I’m a little wary of restaurants that offer more than one cuisine at once. Sometimes, as with Pizza Company and Punjab Palace, the Indian pizzeria in El Sobrante, the combination is improbable enough to work. When it seems insecurity is to blame — like when talented Salvadoran cooks make halfhearted burritos and quesadillas because they’re afraid norteamericanos won’t like their pupusas — I get cranky instead.
Oakland’s Champa Garden offers dishes from four, maybe five, cuisines, but somehow sidesteps the pitfall of trying too hard, or at least charms its way around it. Its menu resembles a set of Russian nesting dolls. Scattered among the hundred-plus Thai dishes are a few Lao ones. Vietnamese, too. Read through more closely, and you’ll spot one or two Lue dishes, from one of Laos’ many ethnic minorities. And if you really chat up the waiters, they might bring you dishes that never make it onto the specials board.
Champa Garden is doing double-duty: It may be a gathering point for Laotians from all over Oakland, but on 8th Avenue, it’s also the only restaurant for blocks and blocks, smack in the middle of a sunny residential stretch where teenagers hang out after school and every fifth house is wrapped in scaffolding and tarps.
Six months ago, Sam Saechao moved in and converted an old doughnut shop into a restaurant. He retained much of the doughnut-shop feel of the main room, wood paneling decorated with some paintings of flowers, a chandelier, and a karaoke setup in back, and instead spent most of his money tricking out the kitchen.
Saechao also brought on Phuoc Nguyen, his daughter Katie’s boyfriend, as manager. Phuoc is Vietnamese. The Saechaos are Mien (another ethnic minority from Laos). One of their cooks is Thai; the other ethnically Vietnamese, but born and raised in Laos.
The boundaries between the cuisines they serve are just as blurry. Quite often, the subtle distinctions between Lao, Thai, or Vietnamese foods are appreciated only by the folks who hold tight to the tastes of home. For example, Champa Garden serves fer, the beef noodle soup the Vietnamese call pho, but Phuoc assures me that his has a Lao flavor to it. Westerners think of larb, minced meat salads with herbs and spicy fish-sauce dressing, as a Thai salad, but in Thailand it’s considered quintessentially Laotian.
You can taste the difference between Thai and Lao styles by trying both versions of Champa Garden’s papaya salad. Thai style is simply made with fish sauce, while Lao style adds in pounded crab paste. “It has a … ” — Phuoc paused to find the most delicate adjective — “stronger taste.” In fact, a sharp funk floats several inches above the mound of shredded green papaya, a slap-your-back-and-knock-you-over kind of greeting that has slowly grown on me over the years. That said, if you eat the Lao-style papaya salad Lao style with sticky rice, the sweetness of the steamed rice softens the blow.
If there’s one reason, though, that I loved Champa Garden, it was for introducing me to rice ball salad. The cooks form rice and coconut into a ball, deep-fry it until golden, then squash it apart, mixing the chewy-crunchy rice with salty preserved pork, roasted peanuts, a frilly cousin of cilantro, and lime. You use lettuce to pick up spoonfuls of the salad, rolling the leaves around it. Clean and cool, the salad is perfect for those sweltering days when all you can think of eating are ice cubes and watermelon.
The Lao-style noodle soup is as perfect in its simplicity as a hard-boiled egg, with fat rice noodles, threads of shredded chicken breast, and a delicate chicken broth perfumed with toasty, sweet fried shallots and a handful of scallions and cilantro. The Lue noodle soup floats ground pork overtop, stirring a few spoonfuls of a distinctive fermented bean and chile sauce into the broth — incredibly flavorful, although the flavor might not be to everyone’s taste.
Phuoc and Katie make affable hosts. They’re excited about the food they’re serving, and willing to talk about it with folks, pointing out which of the dishes are Lao, Lue, or Vietnamese. On my first visit, I came with a regular customer, who had already figured out about the off-menu specials. He convinced Phuoc to bring us out a plate of wonderful pork sausage heady with lemongrass and peppers. We also scored kaow lin fun, a dish Phuoc says is a big hit with the Mien girls. It’s a rice porridge that sets when it cools. Served cold, thick slices of the chewy, sticky white cake float in a vinegary broth tinted pink with tomatoes. The Mien girls stir in some Lue fermented-bean-and-chile paste and sprinkle a little fairy dust from a packet of instant tamarind soup powder overtop, which turns the broth unbearably puckery and salty, the perfect complement to the bland-bland-bland rice cake. I can’t say I’ll order the kaow lin fun again, but I’m thrilled to have tried it. On Fridays and Mondays, the regulars know to ask for a coconut-rice dessert; it sells out fast.
The majority of Champa Garden’s menu consists of dishes we all know: pad Thai, chicken with basil and chiles, beef in panang curry, all thanks to the Thai cook. They’re fine everyday fare for a neighborhood that desperately needs it. Sometimes, as with fried catfish fillets drowned in a sticky sweet-and-sour sauce, the chef goes overboard. Sometimes he gets creative, like with his oddly appealing “deluxe salmon” — half entrée, half dessert — grilled salmon and chunks of ripe mango arranged on a bed of sage-colored wheat noodles with a coconut-heavy green curry ladled overtop.
Phuoc and Sam are still playing with the menu, sorting out which Lao, Lue, Vietnamese, Thai, and Mien dishes their customers will like. Heck, they’re still tasting their way through the Thai chef’s repertoire. “The chef told me he can make 170 dishes,” Phuoc told me. “Even I have no idea what all he can do.”