Dominica Rice-Cisneros’ Bombera and Anthony Salguero’s Popoca
While many home cooks began pandemic obsessions with sourdough starters or experimented with varieties of banana bread, two East Bay chefs launched new ventures. After 10 delicious years, Dominica Rice-Cisneros closed Cosecha in Swan’s Market. The Old Oakland market hall accommodated packed crowds, who ate alongside each other on community tables. Covid-19 altered that public way of eating, forcing chefs like Rice-Cisneros to sell to-go meals. Cosecha, she says, began taking on water financially. More and more money went to vendors, which left her with diminishing profits and savings. Additionally, the restaurant’s refrigeration system broke down, as did the 20-year-old, roof-mounted compressor.
Rice-Cisneros quickly understood that she couldn’t keep investing in Cosecha with her new full-service restaurant, Bombera, in development. “I used to have great Friday and Saturday night dinners,” she says. “Monday dinner was our biggest night. Now, you can’t get anybody down there.” In 2017, she applied to the Oakland City Council to open a restaurant in the Dimond District’s abandoned firehouse. The neighborhood association there had requested that the new business taking over the space serve dinner and brunch on the weekends. Having margaritas as the crux of her brunch proposal must have sealed the deal; Rice-Cisneros’ concept was chosen out of 16 other applicants.
Although they don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, she and her husband purchased a home on Coolidge Avenue in 2005. “My daughter went to preschool and elementary school there,” she says. At the time, they noticed new businesses moving into the abandoned buildings. Farmer Joe’s became a neighborhood anchor, along with La Farine and Peet’s Coffee. “We don’t live in the Dimond anymore, but we’ve always wanted to get back to living and working there,” Rice-Cisneros says.
She was so happy when her proposal was chosen, that she and her husband went ahead and purchased the building. Then they began the long process of securing permits and complying with city codes to convert the disused firehouse. Since October 2019, they’ve been in construction mode. Bombera is set to open a to-go service in May, and will expand to full-service by July.
One of the dishes the chef plans to include on the new menu is a fava bean soup. She started cooking it in January because Mexican grocery stores like Mi Rancho in Fruitvale and Mi Ranchito in Berkeley were carrying a dried yellow fava bean. “It’s one of those dishes they don’t sell at restaurants,” Rice-Cisneros says. “It’s very comforting. I would cook the favas down with epazote, simmering them with garlic, onions, a little olive oil, a bay leaf or cilantro.”
Across town on 26th Street, chef Anthony Salguero opened Popoca, a Salvadoran pop-up restaurant that brought him several thousand followers and a feature in Bon Appétit. Now closed while he looks for a permanent location elsewhere in Oakland, the story of Popoca aligns with Salguero’s own transformation as a chef. After establishing the Bardo Lounge & Supper Club menu on Lakeshore with Brian Starkey, Salguero decided he wanted to do his own thing. “I’ve always wanted to dig further into my family’s background,” he says. “To learn about the history and the food and everything else Salvadoran.” The more he delved into his heritage, the more he understood that this was exactly the kind of cuisine he was meant to be cooking.
His research led him to travel to El Salvador on more than one occasion. “The goal right now is to go back and forth, to learn as much as I can over there and come back here to show what I’ve learned,” he says. In the town of Suchitoto, his next destination, they make cheese and they still grind masa using a pestle and mortar. And for some reason, he says, there are a lot of ducks there, some of which will likely make the list of ingredients in his next batch of tamales.
Growing up in the States, Salguero’s experience of Salvadoran dishes was limited to “amazing” rice and beans. What he noticed after his first culinary expedition there was the range of tropical plants and fruits, from pineapples, plantains and melons to peanuts and sesame and pumpkin seeds. Seeing the variety of spices was eye-opening for the chef. He also discovered that the texture of the maseca—corn flour—was noticeably different. Corn mills are a central part of the community there, and the texture of the flour can’t be recreated here without them.
The pupusa is a staple in El Salvador, like pasta in Italy or the taco in Mexico. “El Salvador isn’t the richest country and I think it’s pretty inexpensive to make if you’re using local corn,” Salguero explains. He thinks Americans like them because they’re cheesy. A harder sell is a version made with pig’s liver. The chef, who says they’re a hundred percent delicious, had them on the menu a couple of nights and felt like it was a victory when someone actually ordered it.
Popoca opened a few months before the pandemic. Salguero recalled that switching to a take out model depressed him. “I wanted to show the food. I wanted to provide a different experience,” he says. When the brief period of outdoor dining occurred, that’s when Popoca really started to gain a following. When that window closed, he says, it was soul-crushing to know that, for example, once the cheese inside of a pupusa cools down, it solidifies. “I love takeout food but my food was never meant for that situation,” adding, “Part of cooking for me is really interacting with people.” Until he finds a new home for Popoca, Salguero is glad he’s hit his creative stride. In the interim, he’s focusing on new Salvadoran flavors to include on his menu.
When he’s cooking for his girlfriend and their son, they don’t eat a lot of meat. But when they do, Salguero will pick up a ribeye cut and cook it on an outside grill. He’s also been making homemade tortillas with masa from Bolita (@BolitaMasa), a new “micro molino and tortillería” based in Oakland. Adding peppers and onions, chili flakes and lime, the dish becomes an at-home platter of fajitas. To finish it, he blends tomatillos with serrano peppers, three cloves of garlic, a little grape seed oil, a nice bunch of cilantro and lime. “It’s a bright green velvety salsa. You pour that over the steak. With a stack of family style tortillas, it’s delicious.”