I have never suffered food envy as intense as the first time I ate at Tao Tao Noodle Bar.
I should have been satisfied. Begging for mercy, even, since I'd already polished off a steamer of eight juicy pork dumplings, then barely taken a breath before diving into a platter of kung pao pig intestine, sliding my chopsticks through holes in the spongy offal and bundling bites of intestine with carrot florets and slices of green pepper, green onion, garlic and ginger root, all exploding with the heat imparted by those must-be-avoided, angry red peppers. But when I looked up during a brief respite, I caught a glimpse of what a server was carrying to another table, a platter heaped with meat and vegetables, still sizzling enticingly and sending out the fresh aromas of garlic, ginger and lemongrass. And then another server wandered out of the kitchen with a hot pot full of an orange seafood stew. Although I'd barely begun to digest my own large dinner, it was all I could do not to flag down my server, point to those dishes passing by, and order another course. Or three.
By the time I paid my check, I was already making plans to return soon — with reinforcements.
Tao Tao Noodle Bar
10400 East Sixth Avenue, Aurora
Hours: 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Monday
Tao Tao Noodle Bar
Juicy pork dumplings $7.95
Beef noodle soup $9.95
Kung pao intestine $9.95
Seafood hot pot $14.95
Tao Tao stands alone on a corner of Sixth Avenue, in a building that still looks like it once housed a fast-food joint — although its last tenants were a pho shop and another noodle house — in an area near Lowry filled with strip malls and gas stations. From the outside, the place seems quiet. But inside it's a riot of opulence, with walls painted a rich gold that sets off the pink stone tables, round paper lanterns hanging from the ceilings and a forest of bamboo filling any gaps in the displays of Chinese knickknacks. David Lee and May Sung, the couple behind Chopsticks China Bistro, opened Tao Tao in March, after they were forced to close the second incarnation of Chopsticks for failure to pay taxes. In retrospect, they realized they'd made a mistake leaving their original location at Federal and Mississippi in favor of a dumbed-down version in Greenwood Village that had a liquor license but few of the dishes that had gained Chopsticks so many fans. So Tao Tao resurrects many favorites from the Federal spot on its menu: such American-Chinese staples as kung pao and Happy Family, supplemented by authentic Chinese-Chinese dishes, including dim sum and a raft of platters featuring intestines, jellyfish and tendon. And the couple also took the opportunity to expand their offerings, adding more specialties from Shanghai as well as a handful of noodle dishes from their native Taiwan, listed in the breakfast section alongside Chinese morning rice porridges and dumplings, even though noodles are available all day.
Photos: Menu items at Tao Tao Noodle Bar.
When I returned with a group, ready to feast, we studied that menu closely. After delivering water and sodas — Tao Tao has no liquor license — our server graciously discussed the possibilities and we made our selections, taking a few cues from what parties around us had chosen, in hopes of heading off that inevitable food envy. Even so, as our server left to put in our order, we found ourselves looking longingly at nearby tables.
Fortunately, it took only three minutes for bowls of rice to arrive, along with our first item: Taiwanese beef noodle soup, one of my favorites. Tao Tao's version of this hearty, homey dish had a rich, deeply colored broth, spiked with fresh ginger and scallions and swimming with chewy buckwheat noodles, as well as slices of tender brisket laced with opaque fat. The only thing I would have added would have been some five-spice — this beef noodle soup is even better with more kick — but Tao Tao doesn't stock its tables with five-spice or any other condiments. Still, I slurped the noodles aggressively, making sure I got more than my fair share.
Our seafood hot pot showed up next. The broth was thick, almost gravy-like, but tasted surprisingly light and clean, thanks to what I suspect was ginger. The broth was brimming with silky cubes of tofu encased in a fried skin, rosy prawns, spiky bits of calamari that had been cooked extra-tender, slick shiitake mushrooms and whole cloves of garlic. More garlic was key to one of that night's specials, which our server had recommended: garlic green beans and smoked pork belly. A pile of firm beans had been sautéed until the skin shriveled, then mixed with thin slices of smoky pork belly that resembled bacon in flavor, but was less crispy and a little tougher in texture. Both the beans and belly had been coated lightly with soy sauce, but the real flavor came from the whole cloves of garlic that had been cooked with the beans. By the time we were done with these dishes, you could have smelled our group from a mile away.
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Although my first Tao Tao meal had started with the juicy pork dumplings, this time they came last. And because by now I was slowing down, I had time to admire the craftsmanship of what sat before us in the steamer. World-class dumpling makers fight over the correct number of folds required for the top of each bun; Tao Tao had gone with eighteen. The tiny creases, curling out from a twist in the center of the plump dumpling, looked like a starburst and were the final artistic touch. But consuming soup dumplings is also something of an art form. Dig in too soon — which I always, always do — and you risk burning the roof of your mouth. Wait too long, and the broth inside the wrapper turns to gelatin, which is not nearly as satisfying. The best way to consume these: Let the steamer sit for a minute, then pluck a dumpling by its twist so that none of the liquid can escape, place it in a spoon, add a little black vinegar-coated ginger (it imparts a nice, cleansing acidity to an otherwise heavy and salty morsel) and nibble a small hole in the side of the dumpling, which lets the soup gush forth from the wrapper into the spoon. When I've sucked that down, I pop the doughy wrap with its pork meatball into my mouth. This system worked perfectly at Tao Tao, allowing me to savor the pungent, garlicky soup as well as the herb-flecked ground pork.
Some day, I'll go to Tao Tao and eat nothing but endless orders of these dumplings for dinner.
But that day won't be coming soon. Because as I sat back in my chair at the end of our meal, listening to the satisfied groans of my dining companions, I couldn't resist leaning over to see what the next table was eating and contemplating another round despite my very round belly. I don't think I'll be able to put my food envy to rest until I've sampled every dish at Tao Tao.
Photos: Menu items at Tao Tao Noodle Bar.