HOME > Chowhound > San Francisco Bay Area >

Discussion

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!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
Delete
    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.

                2. The menu's now online (not the hours, though):

                  http://www.champagarden.com

                  1. Tried several new things (in addition to rice ball salad), all good:

                    #16 papaya salad Laos style: lots of fish paste, I liked it better than their Thai style. Not for everybody.

                    #19 num yam, like Thai squid salad only made with thinly sliced pig's knuckle or something like that

                    #30 "Lue’s Noodle Soup - Kaow Soy, fermented bean with pork served with hofun noodle and soup," wasn't sure what all was in it but delicious.

                    13 Replies
                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Hubby and I ate dinner there last night with our friends K and H who live nearby but hadn't been yet, and had some tried and true as well as some new items...and a great meal. We had:

                      #3: the rice ball salad: H (who I have been bugging to go with us for months) took one bite and blurted out, 'I can't believe I haven't come here sooner'.

                      #12: the lao sausages: ditto ....:-)

                      The plate of thai basil, mint, cilantro and lettuce that came out with these two was even larger and fresher than I remember from previous visits...

                      #16 papaya salad Laos style: when we ordered it our server asked, 'are you sure?', but K had to try it, and I'm not sorry he insisted. It was fishy, but not overwhelmingly so. I actually thought it was pretty well balanced, and we managed to polish it off, but I agree, not for everyone. We ordered it on the spicy side of medium and I thought it wasn't quite hot enough.

                      #39 Pad Kea Moa (aka drunken noodle) with pork: Don't think I've tried this here, and it was outstanding. Highly recommended for subtle savory flavors and wok breath...Others haven't been as enthusiastic in prior posts, but I'd say give it another try: either we got lucky or they are totally on their game with this dish.

                      #44 Phad Prik Khing: stir fried green beans with tofu in a red kaffir curry: again, subtle, but the flavors grow on you. We asked for it medium to hot and again, could have upped the heat a bit for my taste. Oh well, lots of condiments with heat on the table, and hubby doesn't like it quite as hot as some of the rest of us...

                      #50: Pad Ped Pla Dook: cat fish battered and fried with a Thai basil curry sauce. Or, at least, I think this is the catfish we ordered: we asked the server for her recommendation among the catfish choices, and we got something that was battered and fried. It was delicious, crispy, not at all greasy, and though there was some coconut milk in the sauce, it wasn't sweet. It was one of the on the menu items so I presume this one (?). A big contrast with the overly sweet lunch I had earlier the same day at Davan Thai.

                      One of the day's specials: sauteed dark greens with garlic: hubby wanted some greens, and this hit the spot.

                      We also ordered both brown and sticky rice; two orders each which was much more rice than we needed.

                      For dessert we tried the mango with sticky rice (two orders): very flavorful, delicious mango, but the rice itself didn't quite live up to my standards for this dish, which is sort of interesting, as usually it is the other way around....

                      Somehow we managed to spend much more than I have have previously: final bill for four with tax before tip was $130), but we had way too much food and almost half of that was for two bottles of Navarro White Riesling (at $30 a bottle it is priced at just under 2x the retail price of $16 per bottle). The Riesling was a good match for the food and you gotta love a little place that has Navarro as its house wine...so I guess we just didn't feel like stopping after we killed the first bottle.. :-)

                      A few hints: they do take reservations, which I didn't know, and which was helpful since they did fill up at one point. Service was very good this visit. When we arrived they offered us a big table, but we wanted to catch us with our friends and the big table seemed just too big to be conducive to conversation. However, the four tops really aren't big enough for all the dishes, especially given their huge condiment tray. We solved this dilemma by taking the smaller table and not ordering everything at once, which worked well for us. We were there for two hours, but the time flew by...

                      I left feeling a pang of jealousy that my friends live nearby and also wondering why the heck I don't come more often for lunch, since it is only a five minute drive from my office. Guess I will need to start driving to work more often....

                      1. re: susancinsf

                        The server asked us if we were sure we wanted the papaya salad Laos-style, and then the guy who handles the wine stopped by after to check if we liked it. Both seemed surprised that we did.

