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Champa Garden favorites? [Oakland]

I'm planning on trying this place soon and have heard that there are some fantastic dishes and quite a few mundane ones as well.

Can anyone give a quick rundown of what they do well, and what to avoid?

Thanks!

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    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      I only managed to order mu ping ma nao (not on the menu, recommended by the wine-savvy server) once. Yesterday our server checked with the kitchen and reported that they were out of the right kind of pork.

    2. The Penang catfish. Absolutely delicious! Unless you like your fish sauce really fishy, some of the Lao versions of dishes might not be to your taste.

      In the past, the sausage has not been on the menu -- ask your server about that and any other specials.

      6 Replies
      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        I was disappointed in the Penang catfish, found it bland compared with Penang curries I've had at Malaysian restaurants.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          I think Thai-style Penang is different from Malaysian-style Penang (which may or may not be different from Singapore-style Penang and Indonesian Penang, based on the arguments over those cuisines on this board).

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            It varies from cook to cook. My favorite's served with the roti at Singapore-Malaysian in SF--the family's actually from Penang.

            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/31705...

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              Given the confusion over Panang vs Penang - I figured I should weigh in here and explain that they are not the same thing. There is no such thing as Penang catfish - the island of Penang in Malaysia is well-known for its food and has many signature dishes like Char Kueh Teow, lobak, laksa, etc. Panang-style curry is really Thai and has very little to do with Malaysia as far as I am aware. I thought perhaps it was named for Penang as the two countries are right next to each other and have very similar cuisines. Does anyone else know about the origins of panang?

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Penang and Panang are the same. Panang curry is actually a very common curry dish that's not just found in Malaysia, but in Laos and Thailand as well. I believe Panang curry is also eaten in Cambodia.

                  I've never had the Malaysian-style Panang before, but I've had Lao-style Panang as well as Thai-style Panang.

                  In Laos, Panang curry is eaten with Lao sticky rice.

                  Here's Lao Panang curry with fish and served with Lao sticky rice.

                  http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?/...

        2. They recently re-did their menu and the sausage is on it. I like the spring rolls, the lao papaya salad, the penang curry, and a panfried dish that is listed differently on the new menu but i beleive to be the same dish. It involves green beans and red curry and although it is no longer descibed as such is well flavored with lemongrass. I like it with tofu. Last time I was there i had the drunken noodles which were a bit greasy for me and i don't think pork was the right choice for a meat. But there was lots of good fresh basil, mushrooms and bamboo. It was nice and spicy.

          6 Replies
          1. re: sfeater

            That green bean dish is one of our favorites. It used to be #52. We prefer it w/ pork. Now it's #40-something I think. There's a lot of kaffir lime leaf in it, which is the flavor that I enjoy it for.

            I'm a fan of the Lao noodle soup as well. Great comfort food.

            1. re: lexdevil

              Hmmm... your right kaffir lime leaf not lemongrass. But delish! The new description just made it sound simple when in fact the flavor has a lot of depth and nuance.

              1. re: lexdevil

                Do you get the Lao noodle soup with pork blood? I think I should have said "yes" to pork blood as I was a bit disappointed with the plain chicken broth. I didn't know what made the soup a Lao one, really. The fried garlic and homemade noodles were great however.

                1. re: DezzerSF

                  Is that khao piek sen (or kao-piek sen) with thick, chewy rice/tapioca noodles?

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    Kaow Paik I believe. Yes the noodles were nice.. thick and chewy. I wonder how the soup tastes with pork blood. I remember a local ordering this at Vientian and she enthusiastically said, "Yes! pork blood"

                    1. re: DezzerSF

                      It doesn't really change the flavor. The pork blood remains in discreet chunks. They do have a wide range of condiments with which you can personalize your soup, if you'd like to.

            2. Rice ball salad is a must-start. I forget the name of the seafood noodle soup with the homemade noodles, but that's another solid dish. I asked the son of the family that owns the place what was in the noodles, and he said it was tapioca added to the rice flour that gave it the subtle but noticeable difference as compared to plain rice noodles.

              The Penang catfish is not on the new menus (which are quite spiffy, well laid out and have many colorful pictures, which is a good thing IMO), but it can be ordered without any problem. Be sure to eat them right away, as the crispiness of the catfish subsides the longer they lie in the curry.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Eugene Park

                I've seen another whole fried fish that's not sauced, smelled great going by.

              2. I like the Lao-style larp better than the Thai-style - the fermented fish paste wasn't aggressively fishy, it just added a lot of depth, and it seemed to amplify the flavor of the toasted rice (which I love). The Thai-style one is good - I remember it being more dominated by lime juice - but the Lao-style larb is really addictive. I was stuffed, but kept eating until the plate was clean.

                I also liked the tendon and tripe soup, which was really delicious - clear broth (not sure what it was - maybe chicken simmered with pork bones?), a little cilantro, with big chunks of tendon (a little too tough for me), and smaller bits of tripe. Enjoyed both Lao and Lue noodle soups as well.

                In agreement with most people that the appetizer platter (rice ball salad, spring rolls, lemongrass sausage) is consistently good. Penang catfish was great the first two times I went, ok the third. I think the amount of catfish is starting to decrease, too.

                I was disappointed by the drunken noodles, and by a stir-fried eggplant dish.

                I'd definitely recommend specifying the order in which you want your dishes - some of the servers are really, really young - food can come out in a totally random order otherwise. Or, everything can come out at exactly the same time, forcing your party of four to move to one of the larger round tables because not everything can fit on the table at once.

                1 Reply
                1. re: daveena

                  I second the Lao style Larp-- The best I had was the Larp with beef, lao style. The lime, mint, fish paste combination of seasoning with the accents of the peanuts and chilli work for me--it was best when I had it with still warm partly rare beef. The Larp and the rice ball salad have been good all 3 times I tried them. I found the penang catfish creamy but a bit too sweet and not spicy enough. The catfish pieces were delicate and juicy but the sauce overwhelmed them. The vibe at Champa Garden is always a great alternative neighborhood family feel.