After spending the past year and a half embedded as a pop-up on the patio of a vintage car dealership in Uptown Oakland, Popoca, the much-acclaimed Salvadoran wood-fire cooking specialist, is finally getting a space of its own. The best part? It doesn’t even have to move.
Chef Anthony Salguero tells Eater SF that the owner of Classic Cars West wanted to get out of the restaurant business and asked Salguero if he was interested in taking over the sprawling 13,000 square-foot space. Salguero said yes. And so, he and his partner in the venture, Brandi Brown, who previously was a co-owner of Filipino bar and restaurant FOB Kitchen, will turn Popoca into a full-fledged restaurant and bar — a first for Salguero. But the two have ambitious plans even beyond that. They want to turn the space into a retail hub that’ll include a coffee shop, a night market, and cluster of small artisan shops — the kind of place you can sit down for a plate of pupusas and a cocktail, but also snag a pastry, a house plant, or a T-shirt, and just hang out on the patio.
Salguero and Brown are still finalizing the terms of the lease with the landlord, but Salguero says he’s confident the project will move forward. A previously announced partnership on the space, with the popular specialty food shop Magnolia Mini Mart, didn’t work out.
For fans of Salguero’s wood-fire tamales and pupusas, the biggest news is that the pop-up, which right now mostly operates on the outdoor patio — yielding the low-key “vibe of a neighborhood picnic,” as SF Chron food critic Soleil Ho described it in her review — will morph into a full-fledged restaurant. Popoca will expand into and revamp Classic Cars West’s bar and lounge areas, eventually offering 40 or 50 seats for indoor dining. And the restaurant will now have both an indoor and outdoor kitchen — hopefully all interconnected together, Salguero says, with a more extensive wood-fire cooking setup. Right now it’s just a simple grill laid on top of bricks, and while Salguero wants to keep that rustic aesthetic, he also hopes to add a small outdoor oven and a rod for roasting birds.
As a pop-up, Popoca is best known for that emphasis on wood-fire cooking, as well as for the care Salguero takes in always grinding his own masa fresh — and those basic elements will still be the staples for the full-fledged restaurant. Salguero’s tamales and pupusas are different from the ones you might find at a typical pupuseria because of the way they benefit from the kiss of the flames: His tamales are the jiggly, custardy Salvadoran style, and because he uses burnt embers to nixtamalize the masa, and also finishes cooking the tamales in the fire, they take on a unique smoky flavor. His handmade pupusas, griddled until crisp over the fire, are easily the most popular items.
The emphasis, Salguero says, will be on cooking simple, traditional things, but making them as good as he can possibly make them: “It’s funny how good beans and rice can be.” The beans are triple-fried; the rice gets cooked with chicken fat or pork fat, like the cooks he learned from during visits to El Salvador would do it.
The larger kitchen setup will also give the chef the chance to expand his repertoire and dig deeper into Salvadoran cooking. One of his new dishes will be punches alguashte, or crabs in a roasted pumpkin seed sauce — a dish traditionally made with baby crabs, though Salguero will probably use whole Dungeness. It’s a dish that’s all about that deeply flavorful, earthy, lime-brightened sauce — delicious with a bowl of white rice, Salguero says.
Even with a significantly expanded Popoca, however, the Classic Cars West space is much too big for a single restaurant. That’s where the retail hub comes in, Brown explains. Within the indoor space, they’re planning to set up five or six “micro boutiques” that’ll be partitioned off from each other. The idea would be for the space to function as a small business incubator of sorts — a curated lineup of retail vendors that would sign up for a six-month or year-long residency. A couple of the kiosks might feature laid-off chefs who have started new food artisan businesses as their “pandemic hustle,” but they wouldn’t mostly be food businesses. There might be a jewelry shop or a plant stand or a vintage record store.
The indoor restaurant space would probably also operate as a cafe during the day — again, operated by some newcomer to the scene — that would feature a variety of baked goods, perhaps from some of the amazing bakers who have started Instagram-based businesses during the pandemic. And the boutiques would probably stay open until around 9 p.m., so in the evenings the space would have a little bit of a night market vibe.
“We both come from pretty grassroots projects ourselves, and nobody teaches you how to start up a small business,” Brown says. “It’s so daunting to get into lease negotiations and figure out how to do a business plan, so we’re hoping to create a space where we can give other small businesses an opportunity to really jump off and succeed.”
Given the ambitious scope of the project, and the vagaries of permitting and construction timelines even during the best of (non-COVID) times, it’s likely that Salguero and Brown’s fully realized vision for won’t become a reality for many months. Optimistically, Brown says, they’re hoping to have the whole project up and running sometime in the late summer or early fall, though some of the retail vendors might be ready to debut in the late spring.
A Kickstarter campaign for the Popoca expansion launches on January 11. In the meantime, Salguero says, Popoca will continue to run in its current pop-up form for at least the next few months.
Correction, 8:33 a.m., January 14, 2020: An earlier version of this article stated that the owner of Classic Cars West is planning to leave the Bay Area; he is, in fact, only leaving the restaurant industry and is seeking a new location for the car dealership.