Chef Annie’s 50 years at Tao Tao celebrated with official city declaration and endless rangoons
Ask nearly anyone in KCK what their favorite Chinese restaurant is and their answer will likely be Tao Tao. The restaurant has been a neighborhood staple for decades because of its owner, Chef Annie Der, and her quiet commitment to the Wyandotte community.
When Annie and her then-husband, Wally Der, opened Tao Tao back in Feb. 12, 1972, she had just turned 25 and didn’t know how to cook.
“My mom didn’t even know how to make gravy at that time,” her daughter, Tina Der, says. “My dad taught her how to cook, taught her everything, and over time, it just became a success.”
Though she couldn’t yet make the food that would later turn Tao Tao into a hidden treasure, she knew she had the determination to do so. She was used to defying odds.
Annie had arrived in the U.S. from China just four years earlier in 1968 and married Wally, her pen pal, shortly after. When Doctors told Annie that her 4’8″, 70-something-pound frame was too small to carry children, she decided to have four: Tina, Irvin, Leo, and Dara. Her resolve ensured she constantly overcame obstacles—and running Tao Tao was no different.
That success spiraled into a local restaurant empire. At one time, the Der family owned Tao Tao, Hong Kong Tea House in Independence, Missouri, and King Dragon in Blue Springs, Missouri. Though the latter two have since closed due to retirement, Tao Tao is still going strong.
This past week, Annie once again experienced another milestone alongside her restaurant when she turned 75 two days before Tao Tao’s 50th anniversary.
“I try to keep myself healthy until I cannot go. I’ll try as long as I can. I do what I can until I cannot move,” Annie says.
Customers continue to flock to Tao Tao’s colorfully painted and decorated location for the addictive food. Whether they’ve frequented the restaurant for decades or just stepped in the door, Annie wants to know all of her “Tao Tao kids,” as she refers to them.
“I grew up on Annie’s—since I was 10, I been eating here. She knows everybody, and if she don’t know you, she’s still going to greet you with love,” says Larry Robertson who, now in his sixties, has been coming to Tao Tao for nearly 50 years. “I’ve seen her give food to people outside that needed it. If you’re from Wyandotte County, this is your Chinese restaurant.”
The restaurant’s most popular dishes—shrimp fried rice, combination lo mein, shrimp or chicken eggrolls (which Annie takes time to hand roll every week), and Springfield Cashew Chicken—have barely changed since the restaurant opened.
The memorable flavor, and commitment to quality ingredients and preparation, create what locals call Chinese soul food.
While you might find Springfield Cashew Chicken on the menu at restaurants beside Leong’s Asian Diner in Springfield, where it was invented, or Tao Tao’s in KCK, the Der’s say it isn’t authentic.
Most restaurants serve the dish with battered chicken, but the meat must be fried to remain crispy and authentic.
David Leong—who invented the dish in Springfield, Missouri about a decade before Tao Tao’s opened, and was also the godparent to the Der children—taught Annie how to make their top seller.
According to Leong’s recipe, the dish consists of all-white meat chicken that is fried and doused in a rich, brown sauce before being topped with cashews and green onions.
Another thing that you won’t find at any other Chinese restaurant is Tao Tao’s assortment of crab rangoons. Irvin invented the seven different flavors of sweet and savory rangoons that at one point made the restaurant go viral.
“I was like, What could we possibly do to make us stand out from every Chinese restaurant in town?,” says Irvin Der, who worked with his mom at Tao Tao for 24 years. “People drive all over just for the crab rangoons. I thought, ‘if Cheesecake Factory can put out 40 flavors of different cheesecake, why can’t I figure out a way to a recipe to get that into one of my rangoons’?”
Irvin started by inventing a strawberry cheesecake rangoon and expanded the menu to include peach cobbler, caramel apple, spinach parmesan garlic, bacon jalapeño, and spicy fire chili flavors to accompany their original crab rangoon.
Tao Tao’s business has tripled since the onset of COVID. While the reason behind the growth can be found in their heaping portions of fan-favorite food options, it’s also because customers get the chance to talk to Annie and her children Tina and Leo from the counter that looks into the kitchen.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re at a restaurant,” Tina says. “It just feels like you’re talking to a friend, and they stepped into your private kitchen.
