Rosa Porto has a story picture-made for Hollywood. A matriarch who loves to make Cuban delights for her family, she immigrated with said family to Southern California in the late 1960s and opened a bakery in Echo Park.
Her success in feeding those in La-La land with her Cuban-influenced baked goods grows into an immensely popular bakery, now in three locations. Porto is retired, happily enjoying her years of hard work, while the next generation maintains her legacy in the bakery known as Porto’s.
In my day job (you know, the one that pays my bills so I have the freedom to do this blog), I work with a team in Burbank, and occasionally head south for meetings. But my trips are often limited to just a day trip, which really doesn’t give me much time to explore the culinary discoveries in the region.
But on a recent trip, some of my co-workers took me to lunch at Porto’s Bakery and Cafe, which luckily had a location not too far from our offices. Other co-workers had told me about the cult popularity of Porto’s, especially items like the “potato balls,” so I knew I had to taste for myself.
I expected to find an old-but-charming dive of a bakery in an ethnic neighborhood, but instead I saw a spacious and updated cafe that actually looked like any other newly opened bakery in a Southern California strip mall. The only difference between Porto’s and, say, Starbucks, was the crowds. We arrived a bit past the lunch hour and the place was packed with lines for both the sandwiches/lunch offerings and the baked goods/takeaway.
For lunch, I tried the Cubano ($4.85), which is the traditional Cuban sandwich made with pork and ham with pickles. This is one of my favorite sandwiches, and I’ve had some good ones up here in the Bay Area. I expected a lot since Porto’s is a Cuban bakery, but I was disappointed because the sandwich was straight-forward like any deli sandwich. (I think it would have been more appealing if it had been pressed like a panini, which is how I like it and have had that way in the past.)
What I did enjoy was the chicken empanada (50 cents) with an extremely flakey crust. You could tell this was made by an expert bakery because of the pastry shell. On the other hand, a dessert of tres leche cake (individual size at $1.95) was also “meh.” I liked the flavor but thought the ratio of cake to cream was more cake than cream.
It’s clear Porto’s popularity is from its baked goods, given the lines of customers leaving with bags filled with two or more boxes of baked goods. And looking at the counters, you can be overwhelmed by the choices of multi-colored tarts, cookies, mini cakes, pies, empanadas, cheese balls, and more.
I had mixed results with the bakery as well. I tried what was called a dulce de leche kiss (a pastry shaped like a huge Hershey’s kiss but filled with a milk caramel center) and a brownie. The kiss pastries were a bit dry, with the cooked caramel more like paste than cream. But the brownie was killer, a great mix of fudge and cake texture and huge for a single serving. I would go back just for the brownie.
Porto’s may be average in the sandwich section, but excels (no surprise) with baked goods. While not every item is a hit, you could spend years just trying each one to compare.
Porto’s Bakery and Cafe, 3614 West Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, Calif. PH: 818.846.9100. Open daily. (Other two locations in Downey and Glendale.) Facebook page.
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