                        Speaking of living nearby, there's a for-rent sign in the window of the apartment upstairs.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          yes, we also had the same questioning. Nice of them to do that, but it really isn't that fishy to me. I do have a high tolerance for ocean flavors. Interestingly, but less understandably, we were also asked twice if we were sure we wanted the Riesling chilled vs room temp (?).

                          saw that for rent sign. hubby and I debated whether living there would be great or crazy making from all the delicious smells every night. :-)

                        2. re: susancinsf

                          We ate there today for lunch. The rice ball stuff (definitely NOT a salad) was wonderful as were the little rolls and, especially, the sausage, which the manager said they make on the premises (???), the bake, microwave AND deep fry to get the proper texture. My husband loved the beef salad. We thought the angel wings were ehh.. as were the fried sweet potatoes (sorry, but yams would be better). I don't understand the love of thoses stuffed wings. They rarely have much flavor. I think some added herb or spice in the pork mix would be good.

                          But that "salad sampler" was the best Thai dish I'd ever had, aside from some little lobsters outside Bangkok a few decades ago.

                          1. re: lintygmom

                            The rice ball salad's a salad sort of the way that pasta salad is.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              It's classic to call mayonnaise dressed whatever (tuna? chicken? potatoes?) "salad" but this is really crispy fried rice. I was expecting more salady like the beef salad.

                              Oh, hell, I got dragged into another semantics dispute...

                              Back to work.

                              1. re: lintygmom

                                Fried rice patties are crumbled and mixed with a cold salad of pork, raw vegetables, herbs, and citrus, ending up lukewarm and sort of halfway between fried rice and salad.

                                1. re: lintygmom

                                  Is there mayonnaise in the rice ball salad??

                                  1. re: teresalynne

                                    no, it's a little pile of crispy seasoned rice with bits of nuts and sausage and herbs. You eat it wrapped up in lettuce with more fresh herbs. I think the rice is formed into a ball and deep-fried (hence the crispiness), then broken up into the little pile.

                                    1. re: teresalynne

                                      It's lightly dressed with the typical SE Asian salad seasonings - fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, chili, etc. I had a fantastic version of this salad in Chiang Mai, Thailand that also included finely chopped lemongrass, galanga, and ginger... I can't remember if the Champa Garden version has these seasonings as well.

                                      I'm living in Rio de Janeiro at the moment where the only decent Asian food is super upscale and very pricey, so a Champa Garden meal would really hit the spot right now.

                                      1. re: OakTownHound

                                        Rio, well it's a tough job but someone has to do it.

                                2. re: lintygmom

                                  The best version of stuffed wings I've tried is at Phnom Pehn on MacArthur in Oakland the also have their original place in Chinatown.

                                3. re: susancinsf

                                  Adding a place link

                                  -----
                                  Champa Garden
                                  2102 8th Ave, Oakland, CA 94606

                              2. We tried the #76 Gai Yang "Half a chicken marinated and chopped into many pieces" yesterday. Really delicious marinade. Skip the sweet dipping sauce. Too bad they don't get the skin crispy but still great, will definitely order again.

                                #15 Beef Salad (larb), "Grilled beef mixed in cucumber, tomato, green onion, carrot and lettuce with mild lime juice," excellent. Big pile of meat, no lettuce filler, nice sour-spicy flavor.

                                The #14 Champa Sampler (Lao Sausages, Fried Rice Ball Salad, and Fried Spring Rolls with cold noodles and a big platter of lettuce and herbs) is now a must-order for every visit.

                                They had a great Laotian beer, fresh and malty, $2 on introductory sale.

                                I had an off batch of rice ball salad a couple of months ago, but on our last two visits it was perfect. Yesterday's was maybe the best ever--might help that it was quiet.

                                The new decor is an improvement. I think maybe the chairs are more comfortable too.

                                8 Replies
                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  They have Beerlao?! That's the only Lao beer I know of. Do they have the dark version or just the regular lager?

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    For those that haven't had it, Beerlao is much tastier than Phuket or Singha, to my taste. Very malty, as Robert mentions. They used to carry it regularly, then stopped for a while, at least they never had it when I was in. I never saw the dark.

