At Classic Cars West, the unique art gallery-restaurant-beer garden-venue in Uptown Oakland, you’ll find a fine-dining chef serving up the type of Salvadoran cuisine you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. His name is Anthony Salguero, and at his standing pop-up, Popoca, he offers hearty, eats with prices befitting its casual environment.
What distinguishes Popoca from other Salvadoran restaurants is Salguero’s cooking technique. Popoca means “to emit smoke” in Nawat, an indigenous language in El Salvador. Salguero prepares most of his dishes over wood fire, often atop comals, or flat griddles, placed over the grill.
Salguero’s pupusas are entirely made from scratch. He starts with soaked corn that he mills and makes into masa. Then, he shapes the masa by hand around fillings, like cheese, mushrooms and braised pork shoulder, before cooking the flattened rounds on a comal.
The resulting pupusas are rustic and flavorful, and include choices for vegetarians. Priced from $7-11 each, pupusas can also be ordered in a meal called the Salvadoran dinner, which includes two pupusas of your choice, along with a bowl of savory carrot rice and refried black beans for $18.
As for how one should eat a pupusa, Salguero says there is no single correct way to do it, except to make sure you eat curtido, or Salvadoran cabbage slaw, with each bite of pupusa. He has seen people eat pupusas with a knife and fork, cutting it like a pie, with the curtido and salsa on top. Salguero’s personal preference is cutting the pupusa in half, opening it up like a pita pocket, stuffing curtido and salsa inside and eating it with his hands.
While many Bay Area diners are already familiar with pupusas, they’ll likely find something new to try at Popoca. A big part of Salguero’s vision is to expand Salvadoran offerings in the Bay Area. Outside of pupusas, many of the dishes he serves are hard to find elsewhere in restaurants in the area.
Gallo en chicha, traditionally made with rooster braised in a type of fermented corn or pineapple juice, was one of the dishes he’d heard about growing up with a Salvadoran father (his mother is Puerto Rican), but he never tried it until he visited El Salvador. Even there, it was a dish that was hard to find in restaurants. During trips to El Salvador to visit family, he would research and learn about local food.
“El Salvador is a beautiful place,” Salguero said, noting the mountains, beaches and farms there. (His family owns a coffee farm in El Salvador.) “It doesn’t always get that attention from the press.”
Salguero’s version of this dish, pollo en chicha ($18), is a standout. Using chicken leg marinated and braised in fermented pineapple juice, he finishes the dish on the comal to create an extra smoky flavor. And unlike traditional versions, he cooks down the accompanying tangy sauce, which is sweetened with raisins and prunes. Salguero serves the chicken with seasonal vegetables — radishes, potatoes, and carrots — that happily soak up the flavors of the sauce.
“I’m bringing dishes that are traditional to El Salvador but staying true to a California cook,” Salguero said. “I’m only going to use local ingredients, that automatically makes my food a little different.”
Salguero first became interested in cooking after spending some time on a Montana farm, where he then started working at a fine dining lodge nearby. After culinary school, he cooked at many fine-dining restaurants around the Bay Area, including Plumed Horse in Saratoga, Saison and Commonwealth in San Francisco, Quattro in Palo Alto, and Michel Bistro and Bardo Lounge & Supper Club in Oakland. But while cooking American food at these restaurants, he came up with the concept for Popoca to connect with his own heritage.
Salguero will be introducing more dishes down the line. He’ll be heading back to El Salvador in a few months, something that he plans to do often. “I’ll be going there for over a week to try to learn as much as I can. I’ll probably do that my whole life,” he said.
One dish he plans to offer at Popoca is yuca con chicharrón, a street food dish made of deep-fried pork skin, fried or braised yuca (cassava), curtido, salsa de roja and various toppings.
Salguero describes his cooking as “a little bit of me, a little bit of tradition.” That’s part of the charm of Popoca, where the chef seems grounded in his heritage and cooking, and the food is warm and inviting.
Popoca is open for lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m., Saturday; dinner from 5:30-9 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.