There's a new pop-up in town when it comes to pupusas, yuca, and other Salvadoran fare you might not encounter anywhere else.
Meet Popoca, a thrice-weekly pop-up that started in Oakland in August. It's the brainchild of chef Anthony Salguero, a Bay Area-raised chef and Oakland resident who has years of fine dining experience at restaurants including Plumed Horse in Saratoga, Saison and Commonwealth in San Francisco, and Quattro in Palo Alto. In Oakland, he was the executive chef at Michel and co-chef at Bardo Lounge & Supper Club.
Salguero left Bardo to open Popoca, which he'd been dreaming about "forever." Salguero is Salvadoran and Puerto Rican and he grew up eating Salvadoran comfort food that his father made. But each time he visited El Salvador, his love and appreciation for the food grew deeper.
"There's so much depth to it that I think people don't know about," Salguero said. "It's not a cuisine that's out on the forefront. And I just want to show some other sides of Salvadoran food that people haven't really seen before."
In El Salvador, Salguero's favorite pupuseria cooked its pupusas over a wood fire, or comal. It's a practice that's becoming less common, almost forgotten in El Salvador. But Salguero believes it lends an extra layer of flavor to the pupusas. "The comal just sucks up that flavored smoke after a while," he said. Popoca means "emit smoke" in Nawat, the indigenous language spoken in El Salvador and parts of Mexico. It can refer to the smoke emitted when cooking over a wood fire, but it can also refer to the smoke emitted when lighting a fire as an offering. Since Popoca cooks most of its food over a wood fire — while also paying homage to Salvadoran food traditions — Salguero decided it was the perfect name for his pop-up.
Most of the pupuserias he encountered also ground their own hominy with a molino, or mill, and made their own masa. At Popoco, Salguero uses freshly ground corn for his corn-based pupusas, which gives them a toasty flavor and crunchy texture. He also makes them over a wood fire, which provides subtle smokiness. Other pupusas, like the shrimp and black bean pupusa, are made with rice flour.
While Salguero has a lot of reverence for traditional cooking techniques, he also incorporates "progressive" cooking techniques from his fine dining background. One of the most emblematic dishes is the SV Enchilada, a Salvadoran-style enchilada that's more like a tostada than the Mexican enchiladas most diners might be familiar with. Traditionally, it's topped with black beans, hard-boiled eggs, lettuce, and tomatoes. Salguero's version is topped with avocado, house-cured crispy anchovies, and egg yolks that are cured for seven days, then smoked and grated over the top of the enchilada.
Popoca currently has pop-ups three days a week: Classic Cars West on Tuesdays from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., The Double Standard on Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Ale Industries on Fridays from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Eventually, Salguero hopes to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Fruitvale district.
Meanwhile, Popoca also has a bigger purpose: showcasing the beauty of El Salvador.
"I really love El Salvador, and it doesn't always get the best rep despite it being an amazing place with amazing people," Salguero said. "I'm just trying to bring a little of what I love about it here."