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.

1 comment:

  1. I've never tried their rellenitos - thanks for the recommendations!