When a shipment of tobacco leaves goes missing in Los Angeles, as one did recently in a downtown storage warehouse, the list of prospective owners is short. Tobacco, especially cigar tobacco, is an East Coast plant of commerce; cigar makers on the West Coast are rarer than pre-Castro robustos. The La Plata Cigar Co., a storefront that has done business for the last 20 years on Grand Avenue just south of Olympic, is the only family-run cigar business in California. It is also where the call came in to inform owner Victor Migenes Jr., who inherited the 48-year-old company when his father retired in 1983, that his tobacco was MIA.
When tobacco does reach La Plata's doorway it passes through the front room, past the humidor filled with La Plata's 30 styles of cigars, past Victor Jr. sitting at his oak desk chatting up customers, and back into what Victor calls "the original well"--the room where Gloria Gomez and Theresa Gomez, Juan Rodriguez and Juan Martinez (a.k.a. Juan No. 1 and Juan No. 2) spend the day rolling La Plata's cigars, smoking La Plata's cigars and affectionately calling Victor, a junior to all of them, "El Jefe."
All the rollers smoke cigars as they hunch over their work. (A stranger who didn't know cigars were being made in the well might think its occupants were making book.) Today, Gloria is rolling Hercules cigars--she will roll 100 by 5 p.m.--and is smoking a Grand Classic that she just finished for herself, rolled in Connecticut premium wrapper that, she says, "has a sweet taste, smooth, like the taste of chocolate." Theresa, sitting behind Gloria, also smokes a Grand Classic; Juan No. 1 is rolling and smoking torpedo-size Goliaths ("Oh my goodness," says Gloria, "those are hard--the Goliath is 9 inches long"); Juan No. 2 is rolling Goliaths but smoking a Rocket Enterprise, and Maria Pazas, who helps Victor around the office, is drawing on a 6-inch Ashford Classic, although she is known to keep constant companionship with Desert Classics on her commute home.