The Irresistible Allure of Wood-Fire Cooking at Popoca 

A fine-dining chef returns to his Salvadoran roots, meshing the spirit of traditional recipes with classical and progressive cooking techniques.

click to enlarge Wood-fired squash and chicken are ingredients in Popoca’s gallo en chicha, a stew.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Wood-fired squash and chicken are ingredients in Popoca’s gallo en chicha, a stew.

Some chefs travel to big cities like Paris or Mexico City in search of inspiration. But in order to get to the heart of what he wants to do at his pop-up restaurant, Popoca, Anthony Salguero heads to remote towns and rural farms in El Salvador.

In one small-town restaurant, he came across gallo en chicha, a homey, rustic sweet and sour chicken stew that's rapidly vanishing from restaurant menus in El Salvador and is a rare find in restaurants in the United States. Salguero pleaded with the chef for her recipe, promising he wouldn't compete with her business in El Salvador. Elsewhere, a farmer showed him how to use wood embers to make tamales pisques, lending them a smoky flavor.

"Unless you find people who already know how to make these dishes, it's not easy to just go online and go, 'This is how you make tamales pisques,'" Salguero said. "You have to really find people in El Salvador."

But Salguero wasn't always scouting out new recipes in the Salvadoran countryside. A classically trained chef, Salguero has worked at many fine-dining restaurants, including Saison and Commonwealth in San Francisco. Most recently, he was executive chef at Bardo Lounge & Supper Club in Oakland. But Salguero grew up with Salvadoran food, and each time he visited El Salvador, his love for the cuisine grew. For years, he dreamed of opening a Salvadoran restaurant. In August, he started Popoca, a pop-up restaurant that's found a home at Classic Cars West in Oakland.

Popoca means "emit smoke" in Nawat, an indigenous language spoken in El Salvador. As soon as you step onto the patio at Classic Cars West, you can see the soft glow and smell the smoke of burning almond wood, and if you sit at the outdoor bar, you can feel the gentle heat from the fire that Salguero uses to cook nearly all of his dishes, from pupusas to pork belly, the traditional way.

Half of the menu is devoted to pupusas, which are Salguero's best-selling dish. At up to $8 each, they're twice the price of most other pupusas in the Bay Area — but they're well worth the price. Salguero starts with corn that he mills himself nearly every day, just as his favorite pupuseria did back in El Salvador, where this tradition is becoming increasingly rare. By milling his own corn, he has complete control over the masa-making, from the size of the ground corn to the amount of moisture in the masa. The pupusas are, of course, formed by hand to order. After they've been cooked on the comal, the pupusas are light and crisp on the outside — so crisp, in fact, that the pupusas barely sag under their own weight when you pick them up to eat.

Chicharron is a standard pupusa filling at most pupuserias in the States, but Salguero's version included unconventional slivers of house-smoked almonds for a surprising crunch and an additional layer of smokiness. The other fillings available bore little resemblance to those on offer at other pupuserias. That's because Salguero prefers to use local, fresh ingredients rather than ingredients from Central America like loroco. My unexpected favorite was the cauliflower pupusa, which blended a pop of heat from jalapeño purée with the fudgy richness of slow-cooked refried black beans.

The accompanying curtido was crunchy and subtly vinegary, and the tomato salsa, which can sometimes taste a little watery at other pupuserias, was densely flavorful. Many Salvadoran restaurants only offer bottled hot sauce (if any), but Salguero makes his own hot sauce using a combination of jalapeños and panela, a Central American unrefined sugar. Both are ingredients you'd find in El Salvador, but combined in a unique way. The resulting sauce is thick and creamy, spicy but not overpowering. For a small upcharge, it's worth it to upgrade to the Salvadoran dinner, which includes two pupusas, orange-tinged Salvadoran carrot rice, thick house-made sour cream, and more of those fudgy refried black beans.

Most of the rest of the menu consisted of dishes I'd never seen before at a Salvadoran restaurant. According to Salguero, that's partly because some of the dishes are so old school you'll rarely see them in El Salvador nowadays. There's the gallo en chicha (here listed as pollo en chicha), for instance, based on the recipe that Salguero got in El Salvador. As a classically trained chef, though, he adds touches of French technique to make the sauce extra flavorful and thick. The robust flavor from chicken bones melded with the tangy, subtly sweet flavor from the chicha he makes by fermenting pineapple. The bowl came with a whole wood-fired chicken leg that was tender, moist, and smoky. Salguero's version contains the traditional prunes and golden raisins, and I especially loved the raisins, which soaked up the sauce and burst with flavor. But Salguero also included nontraditional yet local delicata squash, which added sweet, roasted flavor and creamy, starchy texture to the stew that made it an especially satisfying dish for fall.

I also loved the tamal pisque, which combined custardy, smooth masa with a black bean filling and wood-fired pork belly on top. The tamal was wrapped in a banana leaf that was cooked over wood embers, imbuing the tamal with a hint of smoke and floral notes from the banana leaf.

A standout was the pears with alguashte, a Salvadoran seasoning made with crushed pepitas, and topped with house-made hot sauce. Salguero describes it as an elevated version of a popular street food of sliced mangos or oranges, topped with alguashte and bottled hot sauce. The pears were juicy and crunchy, complemented by the coarsely crushed pepitas and a squeeze of lime. The thick house-made hot sauce was unapologetically spicy, with a distinct nutty flavor thanks to the toasted dried chiles.

On the other hand, some dishes are exclusive to Popoca's menu because Salguero creates them himself. The rabanos asados, grilled radishes with sour cream, were inspired by Salguero's love for radishes with butter. The radishes were lightly kissed with the smoky flavor and warmth of the fire, while still maintaining the crunch of raw radishes. They were seasoned with relajo, a Salvadoran spice mix that Salguero makes himself, which made the radishes seem perfectly at home with the more traditional dishes. It's a reminder that even though Salguero likes to veer from tradition at times, he's still dedicated to the spirit of traditional Salvadoran food, from the wood fire to masa made with freshly milled corn.

"I love grinding my own masa," Salguero said. "I'll do that forever, I think."

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