Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Porto's: Cuban Bakery-Cafe is Everyone's Fantasy Island

What is it about Porto’s that makes the name a magic word in households throughout Southern California? Is it the efficient elegance of their spacious stores? The baked goods and café offerings, which despite their exotic origins, are made up of ingredients that are easily accessible even to the most finicky or jaded of palates?

Forget Tiffany's window: The cases at Porto's
hold jewels of the pastry chef's art.
Porto's is one of those places in my orbit that deserves the GMS Award for Truly Drawing the World Together. The Cuban bakery-cafe attracts a microcosm of L.A.’s melting pot (can I still say that?). Women in hijabs, Asians from throughout the Pacific Rim. A myriad of Chicana/o, Latina/o, and Hispanic folks from around the world, and everyone else flock to Porto’s to stand in line, waiting to feast on the legendary potato balls, tres leches cake, or rellenitos – sweet plantains stuffed with black beans.

Carbo-loading at Porto's: Chorizo empanada, plaintain
rellenito, and the legendary potato ball.
If you aren’t that hungry when you get to Porto’s, that will change within seconds of standing in line and gazing at the pastry cases. Limited access to Porto’s from most parts of L.A. is also part of the bakery’s mystique. There are only three stores, located in Downey, Burbank, and Glendale. Even on a Wednesday afternoon, there are long lines of hungry customers.

The stores’ interiors are all more or less the same: spacious but efficiently furnished with rows of indoor and patio seating. A couple of extra-long glass cases reign over the space, like pastry-bearing Arks of the Covenant. But instead of stone tablets, they are filled with fanciful interpretations of Hispanic and European pastries. Where else can you get coconut strudel and mango mousse? Red velvet cupcakes are topped with rose petals, and mini-pina colada mousse desserts are graced with orchids. Even the humble blueberry muffin gets the Porto's treatment, split in half and filled with cream and fresh berries, taking it from commuter cup sidekick to an elegant dessert.

The airy interiors, with their immaculate tiled floors make you feel like you are in Batista’s Presidential Palace. The enervating rhythm of salsa keeps the staff and customers moving along at a steady pace. Angelenos, who are not known for their patience in most situations, seem to think nothing of standing in a line of 75+ people for cranberry walnut bread, empanadas, and guava and cream cheese-filled refugiados.

The ordinary blueberry muffin gets a little
Porto’s swagger.
Porto’s is the only restaurant where customers head for their tables laden with bags and boxes of food to go before they enjoy their meals. After a taiko drum event that my nephews' school participated in at a hotel in Burbank, all the El Marino families converged upon Porto’s. We tag-teamed one another and gave up our seats to members of our party who arrived later as we each finished eating. It took a while for everyone to get through the lines because they were buying up loads of baked goods to take home for people who didn’t join us that day. It is one of those rare places that when visited, requires that one check in with all family members and friends to see if they want anything. And yes, they always do.

I have a physical therapy appointment, which my insurance plan, in its institutional lack of intelligence, has decided should take place at a clinic in Downey, miles away from the Westside. But no matter. When life gives you lemons, head for Porto's.

Dinner is hours away, but I can't resist taking a little merienda. Although I want to ask for the whole tray of chorizo empanadas, I attempt restraint and order only one of the piquant pies. And a potato ball – the love child of shepherd's pie and Tater Tots. And a rellenito.
A typical visit to Porto's takes place during the weekend, in the company of hundreds of other fans and as many family members or friends as you can get to accompany you. Enjoying the relative calm of a Wednesday afternoon sitting on the bakery's patio, I notice that while the customers aren't lingering to eat, they still file in and out of the place in a steady, bakery box-laden stream.

I tuck into my chorizo empanada and rellenito greedily, but it seems strange to be there without a crowd of friends. I feel almost guilty at indulging in such a rare treat by myself. But no worry - you're never really alone at Porto's, because you've got to remember to pick up dulce de leche kisses and pastels de guayaba for everyone at home.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

It Takes a Village: Vintage Cookbook Site Satisfies Appetite for Nostalgia

When I was in elementary school, there was nothing more exciting than when the bimonthly fliers from the Arrow Book Club hit our desks. Our parents would let my sisters and I have anything that constituted reading material, and we were allowed to order our share of books and magazines, which were curated for age appropriateness, as they continue to be today by Scholastic Press.
Having grown up in the kitchen, I was always most excited about the cookbooks for kids; Arrow offered at least one or two per catalog. “The Peanuts Cook Book,” which taught us how to make cinnamon toast - was one of my favorites. Who knew Snoopy and Woodstock could cook? And the delicate drawings in “Sandwichery: Sandwich Recipes and Riddles” combined two things that kids love best: corny jokes and food. I still collect cookbooks and related items like brochures and booklets of recipes using a particular ingredient like Campbell’s Soup or Bacardi Rum. Even if I never try the recipes, it is always intriguing to see how past generations cooked and ate.

