Recipe: Tao Tao Chicken Salad

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!!

NOTES:

These are uncooked cellophane noodles. You will use maybe 1/2 of one bunch:

GET TOASTED sesame oil, not plain. Plain is just oil, toasted is a strongly flavored condiment:

34 thoughts on “Recipe: Tao Tao Chicken Salad

  1. Thanks a mill for this recipe!!!! We miss Tao Tao chicken salad so much!!! The best!
    Can’t wait to try this recipe!!
    Now if we could only get the recipe for Stan’s doughnuts in Santa Clara we’d be set!

  2. I’ve tried to replicate Tao Tao Chicken Salad a dozen times, and my best effort is really close to this recipe.. (mine lacked the sesame seeds & the scallion, and I found I prefer thigh meat) I’m sure this will be delicious & I look forward to making this. Thanks so much for sharing it. You have no idea how much I miss Tao Tao….
    (got a Tao Tao Beef recipe, btw?)

  3. Thank you so much! I had this salad while in Sunnyvale back in the 80s, and have NEVER forgotten it. I was looking at an Asian Chicken Salad recipe online and it didn’t sound that appealing to me – I thought to myself, I wish I could have that salad I had in Sunnyvale once 25 years ago! So started googling, and I think I found it. Business associates took us there on a business trip; said that was their signature dish, so I’m assuming we went to Tao Tao’s. I cannot wait to try this – I can’t fry worth a darn, but fortunately my other half can, so I’ll get him to fry the chicken and I’ll take care of the rest. I am going to follow the recipe to a tee.

  4. This really is the Chicken Salad from Tao Tao In Sunnyvale. Don’t know how you got this recipe but it is fabulous. Thank you so much for sharing

  5. Thanks, Nancy. I didn’t get the recipe from them- I live on the east coast now, and I did a TON of trial and error in order to finally hit on it! Glad you like it.

  6. I too have been seeking the Tao Tao chicken salad recipe for decades having eaten at Tao Tao once a week for more than 20 years… My favorite childhood restaurant with many special memories. Agree we also need to figure out Tao Tao Beef recipe as well. Thanks so much!

  7. I grew up going to Tao Tao with my Grandparents for special occasions. Getting all dressed up and having our whole family seated in the back corner table. When I was a child we were always served by Frank (the current owner). My family moved away from the Bay Area when I was 11. When my mom has business in Sunnyvale she stops by Tao Tao to picks me up a Large Shredded Chicken Salad to bring home to Portland.

  8. Yep, this is the real deal! I made this over the weekend and my husband proclaimed it delicious and a huge success. Even the picky 12 yr old loved it! We live in OR now so we miss Tao Tao a lot. Thanks for all the work figuring this one out!

  9. Thank you for this recipe!! Tao Tao is my favorite Chinese Restaurant and I too have moved far, far away and miss it. You just can’t find good Chinese food in Indiana…so far! That said…my taste senses always told me that there was a hint of dry mustard in the salad. Does anyone else get that sensation?

    • Greg,
      There is dry mustard in the dressing. It’s listed in her recipe. I know, because i just made this again for dinner last night! I actually upped the amount of mustard to 1 tsp because my husband said the 1/2 tsp wasn’t enough mustard flavor in the first batch I made. Last night, I baked the chicken w/ panko crust to avoid the extra oil in frying and it came out just the same. I had leftover fried vermicelli noodles from the last batch that I kept in the fridge, so no need for oil this time around.

      It’s pretty darn close to Tao Tao’s recipe, and a keeper for sure!

  10. I too a long time ago (maybe 30 years ago), use to go to Tao Tao and always enter through the back door (because the parking lot was there and it was convenient as well), and you described the back entrance so elegantly and to a tee!.

    My wife made this recipe and I swear its the same! Wow! Congrats! But I remembered that it wasn’t my favor dish, it was the Press Almond Duck, Tao Tao Mongolian Beef, Lemon Chicken, and fried rice. mmmmmmmmmmm!!!!

    Thank you and thank you for sharing this valuable recipe!

