We’ve all got them. Dishes that grabbed us deep in our food-psyche at very first bite, making it clear that they would never let go. Maybe it was a favorite dish of our grandmother’s, or a perfect bite out. Wherever we first experience that mouthful of delectable perfection, we know at once we are in love. And when we love something, we are drawn to repeat the experience again and again. Food’s got pheromones all its own. I have several, but one of them is Nam Kaow. So you can imagine my delight when the dish turned up on the mene of a new restaurant just two blocks from my (also new) office.
Some days a great food experience is just meant to be. You walk by a new restaurant once or twice and it looks interesting, but you don’t really know anything about it. It both beckons and causes anxiety. As long as it remains something anticipated, an unknown, the possibility for greatness remains. One can continue to imagine what might be. But once experienced, it must live up to those initial expectations of potential greatness. Camber, two blocks from my office and serving up an appealing mixture of Southeast Asian food, presented just such a dilemma. “Cambodian, Thai, Indian… Asian fusion at its best?” were the ever-so-hopeful voices ringing in my head.
I’d heard from a friend that Camber offered a form of Fried Rice Ball Salad, and immediately put Camber into early rotation for that week’s lunch outings. Fried Rice Ball Salad is neither salad, nor fried rice balls, but who am I to quibble with english language translations of exotic Asian dishes? Nam Khao (or Nam Kaow as it reads on Camber’s menu) is the traditional name of the dish in Laos. I gotta say that it’s a form of sexy heaven when it’s done right. If you like to eat and you haven’t had a good Nam Kaow, then you haven’t eaten.
But on to the particulars. My little “party of three” dined at Camber last Wednesday. I like to travel in packs of diners whenever possible. Preferably large hungry males. It keeps my ordering options wide-open. We perused the menu, and jumped on the Shrimp in a Blanket and the Camber Rice Ball Salad (duh) for starters as we were fairly ravenous. The Nam Kaow was splendidly on point. I’ve had one version in my life, at another Oakland resto, and it had me hooked from the first bite, so I was wary that this new place would simply not live up to my mountainous expectations. Boy was I wrong. It was just, well fantastic. Better than when your guy remembers your birthday with a really pricy gift. The rice is tender and well-seasoned, the fried pork bits (a Laotian pork sausage called som moo), scallions, chopped peanuts, grated coconut, sliced scallions or shallots, mint, cilantro, lime juice, fish sauce, and magic. The combination is better than Walter White’s best blue crack. One takes the mixture and wraps it in a leaf of lettuce like a crazy good taco. I like to crumble a dried red chili pepper on the top of my rice before closing my lettuce up tight and taking a bite. The heat allows the flavor to really pound the palate and the experience of eating that first wrap is mind-blowing.
The shrimp, wrapped in paper thin crust was moist, its wrapper flaky. A nice hot bite, best if dunked in the slightly sweet sour dipping sauce to cut the oil from the fryer with a nice bit of acid. Also lovely, if not as memorably complex as the Nam Kaow.
I had ordered the special, and I believe it was called “Jumping Shrimp in Tomato Sauce.”
The Chef is very accommodating with spice, but I should warn you that the “spicy” version of his dishes can be off the charts. Not quite “raw habanero” hot, but body sweats and heavy breathing hot for certain. The good news is, that those of you who don’t like your food spicy can order it to your specifications. No unpleasant surprises here.
Hubs had the Ginger Chicken and the Thespian had a Tikka Chicken special. Tasted both and they were lovely. The Thespian’s was ordered medium and he found it plenty spicy. He tried one of my shrimps and spent the rest of the lunch in a hot sweat. I felt badly that I’d ordered above his spice grade, but he enjoyed it and loved the flavors, if not quite every bit of the Thai chili.
The sauces that accompanied each dish were tailored to that dishes flavor profile and were really well done. Sometimes all it takes to perfect a bit is a little drizzle of a saucy accompaniment. I’m a saucy girl though so perhaps it’s a thing for me.
Overall, this place is a huge hit in my book, and a great addition to the Oakland and East Bay Food Scene. I can’t believe my good fortune in that it’s landed so close to my office. You definitely need to check it out. Let me know what you think about the Camber Rice Ball Salad.
1707 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94612
Ph. (510) 663-4560