Sometimes, the prospect of opening a new food business feels like an exercise in market research — in figuring out what menu items might appeal to the broadest possible audience. Other times, you make deep-fried chicken feet a featured item at your new food truck for no other reason than because that’s what you loved eating when you were growing up.
Camchilao falls into that second category, according to co-owner Mary Ros, who has been running the Cambodian, Chinese, and Laotian (hence the name) food truck — and noted chicken feet purveyor — based in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood for the past two months. For Cambodian folks and Laotian folks, Ros says, fried chicken feet are a common drinking snack — and something she often found herself craving.
“We wanted to introduce it on the food truck because it’s something different,” Ros says. “But it’s a pretty normal thing.”
According to Ros, the entire concept behind the truck was simply to serve a lot of the hard-to-find Cambodian and Laotian street foods that she and her friends loved. Ros, who is Cambodian, does all of the Cambodian dishes for the truck. Her friend and business partner, Joe Souvannalat, handles the Laotian side. (A third friend, Kin Lee, contributed the handful of vegan Chinese dishes that Camchilao has on the menu, though she has since moved away from the Bay Area and is no longer involved in the business.)
Ros, a first-time food business owner, had been kicking around the idea of starting a food truck for a while. And when the empty lot near the Fruitvale BART station became available earlier this summer, right at the height of the pandemic, she says, “It was the best opportunity, but at the wrong time.” She took the leap.
The thinking, Ros says, was why not take all the foods they normally had to wait all year long to go to the temple to eat — at the Laotian festival or Cambodian festival — and serve those from a food truck, so they’d be available all the time.
“It’s not a fusion,” Ros says. “It’s the real Laos food. It’s the real Cambodian — like the kreung and the fermented fish.”
Over the past two months, Camchilao has quickly built a following for its larb tacos, papaya salads, and fried pork belly. But if there’s a single dish that embodies that “real Laos” and “real Cambodia” approach, it’s those fried chicken feet. On the face of it, the dish might seem like the very definition of a niche menu item, far removed, as they are, even from the saucy, slow-braised version that many dim sum veterans love. The claws aren’t easy to prepare, with a labor-intensive prep process that includes slicing the nails off each toe.
But they’re also one of Camchilao most popular items and routinely sell out, Ros says — in part a testament to the diverse customer base the truck has in the Fruitvale.
It doesn’t hurt that they’re delicious. The pleasure in eating them lies in the hot crunch and spice of the lightly battered skin that’s been dusted with cayenne and garlic powder, and in all of the tasty cartilaginous bits you get at by digging your teeth in between the toes. There’s no room for daintiness here: Ros suggests ripping off a big joint with each bite and then working at it inside your mouth until all that’s left is a pile of small bones. “You chew it all the way down, like you do a crawfish,” Ros says.
The feet are especially tasty dipped in the “bomb sauce” — a potent mix of fish sauce, lime juice, Thai chilies, and garlic — that Camchilao serves them with.
If anything, the success of the chicken feet has been a kind of proof of concept for Camchilao — hard evidence that if a chef serves a delicious, uncompromised version of a dish she loves, there’s a decent chance for it to find its audience. Ros, for her part, is already thinking of the next dish she wants to introduce: duck heads, split in half, marinated with lemongrass, and thrown on the grill.
Camchilao is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon–8 p.m. at 3216 E. 12th Street in Oakland.