  11. I lived in the area in the early 90s. I love the chicken salad and Tao Tao beef!!! I also remember the back door entrance, which I believe was the only entrance for a while. The town center was being remodeled so the front was blocked off for construction. We ate there about once a week. Moved back to Dallas in 94 and could not find anything close to the chicken salad!! Thank you for sharing the fruits of your labor in reproducing it!!! I have visited the bay area many times since returning to Dallas and EVERY time found a way to go to TaoTao I am going to make it TODAY.

  12. LOVE Tao Tao. I live in Texas now and my mom and I were lamenting on how much we miss the Chinese Chicken Salad. My mom owned Travel Advisors at Town and Country we ate at Tao Tao often. I cannot wait to try this!!!

  13. Chuck Dutton said: Started frequenting Tao Tao around the early 70′s. Ming’s in Palo Alto also had a tasty chicken salad but lost the recipe when they moved from The El Camino Real to the Embarcadero & Hwy 101. Tao Tao became a favorite watering hole for many elite after hour sales types and the bar specialty was and still is today their famous Mai Tai’s. I’ve noticed on return trips to Tao Tao the consistency (taste) varies depending on the day of the week you visit. Always good, but some days better than others. Entering via the back door added to the omvionce and the sight and smell of the kitchen at work. Will always be my top priority when anywhere close.

  14. Oh Thank You so much for your efforts! I know how much you must have enjoyed it to work so hard to decipher the recipe.
    I’ll be following your recipe tomorrow.
    A long-since-closed Chinese Restaurant on Castro St. in Mtn View (China Garden) had a similarly popular dish named “generals chicken” back in the mid 80′s. And it was nothing like the multitude of similarly named dishes from many other restaurants. I’ve been trying to duplicate it for decades, and have only gotten close.

  15. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I use to go to Sunnyvale for work in the last 70′s and always had to get the Tao Tao chicken salad. I have tried numerous other recipes and the dressing just wasn’t right. I also wasn’t putting in enough cilantro! I just tried an Asia chicken salad at Pei Wei hoping it might be something like the Tao Tao. FAIL. It had a sticky, overly sweet sauce and was just awful. I will try this over the weekend. Does the Tao Tao restaurant still exist?

  16. After a long hot Sacramento day, I thought this would be perfect. Thanks sooo much for your time and great effort in reproducing this favorite. I couldn’t find dry asian mustard at my local market. The clerk told me the Chinese mustard in a jar (a paste-like texture) would work. Can i substitute this type only decrease the amount? Thanks :)

  17. I think you probably can, Christina- I would just add a little and see how it tastes. I’m not sure if it’s equal measure for replacement. Taste and try it out!

  18. Oh how I miss this salad! I live in New Hampshire now. Will try this recipe. NO ONE ANYWHERE has anything even close to Tao Tao Restaurants delicious salad.

  19. I finally made this the other night. I left out the sesame seeds because I forgot them and was too tired and hungry to toast them when I realized it! Because I live alone, I knew this would be a multi-meal dish so I didn’t add the cashews and fried noodles but kept them separate in zip lock bags and added them at serving time, I admit that I doubled the dressing because it was so yummy. I have to say that I think the recipe is right on!!! Thanks again!

  20. Holy Cow!! I can’t believe I found this recipe! I was going to check with HungryBrowser.com when I thought to Google Tao Tao Restaurant. What a great surprise to find your recipe. I lived in Sunnyvale area for about 18 years before moving back to Oregon 15 years ago. Can NOT wait to try this!!! I am SO excited! Can’t wait to call my best friend in Los Angeles who introduced me to Tao Tao Chicken Salad back in 1982! She’ll flip when I send her the recipe! THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING!!! I’m sure my husband will thank you, too! And ditto on the Tao Tao Beef! =))

  21. Carol, ate lunch today at Tao Tao. Fridays they serve corn chowder, I love that soup as well as their wor wonton soup. You must include their special Tao Tao beef.

  22. I just googled Tao Tao Chicken Salad and gratefully got your recipe. Thank you for shortcutting the many hours I would have tried napa cabbage and many other combinations. Who knew…chicken tenders?
    I have always thought they missed the boat: they should have started a chain of chicken salad drive through restaurants. It’s the perfect meal….truly!
    Thanks so much!

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