Vibrant Vietnamese

The cuisine and service at Dao's Tai Pan's are fantastic, but they both deserve a nicer décor

The first time you walk in to Dao's Tai Pan's restaurant, you'll probably end up confused.

There's a counter toward the back of the restaurant, with a cash register on it and large color pictures of various entrées behind it. Each table-and-chair set (the tables colored black and speckled gray; the chairs plum-colored) is of the one-piece variety, bolted to the floor. And overhead, there is soft-rock music, including (*gag*) Celine Dion.

It screams, in shrill tones, "FAST FOOD!"

Our first clue that Dao's is not a fast-food joint came when a server shooed us to a table as we attempted to head for the counter. The second clue came when we saw the menu, which has about 100 (!) different dining options, with Chinese and Vietnamese entrées ranging from $5.50 to $10.99. The third came when we tasted the food--far better than any fast-food or fast-casual joint I've ever encountered.

During our first visit, on a recent weekday evening, the restaurant was about half-full. Garrett and I had a heck of a problem choosing what to order, seeing as there are so many options, both Vietnamese and Chinese. (The menu has a lunch section and a dinner section, but everything is always available.) To start, we each ordered a "Bubble Tea"; I got the Thai pearls ($2.99) and Garrett got the tropical storm ($2.99). A large sign outside of Dao's is hawking these right now, and they take up about half of the menu's full-color menu. What is a bubble tea, you ask? Some sort of beverage (in my case, Thai iced tea with cream; in Garrett's case, coconut jelly lychee) with a bunch of dark-colored, large tapioca pearls (basically tasteless) at the bottom. The verdict? They're different, but not exactly the big deal the sign and menu make them out to be.

As we slurped the teas through oversized straws and chewed on the pearls, we chose what food to order. For appetizers, we ordered the Vietnamese crepe ($6) and the fried shrimp pate on sugar cane ($6). We also picked the pho tai soup (noodle soup with rare slices of beef, $5.50), Mongolian beef ($5.50) and the chicken pad Thai ($7.99).

To pass the time as we waited for the onslaught of food, Garrett played with his wi-fi-enabled Palm Pilot, and discovered that Dao's has free wi-fi, a nice touch. There's also a computer in the restaurant for public use. An aquarium sits on the counter, and live plants dot the restaurant, providing a bit of oxygen. Speaking of air, there's also a drive-thru window, for people who call in orders.

Then, all of a sudden, our pleasant server started delivering food--all of it at once. Our little table was deluged with a bounty of cuisine--all of which ended up being pretty darned good.

The fried shrimp pate was the weakest dish. The three pieces (a bit of a rip-off for $6) were OK, slightly bland and slightly greasy. However, the rice-vinegar sauce that accompanied them spiced it up nicely. That same sauce also came along with what was, for me, the meal's highlight: the Vietnamese crepe. A thin layer of egg containing pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, alongside mint and coriander leaves, it was a wonder. The server had to walk us through how to eat it; she recommended placing the leaves inside the crepe, then pouring the rice-vinegar sauce over it. The end result was messy, but fantastic--a mishmash of amazingly different flavors, from the mellowness of the shrimp and sprouts to the tartness of the sauce and the spiciness of the mint. It's a fantastic dish--a bargain at $6.

On to the soup. At first glance, it was a bit plain (the cilantro was the strongest flavor), and the beef strips were slightly tough, but after doctoring with the various sauces at the table (hot sauce, plum sauce, etc.), it was quite tasty.

The Mongolian beef dish was very flavorful--Garrett's favorite--and the vegetables that came with it (including carrots, zucchini and onions) were fresh. My only complaint was that the dish was slightly greasy. Meanwhile, the pad Thai was rather odd--it tasted unlike any pad Thai I've ever had. The sauce had a tangy, slightly smoky flavor, almost like a barbecue sauce. Also included in the dish were wide, ribbon-like noodles and the typical sprouts, carrots and lime. It was actually quite good, albeit unusual.

Stuffed and satisfied, Garrett and I paid our bill, grabbed our leftovers and resolved to return soon. That happened a couple days later, on a Saturday, for a late lunch.

Resolving to eat lighter (and knowing not to approach the counter) this time, we ordered three things: the goi cuon tom thit appetizer (see-through spring rolls with shrimp and pork, $4.50), the Thai hot and sour soup ($10.99) and the beef salad ($6), along with a Thai iced tea ($2.50) for Garrett and a Vietnamese iced milk coffee ($2.50) for me.

Our server brought the drinks first (I had fun playing with my coffee, delivered still dripping into the cup from the chamber with the grounds), and then she brought the spring rolls. They were fantastic--crispy (thanks to the veggies inside) and tasty. The tangy, peanut-like bean sauce provided for dipping perfected the dish. I will order this again the next time I visit Dao's.

The soup--with a decent number of shrimp along with bamboo shoots, tomatoes, bay leaves and a bunch of mushrooms--came with noodles on the side. It had a vinegary aspect that was almost too tart for my taste. (Similar soups have coconut milk, which softens the tartness a bit, but this one did not.) However, the beef salad, with the traditional, tangy dressing, was fantastic; Garrett and I tore through it and both wanted more.

Dao's Tai Pan's is a true delight. If you took the restaurant's food and service and transplanted it into a nicer, more comfortable space, this would probably propel Dao's into some Tucson Top 10 lists. But for now, we'll have to deal with the ugly fast-food tables, chairs and décor to get the delicious food. That's a sacrifice I am willing to make.