                                    1. re: twocents

                                      Beer Lao is highly regarded in SEA. When it first was introduced into the Thai marketplace a number of years back, there were actually restrictions placed on the amount that could be imported into Thailand b/c it had quickly taken away big market share from the Thai beers. Even casual beer drinkers I've been with have mentioned how tasty it is compared to the Tigers, Singhas, Phukets, etc. of the world.

                                      1. re: twocents

                                        The dark to my knowledge is not available outside of the Lao PDR. It was too much to hope that it would be available at Champa Garden, but I figured I should confirm. I've seen the lager at Sunset Super in SF but few other places.

                                        Even the regular lager is definitely much better than most Thai beers, though neither are particularly complex. It's a solid bet on a warm day, assuming the export and storage of it has been good enough to keep it fresh.

                                      2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        Did you order the beef larb spicy? I liked the chicken larb better but it might have been because we got the beef larb medium spicy.

                                        1. re: DezzerSF

                                          Spicy. If they offer a choice, I always choose spicy.

                                        2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          We ordered the #76 Gai Yang "Half a chicken marinated and chopped into many pieces" again the other night. Not the same marinade, fine but not very interesting. Sampler and larb were great as usual.

                                          The waiter said the dark Beerlao is coming, just waiting for the container to arrive.

                                        3. Tried the "preserved pork" last night. Looks like cold sausage, tastes a bit like head cheese. Seems very lean, a mix of meat and tendon or the like. Squeeze some lime over a slice, top with raw garlic and a cashew, pop in your mouth and take a little bite of chile. Very good and fun to eat. There's a bit of this pork in the rice ball salad.

                                          Ordered the Laotian-style papaya salad very spicy, confirmed twice that we wanted it very spicy, came out pretty damned spicy. Next time I might say "as spicy as they can make it without overpowering the fish sauce."

                                          My nosy friends asked the friendly young native-English-speaker waiter if he were Laotian, turns out he's Vietnamese. The cook is Laotian and the "father" is Lue.

                                          7 Replies
                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Just curious, do you prefer Lao style or Thai style papaya salad?

                                            1. re: DezzerSF

                                              I try not to order any Thai dishes at Champa Garden.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                Sorry, just saw your post above. "#16 papaya salad Laos style: lots of fish paste, I liked it better than their Thai style. Not for everybody."

                                                I actually like their limey Thai larb but it's all a matter of preference.

                                            2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              One other thing, we ordered #15 beef salad. Much smaller serving of meat than on my last visit, cut in larger pieces, not very dressed, comparatively boring. The two were so different I wonder whether either last time or this time we were served the wrong dish.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                If I'm not mistaken, it is also the main component in their Yum Nam salad.

                                                1. re: twocents

                                                  Thanks, what we got the previous time we ordered #15 does sound like #25, yum nam tok "Grilled beef tossed in mint and onions with a hint of roasted rice sprinkled on top." I'll have to try that the next time.

                                                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  >>My nosy friends asked the friendly young native-English-speaker waiter if he were Laotian, turns out he's Vietnamese. The cook is Laotian and the "father" is Lue.

                                                  I went there recently and I didn't recognize any of the waiters. They used to have more Laotian waiters working there. Back then it was easier for us to speak Lao to the waiters when ordering our usual Lao dishes so that we could get them prepared just the way we liked them. But at our last visit, we had a Thai waitress and she wasn't as fluent in Lao as our previous waiters, so our Lao papaya salad didn't come out right. They made it way too sweet and the padaek (Lao fish sauce) had a weird creamy consistency that is very different from the traditional Lao fish sauce that I love. I prefered the Lao papaya salad at Champa Garden when we ordered it from one of their previous Laotian waiters who unfortunately is no longer working there as a waiter.

