing straight from the pages of some dark psychological novel. Down at the end is a sign that reads: Ho Tao Lounge. It guides visitors forward into one of the most engaging watering holes in the Bay Area. People from every walk of life, from every quadrant of the South and North Bay, mingle here. Firemen and lawyers, surfers and eggheads, schizos and millionaires cavort under the dim lights over superlative mai tais (concocted with proper rums, then finished with a pineapple spear), bowls of won-ton soup and chow mein. This place is fun--no doubt about it--a great place to step out of your civilized skin.

The Ho Tao is the center, the core, the jugular of the Tao Tao. It's where the action originates before radiating into one of the dining rooms, both equally inviting with their understated furnishings and subtle golden decorations. Eat in the lounge and be entertained, or slip into one of the dining chambers for a more private meal. (Note: a remodel job is on the way; go now to experience the present before it's past.)

Tao Tao opened in 1951 as an American-style Chinese restaurant--the kind that used to serve more burgers and scrambled eggs than won ton and chow mein. It wasn't until 1974 that it became a serious Chinese restaurant. Chuck Woo and Frank Wong, plus three others--a pool of talent from Ming's over in Palo Alto--gave Tao Tao its soul and made it the establishment it is today.

Tao Tao is a Cantonese restaurant serving those popular mainstays we've come to love and yearn for, dishes like fried shrimp and egg rolls, won-ton soup, sweet and sour, chow mein, beef and chicken, broccoli and snow peas in a variety of fondly remembered permutations. This is the kind of food that used to come to the house in those fragrant white cartons, with fortune cookies and packets of hot mustard and soy sauce.

What sets the Tao Tao apart from other chow mein dispensaries is simple. There are chefs on station here, trained practitioners in the subtleties of heat physics, not short-order cooks who could care less about what they serve.

Open a meal with Tao Tao's famous Tossed Shredded Chicken Salad (13.50 full order; $7 small) made with crispy pieces of bird tossed with lettuce and seasonings to form a delicious melange of flavors and textures. The Tao Tao continues to be known for this dish and has actually built a following based on this one very special item.

The perfect accompaniment is a bowl of Won Ton ($6), or Wor Ton Ton soup ($8), both built on a clean chicken stock full of crunchy vegetables and silky noodles. The deep-fried goods, like the prawns ($8) and the egg roll ($6.50), have been predictably greasy. If you must, try the chicken wings ($6.50) smeared with generous applications of hot Chinese mustard. Though expectedly greasy and full of challenging sinew, these particular openers have sated my occasional desire for the deep fry.

Another favorite--one I wouldn't miss--is the Tao Tao beef ($9), constructed of marinated strips of succulent steak placed over a snowy bed of crispy vermicelli. A good seafood choice would be prawns with lobster sauce ($9.75) in a rich, cohesive gravy threaded with subtle lobster essence. An alternative to the sweet-and-sour pork ($8.50) is the pineapple chicken ($8), made with nuggets of deep-fried breast meat in a starched red sauce sweetened with pineapple.

Although I always like Tao Tao's chow mein dishes--they range from the special ($8.50), to the customary chicken ($5.75), to the vegetable ($6.50)--I often choose to special-order black mushroom chop suey instead. It replaces noodles with bean sprouts and, because of this, is less filling and also brings one a variety of vegetable textures that cleanse the palate. A plate of Yang Chow fried rice ($5.75) makes a good partner.

As is the case with so many seasoned restaurants, servers address regulars by their first names at the Tao Tao, taking each into the fold. They sit down, have a mai tai--blended by the lovable Kingman--and a plate of chow mein, and, like magic, they're home.

I like the Tao Tao. I can name 10 Chinese restaurants that are better, but none so warmly accommodating. It always takes me back, way back, to a time when Chinese food stepped into the heart of American culture, giving us more than just something to eat, but a whole new atmosphere to explore and enjoy.

Tao Tao
Address: 175 Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale
Phone: 408.736.3731
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11am-2pm; dinner Sun.-Mon. 4-9:30pm, Tue.-Thu. 4-10pm, Fri.-Sat. 4-10:30pm
Cuisine: Cantonese
Prices: $7-$12.50

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From the September 23-29, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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