Laotian Cuisine at Champa Garden in Oakland

by foodhoe on January 24, 2011

2102 8th Avenue, Oakland, CA 94606 | 510.238.8819 | facebook

I came here several years ago for lunch and enjoyed the Rice Ball Salad so much that I have been thinking about it ever since.  Seriously!  When I noticed they were listed on Restaurant.com with a $25 coupon (which btw I was able to get for $6 with a 60% discount code from here… score!)  I brought my family and older sister who was visiting from SoCal because I know they would enjoy the tantalizing flavors of this cozy little restaurant.  It is smack in the middle of a residential area, on a quiet corner where we found parking to be plentiful.

The staff was very young, they all looked like teens, but were friendly and attentive.  Our server was very patient and helpful in selecting dishes for our meal.  The one bad thing is that the tables are really quite small and have a disproportionately large selection of condiments on a platter that takes up about a third of the real estate.  There were the usual squeeze bottles of sriracha chili sauce, hoisin, chili garlic sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce, and a cannister of sugar, but this was above and beyond and included a small bottle that smelled like it had powdered bouillion, and a variety of tubs filled with dried chili, chili paste, pickled peppers, chopped peanuts and toasted rice powder.  I loved having such a variety of options, but once the food began to arrive, we ended up moving the entire tray to the empty table next to us.

The famous Fried Rice Ball Salad - Nam Kaow ($5.95), is a mound of crispy fried rice, mixed with preserved pork, green onions, and lime juice. This dish is so unassuming at first glance… it doesn’t look like anything special, just fried rice, but it really is so much more.

Served alongside a platter piled with lettuce leaves and fresh cilantro and mint.

When you take a scoop of the rice and wrap it up in a lettuce with the pungent fresh herbs and drizzle it with the sauce, your mouth is filled with a maelstrom of textures bursting with brillliant flavor.  It is at once tart, vinegary, sweet and savory, freshly crisp and crunchy and even a little bit sticky/chewy.

We shared the Thai Style Green Papaya Salad which was made bright and zingy with fish sauce and lime, and was served with a pile of thin rice noodles and chopped cabbage.

My favorite dish (besides the rice ball salad) was the fabulous Lao’s Noodle Soup – Kaow Paik ($6.45).  Gorgeous and glistening, the thick chewy homemade noodles were served in a fragrant chicken broth topped with fried shallots and garlic, thinly sliced green onions and cilantro.  The aromas rising from the bowl were fantastic!

I sprinkled some of the powdered dried chilies on this which really perked up my tastebuds.  I really loved the soft elastic texture of the noodles and just couldn’t get enough of the fragrant soup.

We ordered the Fried Catish in Penang Curry – Pla Pa Nang from the specials board.  This dish was raved about on chowhound, so I was looking for it, and made it a priority to sample it when it arrived fresh from the fryer.  It had a golden batter that had a delicately crisp texture that was lacy and dainty, that went very well with the thick curry.  The fried catfish pieces are placed on top of the spicy and sweet sauce, and served with a variety of stir fried veggies.

We shared the Drunken Noodles, which was a mound of broad rice noodles, flavored with soy sauce, fish sauce, garlic, and a variety of seafood.  I don’t recall the price, and the website seems to have expired for me to look up…  This was tasty but was more soothing and tame compared to the previous dishes.

One thing to note about the restaurant is that it is the Laotian dishes that shine the brightest.  The Thai dishes were fine, but didn’t have the same appeal as the pungent and savory dishes from Laos…  The total after the tip and using the $25 restaurant.com coupon was about $27.  Quite reasonable for such a feast don’t you think?  I’ll definitely be back for the rice ball salad and chicken noodle soup.

Champa Garden on Urbanspoon

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