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Porto's just keeps them coming

The popular bakery has expanded, opening a cafe. The sandwiches are worth the wait.

June 15, 2005|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

"Have you been to Porto's yet?" Cuban-born actor Andy Garcia remembers friends asking when he'd just moved to L.A. in 1978. For transplanted Cubans in those days, the small family-run bakery's flaky guava-cheese pastries, papa rellenas and other Cuban specialties were as close to a taste of their homeland as they could get.

Recently, after more than 25 years in business, Porto's has entered the restaurant business, expanding from a few tables in the corner of the Glendale bakery to a full-fledged cafe in the former pizzeria space next door. The menu's expanded too, with new items added to the famous Cuban sandwich line, plus homemade soups and salads.

Both the bakery and cafe continue to draw Cubans for their comfort foods -- Garcia has a long list of favorites, including the tamal with pork and the cheese rolls -- but nowadays the food is so popular with a wide cross-section of Angelenos that Porto's will soon open a branch in Burbank.

In spite of the expansion, it's still a challenge to find seating in the efficient but warmly decorated rooms on weekends. The roar of animated conversation creates a cheerful buzz, and nobody seems to mind the self-service ordering line snaking out the door. As they wait, people gawk at the gorgeous jewel-toned pastries in the case.

The line moves swiftly, so it's a good idea to grab one of the paper menus and ready your requests. The hottest draw is the selection of Cuban-style sandwiches -- both traditional and creative riffs on the originals -- made on bread that the bakery turns out three times a day.

The pan con lechon sandwich hold slabs of moist marinated roasted pork splashed with mojo sauce of lime and garlic then topped with lightly caramelized onions. Cut on a diagonal into acute triangles, it's served on a black plate with house-made mariquitas -- lengthwise-sliced plantain chips. It's as tasty and stylish as fast-served food gets.

The ham, pork and Swiss cheese-filled Cuban sandwich and its identically filled cousin, the medianoche, on a slightly sweet roll, are all-time favorites. The delightfully immoderate medianoche preparada also has two lipstick-size cylinders of smoked ham-filled croquettes. The torta de pollo of grilled, marinated chicken breast is nearly as baroque. Accented with tangy goat cheese and a velvety schmear of mashed black beans on bread, it's destined to be a California classic.

For a tapas-style meal, order some traditional Cuban snacks such as the ham croquettes or the papas rellenas, balls of mashed potatoes filled with savory, ground beef, lightly crumbed and perfectly deep fried. Or try the pastel de pollo or the pastel de chorizo, butter-rich pie crust filled with succulent stewed chicken with pimentos or richly spiced sausage.

Freshly made soup changes daily. Salads are festively constructed whether they're side dishes or entrees such as the "Southwestern," a mighty hillock of romaine topped with grilled steak or chicken, black beans, cheese and cilantro vinaigrette.

Porto's is not a place where diners forgo dessert. If not eaten in the cafe, the goods are spirited away in bakery boxes. The cafe's dessert case holds a few typical Cuban items: pastries filled with sweet cream cheese or guava and the meringue-topped tres leches cake. But most of the traditional Cuban pastries must be requested from the adjoining bakery. There you'll find panatela boracha, rum-soaked cake filled with guava preserve; rum babas; and coquitos en alimbar, honey-drenched coconut balls encased in crackly caramel.

Along with Rosa Porto's fabulous eggy cakes, there are more than a dozen varieties of pastry chef Tony Salizar's delicate mousse cakes, including the popular mango mousse, a cloud of not-too-rich mango-flavored cream balanced on light yellow cake under a clear mango glaze. Coffee-lovers will want to try the cappuccino mousse cake encircled with a paper-thin chocolate sheet -- fabulous with a cup of strong Cuban-style coffee.

Porto's Bakery & Cafe, which began way back in Manzanillo, Cuba, with Raul Porto delivering Rosa's cakes by motorcycle, is still a hands-on affair for the family. Raul Jr., who does the baking, can also be spotted through the cafe's kitchen window working the line at lunchtime while his sister Betty Porto Navarro, constantly on the cellphone, organizes catering orders. A third Porto sibling, Margarita Porto Kawabata, oversees the special-occasion cake department.

Regulars, it seems, feel good in this comforting place. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Betty remembers, "People in the neighborhood didn't go home. They came here to eat. It made them feel better."


Porto's Bakery & Cafe

Location: 315 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 956-5996

Price: Appetizers, 60 cents to $1.60; sandwiches, salads and soups, $3.25 to $5.75; pastries and desserts, 60 cents to $2.10.

Best dishes: Pan con lechon (roast pork sandwich), medianoche preparada sandwich, torta de pollo, mango mousse cake, Cuban cream cheese rolls.

Details: Open 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. No alcohol. Public lot parking behind the bakery. Visa and Mastercard.

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