After my first visit to Champa Garden, I had no real desire to return. A lunch plate of spicy cashews with chicken was anything but spicy and had very few cashews. This was the type of thing that I, a middling cook at best, could whip up at home with some soy sauce, sugar and shreds of chicken breast.
Normally, I wouldn’t be so harsh when discussing a nondescript spot on The City’s outskirts with a ringside view of a Walgreens parking lot. However, Champa Garden’s original location in Oakland has a cult following with more than 1,000 Yelp reviews, and the new location is the only restaurant in San Francisco serving Laotian food, which I’d never tried.
Flashbacks of my initial Burmese meals permeated my brain and I was hoping for a few similarly stirring moments.
While those moments never occurred on subsequent visits, I’m still glad that I went back. The Champa sampler, which offers a taste of three popular starters, made for a much better introduction to Laotian cuisine than did the spicy cashews.
The star was the fried rice ball salad, though be warned that there are no actual fried rice balls. Rather, a mound of fried rice bits, dots of pork and toasted peanuts was mixed with fresh herbs and a generous splash of citrus to produce a unique bite that’s as much about the texture as it is about the taste. We were encouraged to wrap it in the accompanying lettuce leafs, which made for some fun, sloppy dining.
Rounding out the sampler was a chili-flecked sausage that packed intensity after an initial sweet wave and a fried spring roll that tasted just like your garden-variety imperial roll found at many a Vietnamese spot around town.
The majority of the menu is composed of fairly well-executed renditions of Ameri-Thai classics. Of those, the clay pot red curry shrimp and the pad kea moa — pan-fried thick noodles tossed with an assortment of vegetables — are worthy of a repeat order.
Our server strongly recommended the pork larp salad done Laos style, which he explained meant an extra hit of fish sauce and more chili peppers than the traditional Thai version. Though it was a perfectly good larp salad, I could barely tell the difference.
Order the papaya salad Laos style and you will definitely notice a difference. The papaya came out looking like a plate of noodles and was vividly funky from a healthy dose of fish paste. We asked for it medium-spicy, yet were hitting our water glasses hard to simmer down the fire.
Lue’s noodle soup, a hearty bowl of wide rice noodles and shards of pork in a fermented bean broth, lacked the tang of other fermented broths that I’ve sampled.
With a nod to street food, Champa Garden serves a Laos taco with pork sausage (think al pastor) that, with a squeeze of lime and plenty of cilantro, had a downright refreshing quality, like a palate cleanser between a few of the bigger-flavored offerings.
Visit Champa Garden with the mindset that you’re eating at a respectable neighborhood Thai restaurant with a few interesting Laotian items, and you’ve got yourself a quality, reasonably priced meal. With reset expectations, this newcomer grew on me.
Location: 613 Faxon Ave. (at Ocean Avenue), S.F.
Contact: (415) 349-4186
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday-Saturday
Price range: $6.95 to $11.95
Recommended Dishes: Champa sampler ($11.95), papaya salad Laos style ($7.95), pad kea moa ($7.95), Laos pork taco ($5.95)
Credit cards: All major