                                                  By the way, the Lue people are one of the Laotian ethnic groups who are genetically related to the general Lao population. So technically, both the "Lao" chef and the "Lue" father are "Laotian". =)

                                                3. My post about this restaurant was deleted because I put a link to my blog. So I've copied the pertinent portion here. Sorry there are no pics. The restaurant shouldn't suffer for an overeager moderator who's feeling particularly protective of Chow today. BTW, ate there today and it was AMAY zing, of course. Cutting and pasting here is really really difficult today, so I'm having trouble snipping as well. Thus the link ---anyway,

                                                  ***
                                                  The next gem on my list is an inexpensive and well-hidden little Laotian Restaurant (officially it calls itself a mix of Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese) tucked into the middle of nowhere off Park Boulevard in Oakland. It's name is Champa Garden. Ok, there, I said it. Out Loud. Now try and find it! It's harder than finding the entrance to Shangri-La!
                                                  However, if you are successful in your quest, and you actually find and enter the tiny, unnassuming one story structure on the corner of 8th and E. 21st, I will tell you what to order. If you know what to order in advance, one can have the meal of a lifetime here for relatively little money. We brought along our partner in food crimes, a young associate who has excellent taste in food, and loves spice (his companionship opens up a world of possibilities for me, since BH does not do the 'spicy' at all), so we were able to order a lot of items on the menu. From here on, he shall be known as PFC.

                                                  Start with the Rice Ball Salad (pictured above) which is described on the menu as crispy fried rice, preserved pork and lime juice. It has to have something else in it, like chopped up wonderful, or a dash of fantastic. This stuff is memorable. It is this indescribably combination of cruncy goodness that is intended to be spread onto a lettuce leaf and (with the addition of a bit of mint) rolled into a cigar-like concoction and chowed down on. I like to crumble a dried red pepper over it and wrap up the hot, spicy bits with the rest. Warning: Don't try this at home! Seriously, if you like crumbled red peppers, I suggest you wash your hands immediately after crumbling them and don't say, rub your eyes. Not good.
                                                  Rice Ball Salad is so yummy it has to be bad for you. Perhaps the fried rice part was what tipped me off. If I die early from eating this stuff, it will have been a life well worth living. My two accomplices and I were all so desperate for a taste of rice ball salad, that we ordered the trio of appetizers because it contained an extra serving.
                                                  This trio of appetizers/"sampler" (contains Lao Sausages, Fried Spring Rolls and Nam Khao, or rice ball salad). I tried the Spring Rolls first. I found them flavorful, but a little greasy. Just okay. They were a bit better when dipped in the sauce that was served with them, which was really good. A well balanced version of the tangy, peanut-ty sauces typical of cuisine from this part of Asia. This appetizer sampler also contained a sampling of one of the pork sausage that Champa Garden is well-known for. We had not tried it before. For me sausage is really hit and miss, but I liked these. They did not overwhelm me, but the meat was a good consistency and the spices chosen to flavor the filler were solidly balanced. Nothing was fighting with anything else. I'd give them 3 tastebuds out of 5.
                                                  We moved on from the apps (stuffed from over-eating the rice ball salad) to a course of soup. Today's choice was the Tom Yum (I think). Word of warning. Ordering soup here is for some reason quite tricky. Previously we had ordered several of the choices on their soup menu, without ever actually getting the right soup. At first we just thought we might have ordered wrong, but it soon became clear that we were just getting something else entirely. For this reason, and the fact that we weren't overly fond of the soups we had sampled here, we stopped ordering soup. The last time we were in, we ordered the tom yum in the hopes that we might finally get it. We emphasized the pronunciation and repeated the order and surprise! We got a tom yum! This is a Thai hot and sour soup. It is far milder and not at all viscous like the more familiar sweet and sour soup one might find on a traditional Cantonese menu. I believe the hot is black pepper and the sour is a broth of stock and vinegar. The Thai use raw mushrooms in their soup and allow them to cook in the hot broth. The result is a slightly crunchy mushroom that is hot on the outside and sometimes still cool on the inside. I wonder if this practice came about because someone realized the soup was too hot so they cooled it with "ice" mushroom caps. However it came about, I am a fan. Soups are not their strong suit here, but this is a good one. I am not fond of the other soups on the menu. At all. So no soup --- or this soup --- is my advice.

