Two months ago, Camchilao debuted in the Fruitvale district. Serving mostly Cambodian and Lao food, and a concise vegan menu of mostly Chinese dishes, it’s a welcome addition to Oakland’s vibrant Southeast Asian food scene.
Veteran restaurants in Oakland serving Lao food include the beloved Champa Garden and Vientian Cafe, which both serve a mix of Southeast Asian cuisines; and in Old Oakland, there’s longtime Cambodian restaurant Battambang. In more recent years, Cambodian eateries Nyum Bai in the Fruitvale district and Cambodian Street Food in the San Antonio district debuted. While Camchilao joins the pack, it also distinguishes itself from the others, and demonstrates how varied Lao and Cambodian cuisine can be.
Camchilao operates as a food truck in a lot across the street from the Fruitvale BART station, where it’s set up an outdoor seating area for guests to enjoy food on-site. With hip-hop music playing over speakers, the sound of passing BART trains and bright murals on the wall and fences that surround the patio, the set-up is casual and fun.
The patio seating is well-spaced out, with several high cafe tables and bar stools, as well as larger picnic tables. There are umbrellas, heat lamps, stringed outdoor lights, and even Jenga.
The name itself is derived from the three types of food served at Camchilao — Cambodian, Chinese, Lao. However, the menu primarily focuses on Cambodian and Lao food (one of the Camchilao partners operates Lao-style chili sauce brand Hella Saap).
A restaurant born during the pandemic
Camchilao was originally a catering operation, serving food at weddings and events. (It also makes its own line of beef jerky, once sold at Cambodian Street Food and still available online.) This summer, it had planned to be at the Songkran Southeast Asian New Year festival in Jack London Square, but everything changed with the arrival of COVID-19.
Like other catering businesses during the pandemic, Camchilao had to make some major changes to its business model. Operating the food truck at the lot with outdoor seating was a way to pivot, and it seemed like a viable solution in the COVID age. In September, Camchilao opened to the public.
Despite having limited storage and cooking space in the truck, Camchilao is able to churn out an impressive range of well-made dishes in a variety of formats, from soups to stir-fries and deep-fried snacks.
Its kao piak, a Lao chicken noodle soup, is a standout, with springy, slippery noodles that are slurp-worthy. The dish is a special, but while not on the daily menu, it does make an appearance regularly. The noodle soup comes with slices of chicken, cubes of pork blood, and is topped with green onions, cilantro and fried shallots. The noodles are made with starchy tapioca flour, and are cooked in the broth to give it some body. Some diners choose to eat kao piak with tamarind seasoning and chili oil, but the bowl of hot noodles stands on its own with plenty of flavor even without the extra seasoning.
Camchilao tacos are another dish worth trying. Small, hand-held and filled with ingredients such as beef larb, they’re $3 each — you can’t go wrong. As they do in traditional Mexican tacos, garnishes of cilantro, lime and onions complement the flavors in these tacos.
The chicken wings, at $12 for 8 wings, are some of the best I’ve had. They’re crunchy, slightly salty and leave you wanting to eat the whole plate. The wings come with a dipping sauce that adds sweetness and a little tang, but I liked eating them without the dip. Another deep-fried dish is the fried chicken feet (8 pieces for $10). While similar in flavoring to the chicken wings, the chicken feet are basically fried chicken skin. They are crispy and full of flavor.
Some of Camchilao’s dishes have quite a kick. The complex and flavorful papaya salad ($12) is a mix of green papaya, cherry tomatoes, chili peppers and fish sauce, with pieces of cabbage and vermicelli noodles on the side, and topped with pieces of fried pork skin to dip in the dressing. The salad comes in a plastic bag, sitting in the sour, spicy juices made from pounding chili, lime and tomatoes. Even though I chose the “mild” version of the salad, it was almost too spicy for me to eat, but I still wanted to eat more.
Something to note is that most of Camchilao’s dishes can be made vegetarian. There’s also a vegan menu, currently with three items. One of them is tofu larb ($14), or cubed tofu cooked in flavorful larb seasonings, such as chili pepper, onions and sugar, meant to be eaten in lettuce cups. Another vegan dish is the cha shiu tofu fried rice, one of the few Chinese cuisine dishes on the menu. Camchilao used to carry house-made vegan beef sticks, but those are not currently the daily menu.
Camchilao partners with local chefs, such as Srey Eats, who sells its Southeast Asian desserts, like mango coconut sticky rice and layered pandan and coconut jelly, at the food truck.
Eating outside in a parking lot with a soundtrack of the BART train felt like a pretty Oakland experience. It may not be for everyone, but if you’re game to try some of the most interesting and exciting local Cambodian, Chinese and Lao food, it’s definitely worth going.
Camchilao is open noon to 8 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday; closed on Mondays. Parking can be tough near the Fruitvale BART station. There’s street parking and free parking across the street at the BART parking lot after 3 p.m.