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DINING: Tao In Normal Heights

Mango chicken with rice.
Photo by Steven Persitza

Hidden treasures abound for us San Diego foodies these days. Nothing is more satisfying than finding a new haunt that delights the senses, satiates the palette and provides bragging rights. Tao on Adams Ave in Normal Heights is just such a find. Non-descript and a “blink-and-you-will-miss-it” street-side presence, Tao is that “how have I missed this place all this time” kind of establishment. Up and running for almost two years, Tao delivers a wonderful blend of Japanese and Vietnamese dishes with a propensity towards vegetarian fare.

(Note to self, when reading the menu if you see “chicken” in italics that means tofu style chicken.)

If you have never explored Adams Ave, you are missing a unique slice of San Diego. Shops and restaurants abound with really amazing finds, dining offerings and the occasional Voo Doo store. Park the car and take a stroll and discover the many opportunities that are at your disposal. Antique book stores, funky coffee houses and the new Farmer’s Market on Wednesday afternoon’s from 3 to 7 at 34th Street on the school playground all add to the simple pleasures of life.

The interior of Tao is quaint and unassuming. A giant vase greets you at the door and a larger-than-life hand-fan dwarfs you from above the door. Scanning the small dining area, there is a sense of transformation to another realm. Roofing shingles abound on both sides of the length of the venue creating a rustic, shack like yet homey vibe. The back wall is bamboo laden, and for some unknown reason, organ music was playing through the speakers. OK…a little creepy. Then there is the walls laden with signatures, anecdotes and even artwork from former customers. To top it off, anywhere that still has the gumption to serve little umbrellas in the beverages deserves a nod for nostalgia. The blue ones look particularly good tucked behind your ear.

A couple of things immediately catch your eye when you take a gander at the Tao menu. First off, wow! What an assortment of options from ramen, rice dishes to tofu concoctions and sizzling entrees. Freedom of choice is not a problem here. The second thing you’ll notice is the random price points. $8.28 for a grilled beef salad, $7.36 for tempura ramen, $10.11 for lemongrass pork chop or $11.03 for garlic chicken. Really, you couldn’t round it up or down for simplicity? Ahhh, but who cares when the food is so good. We’ll give it a 9.42 for creative pricing.

Gotta love that before you even have time to look at the menu a “family-style” plate of salad is presented before you with a wonderful sweet vinaigrette dressing. Share and enjoy. For starters a must are the Spring Rolls (deep fried and served with lettuce, cilantro, mint and their famous secret sauce - $7.36). Any Vietnamese restaurant worth its weight must have scrumptious rolls, otherwise why bother? Tao satisfied nicely with the ultra crunchy exterior and succulent blend of pork and veggies on the inside. You can get a completely veggie version if you like.

Having passed the spring roll muster, we were ready for the diverse menu opportunities. How about Mango Chicken Rice (a blend of chicken - the real stuff- with mango-$9.20) and Lemongrass Chicken (chicken, lemongrass, garlic, shallots served with lettuce, cucumber and rice-$10.11)? The truly inspiring qualities of both dishes were a simple, yet complex composition of each ingredient. Fragrant seasonings and an abundance of flavor captivated the senses and it doesn’t hurt that the portions are huge.

The mango chicken was a sheer delight. Sweet, generous portions of chicken tempered with carrots, mango and basil created a nuance of crisp flavors that warmed the senses. The lemongrass chicken equally delighted with a more balanced blend of heat and sweet. Both dishes mesmerized us with their simple complexity and splendor of taste.

Tao is that rare find that will draw you to invite friends to feast on their delectable offerings. Plus you get to be the “in the know” person informing the masses of what they are missing. Take a trip to Tao and you will be sure to have a memorable experience. And be sure to mark your name on the wall of diners and leave your mark. Enjoy!

The good: authentic Vietnamese cuisine.

The bad: boy, the service went from good to horrible at the end, just let us pay the bill.

Details »
  • City: San Diego
  • Phone: 619-281-6888
  • Name: Tao
  • Address: 3332 Adams Ave