                                                  Lastly, we needed something to wash down our sticky rice. We chose a standby: the Pineapple Shrimp Clay Pot. It is a sweet, red curry dish that is chock full of pineapple, shrimp and flavored with coconut milk. The sauce is a thick wonderful consistency, almost a gravy, that goes really well over sticky rice.

                                                  We also ordered a new dish to try. Champa Garden had a fried catfish special on the menu the very first time there that I loved. (My BH thought it too hot to try and our associate didn't like it much at all. But I loved it.) So in the hopes that this dish was finally on the menu, I ordered the Pad Ped Pla Dook (I know, right?), which is apparently Laotian or Thai for "hunks of fried catfish in some yummy peppery goo" -- the menu says it is "catfish battered and fried in Thai basil curry sauce." I love nothing better than a Thai basil curry sauce done correctly. This sauce was pretty good, although not exactly as I remembered. It had the classic combination of basil and sweet curry that they do so well, as well as a coconut base very similar to the pineapple chicken. Might be a little too similar, not sure. It was hotter, with a fairly peppery (black, not red) after-heat to it. I liked it but I can't say I loved it so much I would have to try it again. Catfish gets soggy fast, so it doesn't really keep as a leftover and it's a lot to eat with the other dishes.

                                                  We have not tried any of their desserts. Perhaps some day I will do an entire column of desserts missed at various restaurants. But not today.
                                                  So, like I said. Try and find it. If you do, you'll not be sorry. And you have to order the rice ball salad.

                                                  Champa Garden
                                                  Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese Cuisine
                                                  2102 8th Avenue (east 21st Street)
                                                  Oakland, CA 94606
                                                  510.238.8819
                                                  http://www.champagarden.com/
                                                  Price: Inexpensive
                                                  Dining Time: without travel (not near anything) easily done in an hour.
                                                  Table Size: Cramped - adequate (each table has a very large condiment tray, that uses up almost half the dining space

                                                  )

                                                  -----
                                                  Champa Garden
                                                  2102 8th Ave, Oakland, CA 94606

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: mzscahlett

                                                    When I first went to Champa Garden the catfish dish that was on the specials board was the Panang catfish. It's now on the regular menu: Pla Panang. Fried catfish, panang curry, garnished with some fancy cut carrots, broccoli florettes and baby corn. I like that they put the fried catfish pieces on top of the sauce instead of pouring the sauce over it, so it doesn't get too soggy. Yummy, although it could have packed a little more heat. We also had the Champa Garden Sampler, the soup with housemade noodles, and the green curry. Way too much food for two, but we had to order $35 worth to use my $25 restaurant.com certificate. With a hot tea,Thai iced tea and rice for two we just squeaked over the minimum ($36-something). 18 percent gratuity and tax were added before the GC was deducted.

                                                    Until I took my first bite of rice salad, I had forgotten how good the food is here, even if you stick to the more Thai dishes (I'm not a big fan of funky/fishy flavors). The flavors just sparkle.

                                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                      >.Until I took my first bite of rice salad, I had forgotten how good the food is here

                                                      Yes, everyone should definitely try Champa Garden's Laotian fried rice ball salad aka "Nam Kaow". I'm Laotian and their version gets two thumbs up from me even though pretty much every Lao family makes their own version of the salad. I love Vientian Cafe's version as well. The Vientian Cafe version is slightly crispier and has a stronger green onion taste to it.

                                                  2. I've been wanting to try Champa Garden for years and finally did. It's on 8th Ave & E. 21st St in East Oakland. Not walking distance from Bart, but it's about 10-15 min by car from Lake Merritt Bart. Street parking - residential area.

                                                    Many people eating here for dinner on a Tues night. I ordered a bunch of stuff to try.

                                                    #12 Lao Sausage - 2 long sausages, a bit spicy on a piece of lettuce w/ some shredded carrots on the side. It's an appetizer. I liked my sausage.

                                                    #3 Fried riceball salad - Nam Kaow $5.95 - plate of lettuce w/ basil & separate plate w/ fried riceballs & other stuff. Make like a lettuce cup/taco. I liked it.

