The restaurant began as a small burrito and taco joint on Anna Maria Island's Pine Avenue. Now it's a four-location mini-chain, with outposts strategically installed on Manatee Avenue and 53rd Avenue in Bradenton, plus a spot in the Cooper Creek plaza out by I-75 and University Parkway. Sniff, sniff. Where did all that time go? And why did I spend it eating things besides burritos? I'm a fool.
But I'm making up for all those wasted burrito-free meals this week and hitting up a Poppo's location I haven't visited before, the one in Cooper Creek. The restaurant sits in a small space on the shopping plaza's western strip, sandwiched between a Shoe Carnival and Marshalls. Inside, a sign that reads "Order" points toward the glass-blocked prep area; "Chaos" points in the opposite direction.
If you've been to Chipotle, you know the stilo: Pick your taco ($2.50-$3.50), burrito ($7.95), quesadilla ($5.45-$7.45) or bowl ($5.65-$8.95), then add in rice and beans, meat or tempeh, plus whatever toppings you like. I'm burrito-bound, while my wife, Rachel, prefers a bowl. My son, Theo, is craving a taco.
None of the other Poppo's destinations can match the sublime charm of the O.G., of course. A strip mall will never be Pine Avenue. So rather than linger, we take our food to go and devour it at home.
What separates Poppo's from other contenders is its inventive mix of add-ins. Pickled red onions, tender but pungent, offer an acidic counterpoint to the meat and cheese. Cabbage, cooked way down till it's a juicy, eggplant-colored mass, adds another unique touch. Throw in a handful of seasonal greens, and you've got a more complex combo than is typical at most Tex-Mex spots.
But all those toppings still revolve around the meat. I'm partial to the "spicy beef," which, name notwithstanding, isn't spicy at all. And yet it's delicious. The meat has been stewed since, like, forever, and it's broken down into a mass of stringy, soupy richness that sticks to everything else that's packed inside my tortilla. A shot of Alaga hot sauce (a gem I only recently discovered) makes up for the lack of heat. I throw my arms up and spin in circles to indicate my joy.
The chicken in Theo's tacos is similarly prepared: seasoned with ancho chili powder then cooked down and then down some more till it's moist and mushy. On principle, I never order chicken in tacos, but Poppo's has me thinking that might be a mistake. Another pro-taco point: When you order a taco, the staff at Poppo's cooks up the tortilla on the spot, tossing a small ball of dough onto a giant press and then slamming it shut to flatten it. From there, it goes onto the flattop to cook up. You can taste the difference. The tortillas are toasted and flavorful, way different from lots of places that serve them stale and sad.
Rachel's bowl lacks a tortilla, of course. It's basically the same as my burrito, just dough-less. Hers comes loaded with Poppo's classic carnitas, the creamy pork slow-simmered just like the chicken and beef. Shots of the restaurant's not-spicy green and red chili sauces add moisture and fruit.
I'm sorry I stayed away for so long, Poppo's. It's been a long time; I shouldn't have left you.