The Camchilao food truck is located in a small, newly muraled courtyard and former parking lot behind a fading Domino's Pizza. From one of its outdoor benches, BART trains are visible rolling towards the platform at Fruitvale station. I ordered a fusion dish, larb tacos and nam kao, a Lao salad.
More than two weeks later, I'm still thinking about those tacos but constantly craving the textures contained in that to-go box of nam kao. In the version made by Mary Ros, the chef and co-owner, you spoon the mix of crunchy rice balls and diced sausage onto a romaine lettuce leaf. You can add fresh sprigs of cilantro and basil, and blistered peppers, but squeezing a lime wedge on top heightens and harmoniously melds all the flavors together.
Crunchy rice, in whatever form, always reminds me of tahdig, the one Persian dish that was a constant at my family's dinner table. We ate the parboiled, crisped-to-a-golden-brown rice with stews, sauces or on its own like a savory snack cake. Even though I'd had nam kao before, I thought Ros got the meat-to-rice ratio just right. The last time I'd tried it, the chunks of sausage overwhelmed the rice and seemed on the rare side. Not this time. The herbs and lettuce were also noticeably crisp and green. The chef buys her produce from the Old Oakland Farmers' Market and the one on Sunday at the Fruitvale BART station. "I noticed that the ingredients stay way more fresh, getting it from the Farmers' Market," she says.
Ros started Camchilao as a way to distribute the beef jerky she makes (which is still available for purchase online). For the last few years, she worked a day job at a research company in Alameda. While there, she brought in dishes for a coworker to try. She finally quit that job last November so she could cook and cater full time. Ros says food has always been her passion. "I picked up cooking when I was really young," she says. "I was always thinking about food. It was just my thing."
Earlier this year, Ros and her business partner, Joe Souvannalat, had the opportunity to rent the Fruitvale lot. The original plan was to open in April, but Covid-19 pushed back the date until the fall. Ros remembers her initial reaction to the empty lot. It matched their shared vision. "Wow, a little bit of outdoor space," she says. "We can just pull the truck in."
After being open for the last couple of months, Ros found she loves the spot. "It's so welcoming," she says. Before trying out her food, people in the neighborhood assumed Camchilao was another taco truck. When they discovered it was actually Southeast Asian food—Cambodian and Lao with a few vegan Chinese dishes, too—customers gave it a try. Larb tacos are Ros' way of acknowledging the fusion of Fruitvale's different cultures.
The items on Camchilao's menu, though, aren't a new-fangled fusion of the three cuisines. Instead, the name acknowledges the heritage of three friends who work there together. Ros is Cambodian, Souvannalat is Lao and her friend Kin Lee, who contributed the vegan recipes, is Chinese. "You get a little mixture of all kinds of food," Ros says. "We picked all of our favorite foods and the popular main dishes like papaya salad, Lao sausage, sticky rice and fried chicken."
Ros, like me, says the nam kao salad is one of her favorite dishes and one of the first she learned how to make. "When I first got into cooking Lao food and learned how to eat nam kao, I felt like I'd been missing out," she says. "You get the lettuce, squeeze the lime, add the pepper on top. It was just like, this is a complete meal!"
Camchilao, open noon to 8pm Tuesday–Sunday, 3216 E. 12th St., Oakland. 510.470.0662. instagram.com/camchilao.