I still don’t know what rhymes with celery.
A page from the 1975 book, “Sandwichery.”
With this in mind, I was thrilled to find the website, Cookbook Village, a treasure trove of vintage cookbooks for collectors, chefs, and the merely nostalgic. It was an even bigger thrill when I notified last week that I won the online shop’s drawing for a set of TV show-themed cookbooks. I am now the proud owner of “Cooking with ‘Friends,” “’The Sopranos’ Family Cookbook,” “Mary Ann’s ‘Gilligan’s Island’ Cookbook,” and “The ‘Desperate Housewives’ Cookbook.”
Wendy Guerin began the site after the thrill of selling items on eBay, including part of her vast collection of cookbooks.

“I had collected cookbooks for several years and at some point amassed a large collection — somewhere in the upper hundreds,” she says. “It consisted of mainly vintage and contemporary collectibles versus antiques, so it was affordable. I liked restaurant, autographed, and Junior League cookbooks specifically although I collected cookbooks from other categories.

The Cookbook Village website features everything for the cookbook
collector, including an online shop, blog, photo archives
of rare cookbooks, and interviews with specialty
collectors, as well as chefs and authors.
“The bug to sell was even more exciting to me than my collecting bug,” Guerin says. “We eventually ran out of cookbooks and had to start scouting for more to sell.”

Guerin, who works full time as an e-commerce/online marketing director was unable to continue selling on eBay, so her husband Ruben Guerin took over the business and started a Cookbook Village store on eBay. In 2011, he moved the store to Wendy Guerin continues to be involved by overseeing the marketing of the store and continuing to scout and collect its unique inventory. The response to this unique enterprise has been overwhelming, not only from a business standpoint, but in the emotional attachments to cookbooks that lead customers to the site.

“Aside from their investment value, cookbooks often have extreme sentimental value to their owners,” she says. “Cookbook Village receives many thank you notes from customers regarding their purchase that are attached to a personal story about the cookbook. Some have lost their favorite recipe or their favorite cookbook in a flood or fire. We are pleased to be able to help them find the same cookbook.”

“We are starting to see more repeat business and have had good feedback from customers on our site and service,” she says. “Our first week or so following [the site’s] launch, Cookbook Village was covered in the LA Times food blog ‘Daily Dish’ by Russ Parsons, one of the top food editors in the country. That's huge. In the past six months alone, unique visits to the website have grown nearly 50 percent, and sales have climbed over 80 percent over the previous six months.”

A whole new meaning to the term, “TV dinner”:
My winnings from Cookbook Village.
A lot of cookbook fans, including myself, enjoy reading cookbooks not so much to use the recipes, but to learn about cuisine in other regions of the United States or around the globe. Recipes reveal a lot about the times they were created in — note the abundance of ingredients like butter in Julia Child’s mid-century formulas for decadence, as compared to today’s gluten-, salt-, and fat-free recipes. Ethnic cookbooks are enriching because of the addition of history and folklore, as well as exposure to a new language. Finally, cookbooks are often served with a side of nostalgia, recalling dishes that loved ones used to make.

“For me, collecting was truly more about the cookbook - the layout, the hard-to-find topic or signature, the imagery - rather than the recipes,” says Guerin. “Even community cookbooks weave in cultural and geographical background, eating habits, cooking styles, and lore. All of this makes a cookbook a kind of historical marker that carries on information from [past times] and preserves it for future generations.”

According to Guerin, collecting cookbooks, like most collectibles, is similar to other collecting hobbies in that, “The thrill of the hunt, the thrill of seeing your unique collection showcased in your home, and the thrill of finding [the] hard-to-find, all play into what makes cookbook collecting exciting.” She says that interviews with collectors that are featured on the Cookbook Village website and the feedback that she and her husband receive from customers reveals that many cookbook lovers, like collectors of other items, have specific categories that they search out, while others will collect anything that catches their fancy. Guerin says that her favorite cookbooks to collect are community cookbooks from the Junior League, because, “Those cookbooks tend to have family recipes that are best of the best. People get competitive, submitting their family's top recipe.” She also admits a love for autographed cookbooks, even those signed by non-culinary celebrities.

