Tao Chinese Bistro – Rio Rancho, New Mexico
It’s highly unlikely ancient Chinese philosophers ever intended the concept of Tao to be used as an approach for the serial seduction of women, but that was the premise of the 2000 movie The Tao of Steve. Filmed in the Santa Fe area, this campy romantic comedy centered around a corpulent, underachieving former philosophy student who christened his approach after the somewhat stolid “cool” epitomized by three Steves: Steve McQueen, Steve McGarrett from Hawaii Five-O and Steve Austin from The Six Million Dollar Man.
The Tao of Steve–which proves a very successful approach for sexual conquests–is comprised of three rules: ((1) Be desire-less. If your body language indicates a lack of interest, a woman’s attraction to you will increase. (2) Be excellent. Grasp the opportunity to showcase your talents, thereby proving your sexual “worthiness.” (3) Be gone. Leave women wanting more by not overstaying your welcome.
For years, the concept of Tao has been and is being demonstrated in ever more creative and unique ways. There was the Tao of Pooh, an introduction to Taoism using the beloved fictional character of Winnie the Pooh. The Tao of Bow Wow taught pet owners how to better communicate with and relate to their dogs using these same principles. The Tao of Physics provided an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. There’s even The Tao of Tweeting intended to help maximize the enrichment and insightfulness of 140 words or less.
Tao (pronounced dao) is loosely defined as “doctrine” or “principle” but the word itself translates to the “way,” “path” or “route.” Taoism, therefore, is not so much about a destination, but about experiencing life within the journey itself. It’s a system of faith, attitude and practices designed to help its practitioners be true to and live their nature, to flow with life in a peaceful manner in balance with all things.
Throughout this path, one will encounter opposing, but equal forces or poles of existence that flow in a natural cycle, always seeking balance. Known as yin and yang, these forces are opposite but complementary, opposing but not in opposition to one another. They are instead two aspects of a single reality–light blending into dark, for example. This is clearly depicted in the yin and yang symbol, one of the best-known symbols in the world. The yin and yang symbol depicts the light, white yang moving up blending into the dark, black yin moving up–dependent, opposing forces seeking balance.
For New Mexicans familiar with the culture of the Diné, or Navajo, of America’s Four Corners Region, the Taoist desire for flowing through life in a peaceful manner in balance with all things sounds very familiar. The Diné call it “hózhó,” a word embodying the striving for balance and harmony along with beauty and order. Every aspect of Diné life–whether spiritual or secular–is connected to hózhó, maintaining balance between the individual and the universe and living in harmony with nature and the Creator.
Very prominent on the north-facing wall at the Tao Chinese Bistro in Rio Rancho is a six-foot tall Chinese ideogram depicting the Tao symbol. There is nothing else near the symbol, making it the most pronounced point of focus when you walk into the restaurant. Shades of green, gray and gold with soft wood colors give the milieu a relaxing feel. The ceilings are a grayish-black with subdued lighting which imbues the restaurant with a sense of intimacy. Additional soft lighting is available behind the blond wood trim along the east and west walls. A serpentine half wall bisects the front of the restaurant from the spacious dining area which seats 70.
From the outside, the Tao Chinese Bistro isn’t much to look at. In fact, unless you look closely at the signage, you might mistake the storefront space for a martial arts studio. It’s sandwiched between the now empty space that once housed the Black Olive Wine Bar & Bistro on the east and Fratellis Pizzeria on the west in the Country Club Shopping Center, one of several nondescript shopping centers off heavily-trafficked Southern Boulevard. One of the shopping center’s long-time anchor tenants is the fabulous Joe’s Pasta House, but it’s Albertson’s (now closed) which once dominated the complex.
The Tao Chinese Bistro’s February, 2010 opening has been a welcome one at the City of Vision which has several Chinese restaurants, but none of which are transcendent. Still, Tao is easily the very best Chinese restaurant in Rio Rancho and one of the very best west of the Rio Grande. Though the ambiance bespeaks upscale and classy, the price points are reasonable, particularly for lunch. The specialty is gourmet quality wok-fried Szechwan cuisine and dishes from China’s remote Southeast provinces.
Chef Johnny Lee, formerly of the Fortune Cookie Chinese restaurant on Central Avenue near the University of New Mexico, is at the helm. Chef Lee is passionate about fresh ingredients and balanced flavors. He doesn’t take short-cuts, using no monosodium glutamate on his cooking. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner six days a week (closed on Mondays) and offers both take-out service and catering for parties and special events.
