Going to Tao Tao Restaurant was always a treat reserved for a special night with my grandma. As a child, I remember going in the back entrance and waiting while the pretty ladies in red satin dresses would seat us. I remember the rocks and plants by the back door, and the tiny Chinese sculpture in the small alcove, and the shiny enameled screens with inlays of pheasants embroidered in silk. But more than anything, I remember the first salad I ever fell in love with.
Tao Tao Tossed Chicken Salad is the single item on their menu for which they are most famous. It’s also a recipe I’ve been trying to get right at home for nearly a decade now- the entire time since moving from California. I have finally gotten it. NO JOKE. It’s a lot of work, but when you live 3000 miles from your favorite Chinese place, it’s worth it. No mandarin oranges, no ramen noodles, no mini corn, no mayonnaise- this Chicken Salad is simply perfection in a bowl.
Consider this my gift to you.
Tao Tao Chicken Salad
For the Salad:
- 1 head finely shredded fresh iceberg lettuce
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped, no stems
- 3-4 scallions, sliced thinly
- 3-4 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
- 1 cup salted roasted cashews, coarsely chopped
- 2 ounces thin cellophane rice noodles
- 4 chicken breast tenders, crisp-fried and chopped (recipe below)
- Vegetable oil for frying
For the dressing- it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enough. You just barely want the lettuce coated, shake the following together in a small jar or whisk in a bowl:
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp rice wine vinegar
- 1 Tbsp TOASTED sesame oil (ridiculously important)
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp dry asian mustard
First thing I do is prep and fry the chicken and cellophane noodles. To do that, I soak the four tenders in about a cup of buttermilk for an hour. While it’s soaking, mix in a plastic bag the following: 1 cup flour, 2 tsp Morton’s Season All, 2 tsp of powdered chicken broth bouillon, 2 tsp onion powder 1/2 tsp poultry seasoning and 1 tsp fresh black pepper. Toss the chicken in the bag, shake to coat, and fry in the oil you have heated to 375 in either your fryer, or in a deep pot on the stove. Tenders cook quickly- usually 5-6 minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside to cool.
Take your time doing this part: While the oil is still hot, break your cellophane noodles into manageable pieces. I sometimes use scissors for this, as dry, they are quite tough. Usually cellophane noodles are soaked in hot water and served soft. For this, we are going to toss them, dry from the package, in very small bunches, into hot oil. They will puff up almost immediately. Make sure you do it in small bunches, flip them, and remove them promptly. Uncooked cellophane noodles are tough and inedible, but fried, they become delicate, tender little crunchy darlings. You will have quite the pile of white crunchy noodles when you’re done. (buy them in the asian section of any market).
Now that your frying is done and the dressing is made, you can get to making the salad.
In a large bowl, toss the shredded lettuce, chopped cilantro (yes, the whole bunch), scallions, sesame seeds and cashews together. Top with the chopped cooling (but still warm) chicken and the pile of white crunchy cellophane noodles.
Drizzle the entire amount of dressing over the salad, and toss thoroughly with some tongs or with your hands. It will be very lightly dressed, but this is a good thing.
Transfer to a pretty bowl, and if you feel fancy, top with a few choice cilantro sprigs and some whole cashews. ENJOY!!
These are uncooked cellophane noodles. You will use maybe 1/2 of one bunch: