By Benjamin Seto/Focus:Snap:Eat
When tasting the flavors of Southeast Asia, it’s pretty easy to find Thai or Vietnamese cuisine in California. But when hunting for the food of places like Laos, Cambodia or Myanmar (formerly Burma), one has to find the pockets around the Bay for a chance at authentic cuisine.
One pocket in Oakland, nestled between the Clinton and Highland Park neighborhoods, is primarily filled by one long-time restaurant, Champa Garden, which opened in 2006. This tiny eatery in a former corner donut shop has grown legions of fans for its many Thai dishes, but also the few Lao favorites from the chef who’s hails from that country.
It’s an often-recommended spot for cheap eats, which means you need to get there early if you want a table. I recently visited for the first time for dinner on a Saturday night, and my friends and I arrived soon after the doors opened at 5 p.m. That might seem early, but there were already two parties ahead of us, and, by 6 p.m. the restaurant was nearly full.
Champa Garden wears its success well, as the interiors are brightly lit with a contemporary feel and what resembled a street kiosk for a bar. I’d read on Yelp that service can be slow – if not absent – at peak times, but on this Saturday the restaurant was run by a team of young servers who were both efficient and friendly.
For the menu, it’s your typical Asian restaurant with multiple pages (laminated, of course) of dishes. Many of them appear to be Thai classics, and there were just a few Laotian dishes. Many of them can be found in the Champa sampler ($12.95), which we ordered to start. The plate includes slices of Laotian pork sausages (with lemongrass and herbs) and fried spring rolls, with lettuce and vermicelli noodles to create wraps.
But the star of the sampler platter is the fried rice ball salad, which comes out looking like fried rice but has a mixture of crunchy and soft because rice and coconut are deep-fried in a ball and then smashed up and mixed with preserved pork, peanuts, green onions and lime juice. One bite and the flavor reminded me of my trip to Vietnam, a real authentic Southeast flavor that is rarely captured in the States.
Another Laotian favorite is the larp (which also comes in Thai style) for $8.95, and I’m not sure if it’s because we ordered the mild spice level (we were with two young kids), but this traditional minced beef salad seemed bland.
The rest of our meal was mostly Thai, like the pad se-ew ($8.50) and mussamun curry ($9.50) with beef (a favorite among our table for the light sweet-savory flavor). It seems more Laotian dishes can be found in the noodle soup section, such as the kaow paik (chicken noodle soup) or kaow poont (vermicelli in coconut broth), but we were there during the recent heat wave so we weren’t in the mood for hot soup.
While the options seem more Thai than Laotian, Champa Garden delivers on satisfying plates in a comfortable environment. Like an onion, you have to peel each layer to get a deeper understand of its authenticity and uniqueness. It’s a place you have to try more than once to discover a true Southeast Asian experience.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps.
The deets: Champa Garden, 2102 8th Ave. (at E. 21st Street), Oakland. Tel: 510.238.8819. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. (till 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). No reservations, major credit cards accepted.