The lunch menu served Tuesday through Saturday from 11AM through 2:30PM provides excellent value with a phalanx of familiar favorites averaging around seven dollars each. Lunch entrees are served with steamed or brown rice and your choice of egg drop, wonton or hot and sour soup. You can upgrade to fried rice for two dollars more.
The dinner menu is segmented into several categories: Soups, Rice, Noodles, Entrees, Vegetarian, Egg Foo Young, Tao’s Classic Dishes, Kid’s Menu, Desserts and Drinks. The menu is a familiar one with few surprises save for on the Classic Dishes portion of the menu where you’ll find Coffee Chicken (chicken rubbed with ground French coffee, stir-fried in a sweet spicy sauce), Fisherman’s Feast (large prawns, scallops and lobster meat quickly cooked to perfection) and Walnut Shrimp (Lightly fried shrimp with roasted walnuts in a creamy sauce). The menu offers more seafood entrees than most Albuquerque area Chinese restaurants.
Even though the restaurant specializes in Szechuan cuisine, there are but a handful of entrees asterisked (*) to denote a greater degree of spiciness. Szechuan cuisine, which originated in the Sichuan Province of southwestern China, is renown for its bold flavors, emphasizing the qualities of spiciness and pungency. Szechuan cuisine’s liberal use of chili peppers and garlic make it a favorite of discerning diners who want their meals to grab their attention.
19 March 2010: It was thus surprising that the hot and sour soup is somewhat subdued, lacking the intensely piquant and lip-pursing, vinegary tartness which defines the way some people measure how good this soup is. It is a flavorful soup served steaming hot and delivered promptly within minutes after you place your order. It’s just not as intensely, boldly flavored as one might expect from a restaurant specializing in Szechuan cuisine.
24 February 2017: In Cantonese, the literal translation of wonton is “eating clouds.” Indeed, a well-made bowl of wonton soup should reflect this definition with cooked wontons resembling soft and fluffy pillows floating in clear broth. At Tao, the wonton soup is made well. Wontons made from a thin sheet of dough are stuffed with pork and served in a clear chicken broth. While the broth and the wonton skins are light and delicate in taste, the pork filling is seasoned nicely. Unlike other versions of wonton soup we’ve had, Tao’s version is relatively lightly salted and generous in the number of dumplings, making it one of our favorites.
15 August 2014: Pork dumplings are served at most Chinese restaurants in the metropolitan area and are generally among the most consistently good dishes you’ll find at those restaurants. Tao’s Peking dumplings–six hand-wrapped, crescent-shaped dumplings stuffed with ground pork and green scallions served with a homemade sauce–are among the very best in the area. The sauce, which has sweet, savory, tart and piquant properties makes them even better. In fact, the sauce would make a good beverage to accompany your meal.
15 August 2014: Chicken wings are another appetizer staple in Duke City area Chinese restaurants, but unlike dumplings, most aren’t very good. Tao’s marinated chicken wings, six wings sauteed in black pepper and salt, are terrific. The black pepper imbues the wings with an assertive flavor profile, but doesn’t overwhelm the moist, tender chicken. Only larger chicken wings could improve this starter. Our server informed us that with enough notice we could have an entire chicken prepared in this style.
19 March 2010: If the hot and sour soup is insipid, how then does an asterisked entree called Szechuan Beef fare? Szechuan beef is one of the most popular wok-fried entrees in Chinese restaurants throughout America. Tao’s rendition is a melange of thinly sliced beef, garlic, ginger, green and red peppers, snow peas, garlic and strategically positioned throughout the plate, several incendiary dried peppers that you dare not bite into unless your mouth is lined with asbestos. This entree is served steaming hot (a consistent quality among the restaurant’s entrees) so that the flavors wafted upwards to excite your nostrils. The beef is of high quality, not the cheap, sinewy beef this dish might use if in a Chinese buffet restaurant. The vegetables are perfectly prepared and very fresh.
19 March 2010: One of the surprising lunch menu entrees is a Thai inspired coconut curry with prawns (or beef or chicken) which emphasizes the pungent piquancy of curry and not the cloying qualities of coconut milk. This generously plated entree is redolent with the melding of flavors which go together very well, including fresh, crisp vegetables: onions, red peppers, black mushrooms and baby snap peas. The prawns are large, wholly antithetical to the concept of shrimpy shrimp. The number of prawns on the plate is surprising, too.
