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MARKETS : Porto's Bakery: Miami Vices

July 21, 1994|LINDA BURUM

Porto's Bakery and Cafe, 315 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 956-5996. Open Monday through Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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Perhaps only half of the customers at Porto's Cuban Bakery and Cafe are actually Cuban, but the place still gives you the impression you're in Central Miami. Carefully groomed women with flawlessly polished nails and beauty-shop hairdos are gossiping, laughing, kissing goodbye on both cheeks, having devoured their rum babas or rich tres leches cakes. Groups of older men wearing guayabera shirts, their tables littered with empty espresso cups and half-eaten media noche sandwiches, are arguing politics.

Porto's is a family-owned business on a sedate stretch of Brand Boulevard in downtown Glendale, but one thing you could never call the place is dull. A constant chattery din of rapid-fire Spanish echoes off the bakery's two-story ceiling as customers grab a number for the Cuban sandwich bar, wait impatiently for their turn to order pastries and cappuccino or request a certain cake.

Through the electric sliding doors, customers exit with armloads of Porto's pink boxes filled with the best Cuban cakes and pastries--indeed, some of the best baked goods of any kind--in all of Los Angeles.

The bakery's newly remodeled digs were once a small department store. The columned mezzanine above the brightly lit pastry case area gives the modernized room below a sense of having been superimposed over a patch of Cuban Colonial architecture. This style parallels the business itself: It manages to accommodate the appetites of an older generation of Cubans while catering to the more modern tastes of its new customers.

All the traditional Cuban pastries are here: the ones with romantic names such as bocado de principe (a bite for a prince) and brazo de gitano (gypsy's arm). But recently, the goods in Porto's cases have been taking a contemporary turn. White chocolate-raspberry cheese cake, tirami su , even apple-oat bran muffins are showing up.

For the most part though, Porto's maintains a traditional Cuban kitchen. For its Cuban sandwiches, the kitchen roasts about 25 garlic-marinated pork legs every day. For meat-stuffed potato balls ( papas rellenas ), an old family recipe is used for the filling.

But in the recently remodeled space, Raoul Porto Jr., son of owners Raoul and Rosa Porto, and now in charge of the baking, proudly shows off his impressive high-tech bakery equipment. The computerized Italian dough mixer and the automatic puff pastry dough sheeter, imported from Germany, are the things used in the artisanal shops in Europe to achieve hand-made-quality pastries with a manageable number of employees.

Porto Jr. wheels a huge stack of unbaked galletas --traditional Cuban crackers--into the German rack oven, which rotates the stacks of trays as they bake. "These galletas are a pain to make," he says. "But our loyal older customers would be upset if we didn't offer them."

Porto's didn't always have the means for such up-to-date technology. Though it's now a fixture in the Cuban community, in 1960, when it opened as a tiny shop in the Silverlake area, it had to supplement its Cuban items with Mexican pastries.

Relating a bit of the bakery's history, Margarita Porto-Navarro, another Porto daughter in the family business, explains: "My mom, Rosa, actually started the business back in Cuba. You couldn't make a decent living there because everyone had to work for the government, so people sometimes had businesses on the side.

"Mom used to make wedding cakes and other special-occasion cakes. She became sort of famous for these, and after we got settled here, some of her old customers, who had come over too, started to request them again."

Rosa had tried to obtain a job as a cake decorator at Van de Kamp's but failed. She opened Porto's instead. The store had only one baker then. Raoul Sr., who had obtained his auto mechanic's degree and worked a night shift, helped out during the day. The kids all pitched in after school. "I've been baking since I was about 17," Raoul Jr. says.

The business, which now supports four families and assorted employees, has been expanding ever since.

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SAVORY PASTRIES AND SNACKS

Cuban-Style Sandwiches: Porto's sandwiches, like Spago's pizzas, bring refinement to an everyday specialty. Fresh pork legs that are boned, then marinated in mojo de ajo , the famous Cuban garlic condiment. The meat is slowly roasted to a juicy tenderness. And, of course, Porto's also bakes the long, thin loaves of Cuban bread used in the sandwiches.

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