Cafe Reviews

Tao Jones

Berry Hom could do fine without another trip to Sky Harbor Airport, thanks very much. What with the heightened security there, and the never-ending construction in the area, it's an ordeal to navigate the sludge of traffic circling the terminals. But Hom does it, day in and day out, picking up the deliveries of seafood flown in fresh from his suppliers in Canada, Seattle and Los Angeles.

Hom has no choice. As co-owner of Chandler's new Tao Garden Chinese restaurant, he'd have some truly unhappy souls to answer to if he didn't make the effort. Me, for example. When I come in, and it's often since I discovered his wonderful place at Alma School and Warner, I expect fresh fish. So fresh, it's alive when I order it. So spunky, I can see it cavorting about in the three tanks mounted in the wall of Tao Garden's entry. So pristine, it tastes of pure sparkling ocean or stream.

Hom would also have some explaining to do to another customer, whom he can't name but can identify by appetite. This gentleman comes in faithfully, Hom tells me, on a mission: to eat his way through each and every one of the menu's more than 210 dishes. So far, he's managed 45 different plates. A guy this fanatical is not someone a restaurant owner wants to meet in a dark alley after shrugging and saying, "Sorry, no fresh fish today, it was too much of a hassle."

So Hom goes to the airport, loading up his vehicle with still-kicking lobster, feisty crab, tilapia, rock cod, flatfish and sometimes catfish. His scallops and clams are still breathing when he carts them into the kitchen; he plans to bring in live shrimp too, he says.

Hom's work is admirable, though frankly, I wouldn't do it if it were my restaurant. The last time I braved the airport was a few weeks ago, to pick up my sister Elisabeth, the wild child stopping home from college. Just getting to the north curb of Terminal Four was like invading a small country, the lanes barricaded with concrete partitions, flashing traffic lights, uniformed officers with guns and dogs . . . I felt like a criminal being there, and I didn't even have to get out of my car. Luckily, Elisabeth is young and agile; I barely slowed down as I rolled past, throwing open the passenger door while she catapulted herself inside.

Forget the airport. If I ran Tao Garden, I'd drive one mile west for my live fish, to Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket on Dobson and Warner, that 52,000-square-foot emporium of exotica already brimming with tanks of live crab, mussels, clams, tilapia, catfish and carp. But what do I know about the shopping strategies of restaurateurs? I'm here to eat, and thanks to Hom's dedication, there are few better places in town than Tao Garden at which to do it.

Though this is Hom's first restaurant, he has a history with one of the Valley's finest Chinese establishments, Best Hong Kong Dining in Mesa. Live fish frolic in tanks there, too. Best's menu is broad, with enormous portions at ridiculously low prices. So Hom has taken the best of the Best, and put it in his own strikingly clean, seashell-wallpapered, polished wood and plant lush restaurant. He runs the show with his wife Yeemon, but the real art is left up to his chef, who, Hom says, "just makes things up -- with brilliance." The chef is Heung Ming Fong, also relocated from Best Hong Kong.

I'm not going to dissect the food too much here. I'm not going to go into laborious detail about the differences between the many regional varieties of Chinese food, the ooh-aah aspect of such unfamiliar-to-Americans edibles as fish maw, crispy fried milk, preserved mustard greens, or the outrageous blending of ingredients that make Cantonese and Mandarin cooking so comparable to elegant French cuisine. I'm just going to recommend that diners do as I've done -- and as that customer with a mission does -- point at something, anything, on Tao's menu, and eat it. As an old Cantonese saying goes, "Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible" (The Chinese Kitchen, by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo).

Hom is pleased with my philosophy. Too many "Caucasians," as he calls us, limit their experience to the safe choices of sweet and sour pork, beef and broccoli, kung pao shrimp or chicken chow mein. Tao does do a superb job with these standbys, dressing the high-grade ingredients in whispery light, refined sauces that put mainstream sugar and cornstarch-choked versions to shame. The friendly dishes make for a fabulous, filling, cheap lunch for just $4.50, including better than ordinary egg drop or hot and sour soup, a crispy egg roll, fluffy fried rice, fresh fruit, and, if we're lucky, a freebie of a terrific crunchy crab puff brimming with cream cheese. Anything with prawns, in particular, is excellent, bringing mounds of meaty marvelous specimens with clean, almost lobster-rich flavor.

Yet I'm face first in a huge bowl of something much more interesting. It's congee, a white rice porridge that's much like steaming hot cream of rice, and comes spiked with foods like dried scallops and chicken, prawns and lettuce, chicken and creamed corn, minced beef and preserved vegetables, or my choice today, slivers of pork and slabs of preserved egg (it tastes like hard-boiled ova, with an intriguing green-black color). Next, I'm spooning fat mouthfuls of salted fish, chicken and tofu hot pot, a ceramic crock bubbling with an earthy broth of hoisin, soy and shallot. A random request for beef stew hot spot is more surprising to typical "Caucasian" taste buds, given that the big bowl of slippery ramen noodles and meaty stock bobs with big chunks of tripe and tendon. Whatever; I love it all.

By my loose count, I've eaten almost two dozen of Tao's creations. The only dish that doesn't thrill me is bitter melon beef in brown gravy, and that's only because the melon the kitchen sends out is too acrid and metallic rough for my taste (yes, being this bitter is how it's preferred by Asians, but the few other times I've had the bumpy-skinned, cucumber-shaped vegetable, it's been less ripe, and delicate-sour). Beef and cilantro rice noodle soup is more gentle, the broth deep with pungent, delightfully soapy-flavored herb. There's also no acquired taste required for steamed whole fish, which brings a large, luscious tilapia bathed in a thin, bright sweet-sour sauce dotted with chopped carrot, green pepper and shallots. And nothing could improve on a stellar fillet of rock cod, steamed moist and ladled with a breathlessly elegant black bean sauce plus big chunks of red and green pepper.

I've been watching neighboring tables, some of them centered with lazy Susans, and most occupied by groups of Asian diners. A dish goes by to land on green-and-white-checked tablecloths, and I find myself pointing at this, that and everything, asking my server to bring me all these mysteries that look and smell so good. The servers enjoy the adventure, too; one brings me a dish of scallop chow mein before I request it, saying that he's "read my lips" as I gushed with my dining companions. Another jokes that while he's sorry an order of Peking pork chop takes a while to prepare, the health inspector is currently in the kitchen, so the chef is cooking things "correctly." There's nothing wrong with the lavish mountain of tender pig, to be sure, draped in a mild plum sauce. They're pleased at how grateful my group is with the roasted duck appetizer, an entire half-bird, juicy-moist and crisp-skinned. They watch happily as we ravage another appetizer of pot stickers, a half-dozen griddled won tons overstuffed with minced pork and paired with savory dipping sauces.

And then there's that lobster -- bright black eyes, awkward claws and fat, flat tails. Alive, it floats serenely at the bottom of its tank. Cooked, it emerges fire-engine red, prepared in the style of supreme sauce, with ginger and scallions, black bean sauce, Thai- seasoned, Hunan-style, with spicy salt-pepper, or in XO sauce. Any way it's eaten, it's an indulgence. Such fresh, fantastic flavor is why Hom will fight the traffic at Sky Harbor for us -- day after day after day.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet