If you’re going to open a restaurant, where will it be? The city center where hungry passengers get on and off the subway station, a shopping mall where everyone gets the thirst for icy juice, the busiest street bordering campus, or a quiet neighborhood? If steaming delicious carts and baskets are literally a stone’s throw from your door in Vietnam, more often than not you need to wheel yourself a good ten minutes from home to burger joints and pizzerias here. There’s the eatery hub, then there’s the residential neighborhoods wrapping around it. So I could imagine how comfortable the folks living near 8th Street of East Oakland must feel, waking up on a lazy weekend midday. Hey, how about a bowl of kaow piak? Sure, Champa Garden‘s right across the street.
It’s utterly casual.
– How was the water?
– It’s good. Best water ever.
– Good. It’s my mom’s secret recipe.
So was the conversation between a young busboy and Mudpie at Champa Garden. In fact, he was the most talkative host in the diner. The others were nice, but they seemed to be mind-travelling in their own world. They spoke like falling leaves, looked at you with tired eyes, and smiled little. Their sweetness was saved in their food. In the brown sugar jar, for example.
This is the biggest condiment tray I’ve ever seen. Probably to accommodate all three cuisines – Lao, Thai, and Lue – on the menu. I had to google “Lue” to find that it’s an ethnic group living in Laos and Thailand. There is only one dish attached to their name: the kaow soy, Lue’s noodle soup
Unlike the Thai version with deep-fried egg noodle, this soup walks the line between phở and bún riêu of Vietnam. The hofun rice noodles, wide and thick, cling together like wet papers, and they keep coming! The chopped carnival of pork, scallion, cilantro, and pork rind are minute. That red broth is rather mild, nonetheless with a distinctive note of fermented soy bean sauce, not unpleasant, just “fermented”.
If you eat kaow soy before kaow piak, the kaow piak soup seems bland. Reverse the order, and you feel a sugary twist of Saigon’s hủ tíu and bánh canh. Sleek and chubby rice strings, chopped greens, fried shallot, white chicken, all the familiar faces. Pork blood is optional, and like jello, it hardly adds flavor. I like kaow piak‘s sweetness more than that other fermented note, while the chili kick in kaow soy charms Mudpie.
Just as the noodles, 5-6 bucks a bowl, satisfy local neighbors who wake up and walk in, Champa Garden has something on stove for the unadventurous, indifferent, playing-safe crowd: pad Thai and fried rice.
It’s just rice, shrimp, onion, tomato, green chive, and tom yum sauce. It’s just lunch. Is it worth 8 dollars? Maybe the amount, maybe not the taste. The Champa fried rice suits whoever chooses it for safety.
Then there is food for the novice diners who would catch bus 18 from Berkeley, sit through a forty-minute ride and walk up the hilly 8th street, just to check out the place recommended by their fellow foodies. These foreigners are interested in the unfamiliar names, try to taste as many plates as humanly possible, and would kill a bunny for a chance to peek into the kitchen.
Nam kaow, crunchy fried rice with finely chopped up greens and spam, is seasoned to perfection. You wrap it in lettuce and dip into the garlic lime sauce (extremely similar to Vietnamese nước chấm), or you can avoid the mess and just eat it plain. There is nothing to complain about it. It comes in the sampler boat with Lao sausages and yor chiun (deep fried rolls of vermicelli, woodear mushroom and ground pork wrapped in rice paper), both are yummy but must bow to the nam kaow.
Just when we get mightily excited over a great start, the luck gets thin. For entree, lat na turns out just so so, borderlines boredom. You know that feeling when the food kinda sticks in your throat and just wouldn’t go down? Not that it really gets stuck, but somehow it prevents you from eating more. Thick sheets of rice noodle in a thick, sweet sauce does that. Just too thick. Perhaps a different kind of noodle would have been better, because the broccoli soaked in this sauce is pretty nice.
As if the whole course had not been sweet enough, the novice foodie stubbornly demands fried banana and coconut ice cream for dessert.
In hindsight, I could do without the fried banana. Battered, oily, crunchy pockets with mismatching sweet hot goo inside isn’t what I expected. But ice cream makes everything better. It’s not so coconuty as it is pineapple-y. It is, again, thick and sweet. But it clears the throat like nothing else.
So there, whether you’re a local on 8th street hungry for a warm breakfast near home, a safe eater, or a foodie seeking little-known edible gems, as long as you have a ten dollar bill and a sweet tooth, you’re guaranteed to roll out of Champa Garden full and smiling like a tangerine.
Address: Champa Garden (East Oakland)
2102 8th Avenue
Oakland, CA 94606