On Popoca’s menu, fire symbols appear next to items that are prepared outside on the restaurant’s back patio. A sous chef stands in front of an open fire, heating up each dish in a large brick-lined hearth. Everything we tried was cooked inside it—enchilada de hongos ($14), pupusa de camote ($10) and tamal pisques ($19). At the end of the meal, I wanted to reorder everything and eat it all again.
Chef Anthony Salguero initially opened Popoca in Oakland as a pop-up in late 2020, a few months before the pandemic began. He made his pupusas and tamales on a wood-fired grill. When I interviewed Salguero in the summer of 2021, he was in the process of looking for a permanent location. At the time he said, “I have a feeling it’s going to be eight months to a year. You never know.”
After a successful dinner series at Low Bar, more pop-ups at Degrees Plato and some serious online fundraising, Popoca completed its move-in and remodel this summer. Although the restaurant just opened at the end of August, it’s already bustling with locals and out-of-towners retreating from their conferences at the nearby Oakland Convention Center. Located directly across the street from Swan’s Market, Popoca’s signature color—the soothing green of palm fronds at dusk—enfolds diners from the ceiling and across the few walls that aren’t made of dependable brick.
While I’d read about Salguero in a 2020 Bon Appétit article, and subsequently in other local publications, I hadn’t yet made it to Popoca to taste his cooking when we spoke on the phone in 2021. The chef was about to leave on a culinary research trip to El Salvador. After being part of the team that launched the menu at Bardo Lounge & Supper Club, Salguero left that kitchen in order to start delving into his family’s heritage. In order to learn, he said, “about the history and the food and everything else Salvadoran.”
On his travels to Central America, he discovered subtle differences between Salvadoran and Mexican dishes. The texture of maseca, or corn flour, is thicker in El Salvador. Popoca serves its enchilada de hongos on one of these thicker, deep-fried tortillas. The texture registers in the mouth with a pleasant, more pronounced crunch that enhances, rather than diminishes, the flavor of the corn flour.
This enchilada looks like a small, open-faced tostada, completely unrelated to those more familiar enchiladas filled and sealed and smothered in red or green sauces. The leaves and stems of fresh purslane covered a tangle of grilled oyster mushrooms. It was served cold with a refreshing layer of crema spread against the tortilla.
Salguero has stated that pupusas aren’t the only Salvadoran dish he wants to feature, but they do appear on Popoca’s menu with a proud introductory note: “We make our masa from fresh milled corn daily and form each pupusa by hand to order.” After cutting into the pupusa de camote, the dark-purple creamy flesh of an ube spilled out of the center. It comes with a side of escabeche—a tangy, pickled slaw made with cabbage and carrots—and two ramekins filled with red or green salsa.
There was something unexpected about the flavors in every one of Salguero’s dishes. None was more surprising than the tamal pisques. Steamed on the hearth inside several layers of plantain leaves, a deep red sauce tasted like the Salvadoran equivalent of a meatless Bolognese ragù. The fine layer of white queso duro dust, like the addition of parmesan to plates of pasta, confirmed an adjacent, and not entirely dissimilar, flavor profile. Filled with corn and black beans, this tender tamal was also vegan and gluten-free.
Salguero makes a few Salvadoran dishes that he believes are delicious but might be considered a hard sell here. Our server described the intriguing ingredients in an asiento de camaron ($12), which incorporates crispy shrimp shells into a celery root mol along with corn and amaranth. And there’s a pupusa made with hog trotters ($11), otherwise known as pig’s feet.
Popoca, 906 Washington St., Oakland. Open Tue to Thu, 5:15–9pm; Fri and Sat, 5:15-10pm (pupusas and full bar until 11pm). 510.457.1724. popocaoakland.com