2102 8th Ave, Oakland, CA 94606 | 510.238.8819
I have joined a few Meetup groups to expand my dining opportunities, and found that there are numerous dining clubs focusing on food and wine pairings that have nothing at all to do with romance. I’ll admit membership in the Fried Chicken Sluts and the Bay Area Noodle Whores, dedicated groups of fanatical and devoted eaters of fried chicken and noodles. My friend Christina who writes the cool and informative food/news/blog East Bay Dish, recently started a Meetup group East Bay Dishing. I joined her with 7 other diners to check out the Michelin recommended Laotian-Thai restaurant Champa Garden in Oakland. It is located in the San Antonio district, a residential section which stretches between the Nimitz (880) and I-580 freeways south of downtown Oakland. The restaurant was opened in 2006 by Phuoc Nguyen and his wife, along with his father-in-law, San Saechao, a native of Laos and the chef. The menu offers a melting pot of Southeast Asian cuisine – Laos, Thai, Vietnamese and Lue. The Laotian dishes are the standouts on the menu for me (read about previous visits in 2011, 2007), so we focused on those over the standard Thai dishes when we ordered.
The dish that everyone really must try is Nam kaow, or Rice Ball Salad ($6.95) which is a mixture of deep-fried rice balls made of rice, coconut and spices, smashed to pieces and tossed with bits of preserved pork, peanuts, green onions, fresh herbs and lime juice. There are so many delicious textures going on, crunchy bits of fried rice, crisp fresh herbs, pungent chewy pork, along with the tantalizing aromas of lime, fish sauce, and fried shallots.
This is served with lettuce leaves that you put a scoop of the fried rice mixture into along with fresh mint and cilantro and some of the stir fried chili pepper if you so desire. I am haunted by the flavors of this dish, here’s a link for a recipe, I am going try to make it at home…
We split one order of Lao sausages ($7.95), made with cured pork mixed with garlic, shallots, ginger, lemon grass and fish sauce. They are quite spicy and added a wonderful amount of fire to the array of dishes. This goes really well with the beloved Beer Lao which is sold here for $3 a bottle.
The Laos version of papaya salad ($7.95), uses fermented fish and shrimp paste instead of fish sauce, which gives the dish an intense, funky pungency. Just look at that sauce full of dark mystery.
The Laotian style Larb ($6.45) is prepared with fresh mint, onions, cilantro, and lime juice. We were all a bit appalled by the addition of chewy tripe mixed in with the minced beef. I later read that the chicken comes topped with crispy fried chicken crackling… definitely getting that next time!
We shared the Laos’ noodle soup with seafood ($6.45) full of handcut rice noodles in chicken broth. The broth is simple with distinct but balanced flavors, the chewy noodles soften and thicken in the broth.
This is one of my favorite dishes, but the flavors seemed muted and a little bland even with the fresh herbs and fried shallots mixed in; however, it was transformed into a stunner with a couple of good shakes from the package of Knorr Tamarind Soup Mix that was tucked in with all the condiments. Good old msg…
Pan fried eggplant in basil, garlic, and bell pepper with catfish, ($6.25), the eggplant was creamy inside and crispy/chewy outside and glazed with a sweet and sour soy marinade.
Garlic prawns were cooked in their shells in a dark and fierce sauce with pungent sliced onions and a nice smoky flavor. They were a bit overcooked, but we each only had a few bites between us.
Eddie at the other end of the table requested the Pineapple fried rice ($7.95), which is a dish that he had before and really wanted again. We like recommendations like that. The rice was made flavorful from a blend of curry, tossed with raisins, chinese sausages, and cashew nuts with tofu.
We had a hankering for noodles, and the Drunken Noodles (Pad kea moa) $5.95, were just the thing. Thick rice noodles pan fried with basil, bamboo shoots, onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, and chili peppers with chicken in a sweet and spicy sauce. The noodles were tender and chewy and had a lovely smoky flavor.
To finish our meal, we tried both desserts on the menu. Fresh mango with sticky rice drizzled with delectable sweet coconut milk ($4.95) is light and refreshing after eating spicy foods. Each bite makes you want to take another…
The Fried Banana with Ice Cream ($4.95) was also excellent, small pieces of banana were battered and fried, then drizzled with a glaze and topped with toasted sesame seeds. The ice cream was rich and refreshing and both desserts were gone in the blink of an eye.
It was fun to go with large group of such enthusiastic eaters, so we could try most of the dishes that sounded good! It was less than $20/pp for this impressive feast. If you are in the area you should definitely check out Champa Garden’s Laotian cuisine, and if you live in the area, you should come join us at East Bay Dishing!