Evan DuCharme/Special to The S. F. ExaminerChampa Garden presents several Laotian highlights in its sampler platter

Evan DuCharme/Special to The S. F. ExaminerChampa Garden presents several Laotian highlights in its sampler platter

OK Thai, interesting Laotian, nice price at Champa Garden

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.

Champa Garden

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

Reservations: AcceptedChampa GardenFeaturesFood & DrinkFood and Wine

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Dave Hodges, pastor at Zide Door, the Church of Entheogenic Plants that include marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms, holds some psychedelic mushrooms inside the Oakland church on Friday, July 22, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
Psychedelic spirituality: Inside a growing Bay Area religious movement

‘They are guiding us into something ineffable’

San Francisco Police stand guard outside the Mission Police Station during a protest over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Fired: California bill aims to decertify police for serious misconduct

By Robert Lewis CalMatters On a Wednesday afternoon in April 2018, Gardena… Continue reading

The Giants and Dodgers face each other again following a May series the Dodgers swept; Dodgers shortstop Gavin Lux caught stealing by Giants second baseman Donovan Solano at Oracle Park on May 23 is pictured. 
Chris Victorio/
Special to The Examiner
Giants vs. Dodgers: What you need to know before this week’s huge series

By Chris Haft Special to The Examiner That grinding noise you’ll hear… Continue reading

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that state employees and health care workers must be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing and wear masks. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters)
California orders vaccine or testing for health care workers, state employees

By Ana B. Ibarra CalMatters Amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases and… Continue reading

Jeremy Kahn and Monica Ho are excellent in San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Lauren Yee’s “The Song of Summer,” being presented live and online. (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli)
Touching relationship at heart of ‘Song of Summer’

Lighthearted SF Playhouse show ‘feels right for this moment’

Most Read