When I start raving about edamame and tofu, chances are roughly 100 percent that the chef in charge has done something extraordinary. Sure, I'll eat either, but I've raved exactly once, and that was last week at Tao Too Asian Eatery in Germantown.
Lime juice, in addition to the standard sprinkling of salt, is all it takes to elevate edamame to heights previously unknown to the addictive green soybean (frequently eaten as a snack with beer in Japan).
Tofu is given special treatment by lightly breading cubes of it, frying it until the center is warm and creamy, scattering slivers of crisp jalapeno peppers on top and serving a ginger-soy sauce for dipping.
No MSG is used at Tao Too, so the kitchen makes good use of peppers, herbs and spices to enhance the flavor of the Chinese, Taiwanese and Thai dishes. The Devil's Nest noodle bowl is possibly the fieriest soup I've ever eaten. As high as my tolerance is, I don't believe I could eat anything hotter; I know I couldn't do so pleasurably.
"Too hot to have names," is what our efficient and friendly server told me when I asked her which three chilies give the soup its heat. Attack this monster in stages: First sample the noodles and the dumplings. Move on to the mushrooms or pieces of chicken, taking in just a little liquid.
If you start with the broth — red with chilies and glistening with chili oil — you risk defeat. And if you are too timid with the soup, taking tiny sips, you will choke. Those tentative slurps are how you end up coughing, throat burning, tears streaming, looking like a little baby.
This is a gutsy soup; be worthy. Tackle with purpose, and add a squeeze of lime. For all its might, it needs a little lift.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Tao Too is that each dish I tasted was truly distinctive from the others. While not at all meager, the menu is on the smallish side for an Asian restaurant — seven specialties, seven traditional dishes, four selections of fried rice and so on. It's carefully considered, though.
The Thai Basil with Shrimp tastes nothing like the Spicy Garlic Shrimp. The Singapore Fried Rice, with just a touch of heat from the curry and full of crunchy sprouts and onions, is quite different from the Coconut Curry Chicken. So even when the base ingredients or the predominant spice are the same, creative use of flavors makes for variety.
Lunch specials, served daily, are reasonably portioned. A soup and your choice of fried rice or steamed rice come with the entree, along with a small serving of pickled vegetable relish.
My favorite selection was the Coconut Curry Chicken, slightly spicy sliced chicken breast served with potatoes and onion in a curry sauce lightly sweetened with brown sugar and coconut. The General Tsao's Chicken is just barely breaded and sauteed, nothing like the typical version that's deep fried and drowned in a sticky sauce.
All chicken is white meat ("for your good health"), portions are reasonable, and the quality and freshness of the ingredients is top notch. You can enjoy a meal in a casual yet warm and inviting space and leave feeling fairly virtuous.
Tao Too Asian Eatery
Address: 2072 West St.
Telephone: (901) 737-3988
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Reviewer's choices: Crispy Tofu ($5.95) and edamame ($4.25) appetizers; Thai Basil with Shrimp dinner ($9.95); Coconut Curry Chicken lunch special ($6.99); Devil's Nest noodle bowl ($8.95)
Alcohol: Beer; bring your own wine for a $5 corkage
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars
— Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223