19 March 2010: Orange peel beef is an entree seemingly done by most Chinese restaurants, but most don’t do it well. Tao Chinese Bistro does. The beef is wok-fried to the point of being caramelized on the outside while retaining a perfect tenderness on the inside with an orange peel sauce that is most definitely citric, but not syrupy or cloying.
12 April 2011: Half of the entrees from the “Tao’s Classic Dishes”section of the menu feature chicken, a meat which tends to shine when stir-fried or wok-fried. Dark meat, which tends to be more juicy and flavorful, is used on all but one of them. The chicken with black bean sauce features slices of dark meat chicken, red and green peppers, pea pods, onions, water chestnuts and broccoli stir-fried in a fermented black bean sauce. The black bean sauce has a garlicky profile and isn’t overly thickened with corn starch so the flavor is predominantly of fermented black beans. The vegetables are perfectly stir-fried so that they’re crispy and fresh. Tao’s rendition of this dish is a good one.
21 March 2012: Even better is Tao’s Spicy Chicken, chicken breast rubbed with cayenne chili cut into bite-sized pieces then wok-tossed with garlic, ginger, green onions and Sichuan dry chili (with a hint of five-spice powder that’s not listed on the menu). The flavor profile is intense as in this is a very garlicky, nicely piquant dish. It’s made with white chicken for discerning diners who care about such matters. In three visits, this is the best entree I’ve sampled.
15 August 2014: My Kim’s favorite Chinese dish is a nest of double pan-fried noodles which reconstitute in a light brown sauce. She typically orders it with onions, omitting such vegetables as green peppers and with pork. The pork has a characteristic reddish ring around the pinkish-white meat. It’s got a smoky, wok-fried flavor and light sweetness that comes from a marinade. Until you mix in the light brown gravy, the double pan-fried noodles have a texture similar to Shredded Wheat before milk is poured on. One reconstituted, the noodles are delightful, both to eat and to enjoy the transformation process.
15 August 2014: Conceptually, the notion of Coffee Chicken sounds like a winner, but it’s in its execution that it seems to fall consistently short. Tao’s menu describes its coffee chicken as “tender chicken rubbed with ground French coffee, stir-fried in a sweet spicy sauce.” The description borders on fallacious. First, the chicken is hardly tender. It’s rather heavily breaded and stir-fried to the point of being caramelized, rendering it crispy. Secondly, the sweet spicy sauce has virtually no spiciness. It’s got a surfeit of sweetness, so much so that an entire bowl of fried rice doesn’t temper its cloying qualities. Desserts envy this dish for its sweetness.
24 February 2017: Tao’s menu lists six vegetarian items. If the mushrooms with snow peas dish is indicative of the high quality and deliciousness of the vegetarian menu, we’ll be ordering from the vegetarian menu more often. What’s not to love about fresh Shiitake mushrooms and crispy snow peas in a sauteed brown sauce–especially if mushrooms and snow peas are among your favorite vegetables in non-vegetarian dishes? Event better, this terrific dish includes thinly sliced ginger and red peppers. Typically made from molasses, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and other flavorings, the brown sauce is has sweet and savory flavor notes in near equal proportions. The mushrooms are large and fleshy with the earthy flavor characteristic of fetid fungi while the snow peas are sweet, crispy and delightful to eat.
24 February 2017: If ever there was an aptly named noodle dish, it would be Chow Fun, a Cantonese dish showcasing long, thin noodles (as opposed to chow mein which uses thin egg noodles; your choice of vegetables and your choice of chicken, pork, beef or shrimp. My Kim would rather not spend much time and effort on vegetables when noodles and meat are around so the only vegetables gracing her Chow Fun were green and white onions. The wok-grilling imparts a discernible smoky flavor that lingers long after you finish your dinner. The pork is delicate and delicious with a sweet barbecue flavor. Much as we enjoy Chow Fun, we don’t delude ourselves into thinking it’s a healthy dish. It’s a calorie-laden, often oily dish that’s far from healthful.
After five visits, it might be audacious to proclaim the Tao Chinese Bistro the best Chinese restaurant on the west side. Five visits in four years is more than most Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque are accorded so it must be good.
Tao Chinese Bistro
3301 Southern Blvd., Suite 500
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 24 February 2017
1st VISIT: 19 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Orange Peel Beef, Coconut Curry with Prawns, Szechwan Beef, Hot and Sour Soup, Tao’s Spicy Chicken, Chicken with Black Bean Sauce, Mushrooms with Snow Peas, Chow Fun Noodles, Wonton Soup