That proximity, literally and figuratively, makes patrons excited to come back and turns customers into friends.
“It’s been well over 40 years we’ve been coming here,” says Mary Addison, who is now a friend of the family. “When you walk in the door, nobody knows who you are, right? But the minute Annie sees me, everybody in the store knows my name. She’s just a friendly lady.”
Dre England, who’s been coming to Tao Tao for more than three years, says he can always tell when Annie is in the kitchen because the food tastes just a little bit better.
Tina says it’s rare for anyone else to cook because her mom devotes most of her time to the restaurant. Though Tao Tao is open 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, Annie will often be at the restaurant for more than 15 hours.
Spending that much time at the restaurant may be ill-advised, but it makes Annie content.
“I start really early, and I’m really happy here,” she says. “It’s a happy restaurant.”
All of Annie’s effort pays off, too. Even newcomers notice something markedly different about the restaurant when they first walked into its often crowded lobby lined with benches for people to socialize.
“When we walked in, it was charming. Something felt special. You know how you get that gut feeling—something felt right,” says Kimberely Barcio, a first-time customer.
Barcio recently moved to KCK and stopped by Tao Tao for a late lunch with her grandfather. That special feeling resulted in them leaving with lots of food to try, and free crab rangoons of their choice—a treat Tina and Annie often give to first-time customers.
Earline Green is a 73-year-old in-home care specialist. Her son introduced her to Tao Tao years ago and now she’s a frequent customer. She often picks up meals for her patients who aren’t able to physically come to the restaurant.
“I’m taking this meal to my client—my patients love it,” says Green, who was in the restaurant that day picking up a meal for a patient. “I like Mama Annie because mama’s 75 and looking good.” Green says that seeing how hard Annie works gives her strength to continue in her field as well.
Over five decades, Tao Tao has grown into a generational tradition. People now frequent the restaurant because their parents or grandparents introduced them to it decades ago.
Still more come in because their friend recommended it, or because they tried it and wanted their family to as well. Annie says she’s seen six generations of people come through her doors.
“I’ve seen kids grow up, they started their families,” Irvin says. “People that haven’t been here for 20 years, they still come back. They’re like, ‘I can’t believe your mom’s still cooking.’ It’s crazy. No one would think that a 75-year-old, 75-pound mom would be back there slinging it away, but she’s still doing it.”
The years that Tao Tao has weathered also created a family legacy. Three of Annie’s children, Irvin, Tina, and Leo, are still involved in the food sector. The latter two work with Annie at the restaurant.
“We were born and raised in Chinese restaurants. As a little kid, I always was around food—my earliest memories were in Chinese restaurants with the family,” says Irvin. “The best memories are cooking alongside my mom.”
Irvin currently works as an at-home chef and plans to open up a food truck with Hawaiian cuisine and more inventive flavors of crab rangoon.
For Tina, the entrance into the restaurant business came later. Though she has fond memories of growing up in the restaurant, she now treasures her time working by her mom’s side more than ever.
“The best memories I have are not from childhood; they’re from the last 22 months of COVID. Because of COVID, my mom asked for some help. I thought I would be there for a couple of weeks, and it’s turned into almost a couple of years,” Tina says. “We’re quite a dynamic duo—we play off each other. She does the cooking, and I do this socializing and get my mom involved in the conversation.”
To honor the legacy of Annie and Tao Tao, customers and city officials met at the restaurant Feb. 12 for a surprise celebration.
Feb. 10, Annie’s birthday, is now officially known as “Chef Annie Day,” as declared by an ordinance from the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas.
Mayor Tyrone Garner, Wyandotte County District Judge Tim Dupree, Kansas State Sen. David Haley, State Rep. Pam Curtis, and deputy police chief Raymond Nuñez were all in attendance, as well as Chef Jasper Mirabile of Jasper’s Italian Restaurant.
The biggest sight to behold, though, were the dozens of “Tao Tao kids” that came out to give gratitude to Annie for her support of the community for so many years.
Dupree opened the celebration with an invocation, and Nuñez gave Annie an official coin from the KCKPD.
After a ribbon-cutting and many kind words about Annie, the fanfare continued with dancing, cake, and, of course, lots of Chinese food.