Popoca founder Anthony Salguero says he’s motivated by a desire to “nerd out on Salvadoran food.” Credit: Momo Chang

A permanent version of Anthony Salguero’s California-Salvadoran pop-up, Popoca, was lauded as one of the most anticipated openings of this year. Those plans were dashed, however, when his planned location fell through, and Salguero went back on the hunt for a brick-and-mortar spot for his crowd-drawing restaurant. This week, Salguero told Nosh, he’s finally signed a lease on a long-term spot in the Dimond District, and is planning an all-day program that ranges from coffee and pastries to sit-down dining to after-hours cocktails and bar snacks.

Salguero was raised in the Bay Area, but has ties to El Salvador, where his family still owns a coffee farm. “Everything I do at Popoca” (the word means “to emit smoke” in Nawat, an indigenous language in El Salvador) “is about having fun with Salvadoran food. … I just want to nerd out on it,” he said.

And that’s what he’s been doing since he left the fine dining world behind. Salguero has toiled in kitchens at spots like San Francisco’s lauded Saison, Plumed Horse in Saratoga, and Bardo Lounge & Supper Club in Oakland. In 2019, he struck out on his own, launching pop-ups at locations across Oakland with a menu of critically acclaimed dishes like wood-fired pupusas and tostada-like Salvadoran-style enchiladas with anchovies and cured egg yolks.

Eventually he settled into an ongoing operation at Classic Cars West (CCW), which at the time acted as a mixed-use gallery, event space and beer garden. In early 2021, he announced plans to take over CCW, opening a restaurant and retail hub with Brandi Brown, the former co-owner of Filipino bar and restaurant FOB Kitchen. But that never happened.

This time, the issue wasn’t the pandemic, Salguero told Nosh. As it turns out, the operator of Classic Cars West — who made the deal with Salguero — is just the leaseholder, not the owner of the space. The landlord nixed the arrangement, and some folks who spoke with Nosh say that the building is expected to go on the market some time this year. So Popoca found a new home at Laurel District Degrees Plato, where Salguero serves a rotating menu of dishes like a comforting sopa de pollo and rice or braised pollo en chicha.

Popoca’s pollo en chicha, chicken leg braised in fermented pineapple juice. Credit: Momo Chang

Meanwhile, Brown and Salguero kept talking, and they both kept looking for a space to make Popoca’s own. And after months of searching, they found it: 3525 Fruitvale Avenue, a newly-renovated spot inside “a really old building,” as Brown put it to Nosh. It’s a space that has its own history of fits and starts: back in the fall of 2019, another former pop-up, Lion Dance Cafe, announced that they’d open a permanent location there. That plan didn’t work out, either, and Lion Dance ended up opening on 17th Street. But that left what Brown calls a “dream situation” available for the taking.

While the building is old (a bowling alley turned print shop), a significant renovation by the building’s owner left a retail space built to house a restaurant, with “all the key pieces,” Brown said. “But it’s an empty box,” she said, “so we get a blank slate and can design based on our needs.”

Those needs, Salguero said, include a good-sized hearth that will be set in the middle of the dining room, a place for patrons to gather throughout the day. And a day at Popoca starts early: Salguero says that during the day, Popoca will operate as a low-key cafe serving Central American pastries (mostly from local vendors, with maybe one or two crafted in-house) and coffee made from Central American beans. (Brown and Salguero are still talking to roasteries to nail down that aspect of the business, they said.)

As dinner approaches, expect the restaurant to transform into a sit-down restaurant with the menu items that draw crowds to Popoca, as well as new things Salguero dreams up in the kitchen. That drive to create is what brought Brown into Popoca, she says — she’s officially Salguero’s business partner with this new venture, and will act as the restaurant’s general manager and handle operations, “to give Anthony the capacity the opportunity to focus on creativity,” she said. 

Then, after the dinner rush ends, Popoca will transform again into a sexy bar (the restaurant has a full liquor license) with cocktails and nibbly little bar snacks. “It’ll be a place you can go get a drink after dinner,” Salguero said.

In addition, there are loads of plans to support up-and-coming restaurateurs, a way to pay it forward, Salguero said. So expect pop-ups from other members of the Oakland food community, which Salguero and Brown agree is unlike any other. “We’re so blessed to have so many peers and mentors helping us through this process,” Brown said. “That aspect has been so crucial.”

That community support is evident in the way it’s stepped up to fund Popoca. A successful Kickstarter raised over $50,000, enough to “get us a lease and the beginning of the liquor license,” Salguero said. Now they’re working with SMBX, a micro investment funding portal, to help cover the rest. “We still have a ways to go” to cover the bills, Salguero said, which is why he’s not rushing to open. He said that a spring 2022 launch is a general goal.

“It’s important not to push ourselves or get sloppy,” Salguero said. “We need the time to get everything right and to pull together a great team.” Until then, Popoca will keep popping up at Degrees Plato, Salguero said, where he can use his twice-weekly appearances to refine his menu. That said, it’s clear that he’s itching to start serving his community even now. “We already have so much support in the neighborhood,” Salguero said. “Oakland is special in that way. It makes me feel like this is home.”

Popoca is currently operating as a pop-up at Degrees Plato, 4251 MacArthur Blvd. (near High Street), Oakland on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Mondays from 3 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Follow Popoca on Instagram for the latest menus and any changes to hours. Popoca’s permanent location at 3525 Fruitvale Ave. (at MacArthur Boulevard) is expected to open in 2022.

Eve Batey has worked as a reporter and editor since 2004, including as the co-founder of SFist, as a deputy managing editor of the SF Chronicle and as the editor of Eater San Francisco.