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L.A. at Large

Cuban Cafecitos and All the Comforts of Home

February 06, 2001|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Step through the electric sliding doors and your senses are bombarded. Hear the rapid-fire speech. See the elegant pastries. Feel the energy of the ultra-animated staff. Take a deep breath and savor the aromas.

Here comes Raul Porto Jr., 40, wheeling dozens of freshly baked Cuban loaves, which will sell out in minutes and warm the air in their midst. Bittersweet Cuban cafecitos brew at the coffee bar, their strong smell of espresso swirling through the first floor. The scent of garlic rises from the kitchen, where roasted pork is dressed with mojo and sliced for sandwiches. Sweet brandy syrup--used for the mystical yellow cake that beckoned patrons in Cuba and again in Southern California--emanates from the basement.

"Oh, my gosh," says Yolanda Heard, a tax auditor from Montgomery, Ala., who has never been exposed to the fast pace or the inherent spice of sabor cubano (Cuban taste). "I've never seen anything like this."

Porto's Bakery & Cafe opened 40 years ago inside Rosa and Raul Porto's modest kitchen in Manzanillo, Cuba. Today, it sits in the sprawl of downtown Glendale, but its heart remains all Cuban, both in the authenticity of its food and in the spirit of its family-run management.

Heard has just walked into Porto's on a Saturday morning (with 1,000 other patrons to follow throughout the afternoon) and is daunted by all of the movement around her. Customers line up for numbers to order pastries, sandwiches or to pick up special cakes. Most are speaking Spanish. One man is playing a guitar and singing boleros. Children stare at the displays, their mouths watering. The 50-member staff runs back and forth, upstairs and downstairs, filling orders. Yet, in the chaos, there is meticulous organization.

"The quality and the freshness of the food is the best in town, and you can't expect more from the service," says Cuban-born Maria de los Angeles Padron, who lives in Bell and drives 27 miles each way for her weekly Porto's fix. "But I come here mostly because of the people. If you're ever depressed, come here and you will feel at home."

Key Ingredient: The Personal Touch

Visit during the morning rush and you will see corporate executives picking up pastries for breakfast meetings or to deliver to clients. Lunch is fast and furious; Anglos who work nearby flock to the cafe for the inexpensive and tasty fare. The evening rush is about last-minute dinner preparations: Cuban bread, desserts and other treats that help to complete a menu.

Then there's the weekends. From the time the doors open at 7 a.m., the demand is nonstop. Cakes. Coffee. Guava, cheese and beef pastries. Bread and those hard-to-find galletas, old-fashioned Cuban crackers.

"You have to do those by hand so that they taste like the real thing," says Beatriz Porto-Kawabata, at 43 the Portos' eldest daughter. "It's so much work. But it's a courtesy we do for our clients because if they come in and we don't have it, they will have a heart attack."

Like hundreds of other small ethnic cafes scattered throughout the city, Porto's serves as a unifying link, a touchstone, for L.A.'s Cuban community. One of the regulars on Saturdays is actor Andy Garcia, who stands at the coffee bar and chats with workers as he sips his Cuban coffee and eats ham croquetas. Garcia, who signs autographs and frequently is accompanied by his wife and children, says his attraction to Porto's extends beyond the culinary. "It is not only a place where you can get extraordinary food, but as a Cuban exile, it is a place of solace," he said. "When I need a cultural fix, that's where I go."

Porto's success, the family agrees, is due to Rosa Porto, who left Cuba with none of her personal belongings, but who carried in her heart the sweetest secret of all: the yellow cake recipe she improvised in her house in Manzanillo while her husband was detained at a labor camp. With Raul Porto--along with most Cuban men--away cutting sugar cane for the Cuban government at a salary of $8 a month, and Rosa Porto jobless, the former home economics teacher turned to her sweet tooth to support her three children.

For nearly 10 years, Rosa Porto faced possible imprisonment by supporting her family with her yellow sponge cakes soaked in brandy and filled with custard, pineapple or strawberries. Private citizens were not allowed to own businesses under Cuba's Communist rule, but Rosa Porto evaded government inspections with the help of her neighbors--and clients--who stashed her baking equipment in their yards.

"I learned by breaking eggs and from necessity," said 70-year-old Rosa Porto, the petite but strong-willed matriarch. "I started baking the cakes for my kids, and since they were pretty, my neighbors started asking me to make cakes for them."

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