                                                    #16 Thai style papaya salad $5.95 - Laos style has fish paste, I don't like fish paste so choose Thai style. It was fine, spicy when I requested it. Not enough papaya for me.

                                                    #27 Lao's seafood noodle soup $5.45 M + $2 seafood. I didn't notice the extra $2 until I got the bill. Chicken is the other option. Seafood I tasted were fresh shrimp. I liked it. Noodles were tender & thin. Soup - bit too thick, still liked it.

                                                    Thai iced tea $2 ea - I liked it, pretty standard.

                                                    $29.30 + 2.66 tax = $31.96 before tip. Credit cards taken.

                                                    They are on http://restaurant.com sometimes. I should have printed out a coupon when I had the chance. I'd recommend it if in the area.

                                                    My pics:
                                                    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bubblete...

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: hhc

                                                      >>#3 Fried riceball salad - Nam Kaow $5.95 - plate of lettuce w/ basil & separate plate w/ fried riceballs & other stuff. Make like a lettuce cup/taco. I liked it

                                                      Nam kaow means "fermented pork rice" in the Lao language. Nam khao is never eaten with basil. The traditional Lao way is to eat it with lettuce, cilantro, and mint, but never basil for this dish. Based on your photo of nam kaow, I didn't see any basil leaves, but cilantro and mint.

                                                      For a nice added kick like how it's eaten in Laos, you should top each lettuce "taco"/"cup" with a fried chili pepper or at least a quarter of it. Did you eat nam kaow with or without the fried chili peppers?

                                                      Thanks for sharing the photos with us.

                                                      1. re: yummyrice

                                                        Thank you Yummyrice for the correction. I didn't eat the fried chili pepper.

                                                        Edit: Yummyrice- have you eaten at Champa Garden before?

                                                        1. re: hhc

                                                          You're welcome and yes, of course I've eaten there before. =)

                                                          Champa Garden, Vientian Cafe, Green Papaya Deli, and That Luang Kitchen (San Pablo) are some of my favorite Lao restaurants in the SF east bay.

                                                          Anyway, most non-Laotians don't do this, but you should try ordering some sticky rice with the Lao sausages. I still get weirded out by the thought of eating Lao sausages by themselves because in my culture it's always usually eaten with Lao sticky rice. The sausages are made extra tasty (i.e. salty) to make up for the sweetness/starchiness of the sticky rice, which helps tone down the saltiness of the sausages. So if you didn't eat them with sticky rice, then the sausages would be too salty. They're meant to be eaten with sticky rice so they're seasoned on the salty side on purpose.

                                                          But then again, since most of the customers at Champa Garden don't eat Lao sausages with rice, I believe the chef has cut back on the saltiness. The last time I went there I felt like the sausages were too bland because I ate mine with sticky rice like the traditional Lao way. If I had known that the sausages would be less agressively seasoned (i.e. not as salty), then I wouldn't have ordered the sticky rice to go with the sausages.

                                                    2. Tried the #27 Lao's noodle soup / kaow paik with chicken the other night. Really good chicken noodle soup, nothing very Lao-tasting about it, except for the rice noodles it could be some Eastern European grandma's.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                        Did they give you the Condiment Tray with it?
                                                        I think it is the additions that really make the difference. That and the slippery, chewy texture o the noodles.
                                                        Personally I find it is much more like Vietnamese Phở Gà. It lacks the flavor of Carrot, Celery and Parsley that is common Western versions.

                                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                          If your Eastern European grandma uses charred onion and ginger in her chicken stock . . .

                                                          In truth kao piek sen is often eaten first thing in the morning, intended to be comforting rather than challenging. You can add condiments if you care to.

                                                        2. Tried to check out Champa Garden tonight, but it was insanely packed. Looked like at least a 30-40 minute wait based on how crowded it was when we drove by. Ended up at Chai Thai, got seated immediately, they had tons of tables open. Is Champa really better?

                                                          2 Replies
                                                          1. re: hungree

                                                            Sampler platter, Angel Wings, and best of all the giant condiment platter. Best to go before 6pm. Yum!

                                                            1. re: hungree

                                                              At its best, Chai Thai's just as good, though I've found it inconsistent.