“Cookbook Village is known for its signed cookbook category," says Guerin. "We have a large signature library on both Flickr and Pinterest and also for sale on our website. A lot of collectors of autographed cookbooks shop with us, because we often have hard-to-find chef signed cookbooks in our inventory. Something about getting an elusive signature like one from James Beard or Alice Waters - who didn't sign too often - is exciting. In the past, we had several signed Julia Child cookbooks. Recently we sold a signed Dinah Shore cookbook. We even had a coveted Johnny Mathis-signed cookbook in the past, and an autographed cookbook from a popular silent movie actress Corinne Griffith.”

As satisfying as looking at cookbooks can be, they are, after all, cookbooks. Guerin says that she often tailors recipes to her own tastes, using the recipes as guidelines to invent a new dish or lighter version of a tried-and-true delicacy. She also has a couple of favorite cookbooks that for her possess a personal connection to food and family.

”For vintage cookbooks, I really like ‘The American Woman's Cook Book,’ because it's one of the few cookbooks you see around still that have a special wartime section,” Guerin says.

“But my [all-time] favorite was Betty Crocker's Cook Book, sometimes referred to as the ‘Red Pie’ cookbook,” Guerin remembers. “The cover art has photographs shaped like a pie with ‘slices,’  like a pie chart with photos. I think collectors started referring to it like that. It contained a lot of photos of the finished dishes and had these amazing sweets. As a kid, I used to leaf through it and mark pages for my Mom to make. Of course, I picked out all the cookies and desserts, but she hardly made any of them.”

As in the case of my Cookbook Village prize, recipes can also conjure up the imaginary universe of a favorite TV show, book, movie, or other work .

I am savoring my new cookbooks slowly, sharing them with friends and family, and ruminating over which recipes I will actually attempt in the kitchen. Reading them has answered a lot of questions I have always had, like how to pronounce sfogliatelle. It’s also raised a question for the ages: Where on the island did Mary Ann get the ingredients to make all those coconut cream pies?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Split Pea Soup with Tommy Lasorda

Before you all get too excited, no – I was not the lucky journalist who got to interview Tommy Lasorda. I have never felt compelled to pick up a copy of the L.A. Daily News, but I did yesterday, because he was on the front page. Over a bowl of split pea soup in the executive dining room of the Dodger Stadium press box, he chatted with reporter Tom Hoffarth about basically, The World According to Mr. Dodger. And while I've been told, "There's no crying in baseball," this piece did get me all misty-eyed.

Few people realize that I am a baseball fan, and when they find this out, they rail against the game. "It's too slow." "Those guys aren't athletes." But they're missing the point. While the finer points of the game still elude me – I'm still not sure what an error is, and neither apparently, are some umpires – I love how it stands as a metaphor for America. With all its imperfections, we are still looked upon by most of the world as a winning team. Indeed, baseball can stand in as a metaphor for life, and how we all strive to overcome obstacles while working to win with what we have. And sometimes, as Kirk Gibson's famous home run that cinched the Dodgers' 1988 World Series victory, with what we don't have.

Baseball players come in all shapes and sizes. A brawny guy can be a power hitter, but not the greatest runner. Pitchers are never who you want at bat when the stakes are high. And having a pinch runner at my service in elementary school would have saved many an embarrassing moment in gym class.

Tommy Lasorda in 1976, taking
the helm of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
My point is that everyone brings something to the field, according to his individual strengths and abilities. And in the age of the high-profile, product endorsing, bling-laden athlete, it's refreshing to enjoy a game where while there are definitely stars, the excitement is about a favorite team as a whole.

As a writer and fan of words in general, I have to acknowledge that the sport of baseball has contributed more idioms to American English than anything I can think of, with the possible exception of the works of Shakespeare.

There is, of course, a certain glamour about baseball, but it never supercedes the fundamental family-oriented atmosphere of the game. Last night during the All-Star Game, the cameras panned the audience to show celebrities in the stands. Marc Anthony sang the National Anthem. But as he sang, there was a satellite shot of a Marine unit stationed in Kandahar, standing in reverent salute.

The only complaint I have about baseball is, ironically, the food they serve at stadiums: mediocre, overpriced, and usually cold by the time you get it. If only Lasorda would start a second career as a food critic. With his trademark tact and diplomacy, maybe the @#%&$!* vendors would step up to the plate - pun intended.