Don’t Call it Humble
Anthony Salguero of Oakland’s Popoca shares
his exacting method for crafting El Salvador’s
famed culinary export: the pupusa
By Kathryn Bowen | Photos by Ganymede Winegar
"Do you want to get pizza, or do you want to get pupusas?"
As a child growing up in the East Bay, Anthony Salguero, chef-owner of Salvadoran-inspired Popoca, didn’t need to deliberate over the question repeatedly posed by his father, who emigrated to the United States from El Salvador 30-plus years ago. “I would always say Salvadoran food, every single time. I was in love with pupusas, just pupusas,” reflects Salguero. He currently pops up with Popoca at Oakland’s Classic Cars West.
And what’s not to pine for in a pupusa? Traditionally, the stuffed hand pie with a fluffy corn exterior is made with hearty fillings like queso, frijoles, or chicharrón (seasoned, minced pork). Whether it’s due to these approachable ingredients or the pupusa’s portability, you may find the dish described, somewhat pejoratively, as “humble.” Yet the pupusa has a storied history. It’s El Salvador’s national dish and dates to at least A.D. 600.
Plus, it’s not easy to bring a pupusa into being, especially if you adopt Salguero’s approach, which is informed by his background in fine dining folded together with a respect for traditional Salvadoran technique and a desire to work with local, seasonal ingredients.
For Salguero, it all starts with the masa.
“I’m not using Maseca,” he says, describing how he mills his own fresh masa, a process he says is “very finicky.” “How far you cook the corn, how much water you are dripping into it, the temperature of your corn. All these things seem to have made a difference,” Salguero notes. “It took me a couple months to figure out what works best for me.”
Then there’s Salguero’s technique for stuffing the pupusa.
“You make a little ball, you flatten it a little bit, … you are turning it as you’re rolling the masa up around the filling,” Salguero explains while gesturing in a deft, semicircular motion, like a ceramicist shaping a pot. “There’s a lot of hand technique that goes into it,” he adds. “To be able to do it fast and do a lot, it takes practice.”
When it comes to the pupusa’s core, Salguero doesn’t cut corners either. To create Popoca’s best-selling version, queso con chicharrón, he uses pulled Japanese-style pork shoulder, which he sears on a wood-fired grill and then braises in a mixture of tomatillos, dried chiles, aromatics, apple cider vinegar, and alliums. For the cheese, Salguero folds roasted garlic into a blend of Oaxaca and Jack varieties.
Finally, Salguero cooks the pupusas using a comal placed over an open flame. “The comal, the wood fire, is so old-school and traditional,” he says. “I think it adds so much depth to the flavor.” It’s true: Salguero’s pupusas come off the comal piping hot, caramel-hued, and glimmering from a light sheen of garlic oil that Salguero brushes on top.
The cooking method is no doubt classic, but the pupusa is uniquely Salguero’s. “I feel very lucky that I get to have my product,” he says. “I don’t know if anybody would be able to [copy] it—maybe they could make it better, but it won’t be mine.”
Writer Kathryn Bowen comes from a law and food policy background. Her stories focus on the people, places, and politics that inform the plate. She hails from Miami, Florida, spent years in Rome, Italy, and now calls Oakland home. kathryn-bowen.com
Bay Area–based curator and creator Ganymede Winegar’s dual loves for food and fashion intersect to develop thoughtful imagery focused on the medium in which the artist creates. ganymedewinegar.com