Baker, Cook, Writer, Pursuer of Gastronomic Joy

Porto’s Bakery & Cafe

WhileI am returning from a few weeks’ absence from Scoutin’ it Out, it is for very good reason. For the past three weeks I’ve been out in LA learning not only about what the performance industry has to offer and how bad LA drivers are, but also catching what I could of the LA food scene while I was there. I’ve known of LA’s thriving food scene for a while, from the obvious plethora of tacos to the egg sandwiches at Bon Appetit’s number one rated restaurant of the year, to the In-N-Outvs. Shake Shackdebate (About which you can bet there will be another post). But with my life being tied to the east coast, I haven’t had the chance to get a glimpse into the town foodies rave about. That is, until I shipped off for three weeks of nonstop meetings and side readings. Even then, time was too scarce for me to traverse the county to all the spots that deserved scouting out. But with nearly a month there, I was able to make a few worthwhile hits.

One place that received my patronage more than once (twice, thrice, etc…) was Porto’s Bakery & Café. While the Air BnB my friends and I were staying at was a trek to our classes, we were lucky to find ourselves but four blocks (so a 3-minute drive or a 30-minute walk) from a bakery on my list of places to explore. A bakery with its origins back in a family kitchen in Cuba, it is still run by the children of the original namesake Rosa Porto and her husband Raul Porto Sr., Beatriz, Raul Jr., and Margarita. They still sell specialty items like their cheese rolls and potato rolls, and have added American classics like New York cheesecake and cupcakes at their five locations throughout Los Angeles.

If the volume of patronage at the Burbank location we attended was any indicator, there’s good reason to have five. From early in the morning to late at night Porto’s was packed. Families getting breakfast, singles picking up a late night snack, employees picking up lunch on their break, all could be found in the ever-present line of varying length at either counter. Yes, bothcounters. There is enough space for two full-length pastry cases behind which lies a whole kitchen, and in front of which is extensive floor space with tables galore. While a New York bakery might view itself to be a saint for giving you a single small seat at a counter, this LA bakery happily gives you the room to relax and enjoy yourself.

And it was this space that was the first factor to win our hearts as Ndeye and I took our first steps inside on that first visit.  Where were we to go? Was there specific counter protocol? Were we supposed to get seated? We wandered our way to the counter on our right and gazed at the offerings through the line of people. Strudels, croissants, and empanadas of various kinds, rows of muffins, rolls and breads, rectangular slices of impeccably layered napoleons, layer cakes, and opera cakes, cups of tres leches cake and tiramisu, mounds of mango mouse. The options were staggering. As one who had never been to a Cuban bakery before, I was unsure of what would be the best choices to showcase their specific skills. The tres leches cake and flan were immediate picks from Ndeye, onto which we decided to add a mango empanada at my request (mango lover that I am). When our turn arrived we placed our order with the server at the counter and asked what they thought the most popular item was, to which they responded the cheese roll and the guava and cheese Danish. They sounded worth a try, so we threw a guava and cheese in as well. Then, in a startling turn of events, the server asked if we wanted to try a cheese roll, perhaps seeing that we were unsure of a pastry with just cheese and no fruit, and handed us one for free. For. Free.New York would never. New York would suggest you try it, and after you refuse, force it in your mouth and charge you $20 for it while you choke on what’s actually cardboard (I’m upset with NYC and enamored with LA right now, can you tell?).

We sat at a high top table, not invading anyone else’s space as all us customers enjoyed their treats in leisure. We tackled the cheese roll gifted to us first, as it was what we were most dubious of. But from looks alone, the pastry gave us confidence. As was the case with all the confections with pastry dough, the lamination was extraordinary. The layers were delicate and numerous stacks of golden brown perfection encased in sparkling granulated sugar. This sugar covering provided a nice crunch before going into the flakey, buttery layers that encased a sweet, creamy cheese. What kind of cheese? Couldn’t tell you. It’s not a classic cream cheese, it’s not cheddar, it’s not brie. But what it isis good. There’s nothing particularly complicated happening with the flavors or the textures. But everything about it is executed perfectly. This cheesy sweet takes the top tier of the category over cheesecake for me. It’s a simple pleasure of a treat for all times of day and all seasons. Thank you, sweet Porto’s employee, for exposing us to the cheese roll.

Add some fruit jelly and a different shape and you have the guava cheese Danish. Puff pastry (this time not encased in sugar) is formed into something of a harp shape and filled with what I took to be the same cheese as the cheese roll, as well as a layer of guava jelly. And just as any cheese plate is made better by the addition of fruit, the guava and cheese were a dream of a combo. It brought me back to summery days of eating apple and cheese on a cracker in the sun. The brightness from the fruit blends well with the soft cheese. And how can one go wrong stuffing it in that great pastry?

The third smaller pastry, the mango empanada, was made with more of a shortcrust, as one would expect from an empanada. And while the mango was nice and juicy and the shortcrust was good for what it was, I would have rather had some mango with the pastry crust, and save the empanada form for the savory, meaty goods. The mango filling would have paired better with more of a crisp container rather than one that crumbled. And I certainly wouldn’t have said no to the sugar coating with the mango as well.

With the items of pastry dough gleefully done, we felt that good things were to come with the flan and tres leches cake. When it comes to purely custardy desserts, I’m not usually one to be eager to dig in. If it were not for Ndeye, I likely would not have broached the idea of getting flan. But, as always, I am extremely glad for her guidance. Because that flan rocked my world. Silky smooth, sweet and caramelly, and elegantly indulgent. This was no bland gelatinous form. This trapezoidal figure excelled in being a few bites of a singular sweet flavor by means of smooth jiggly. It turned me from a flan shrugger to a flan lover. For the second time that night a new item was added to my loved pastry list.

I am truly unsure if I have ever had tres leches cake before. I’ve certainly had treats flavoredlike tres leches, mainly ice cream to my memory, but the cake itself is another one of those things that hasn’t come across my path a lot. And while a cake whose main point of pride is boasting three milks – evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream – may not be the best idea for my body, it sure is great for the palate. Condensed milk is one of life’s great pleasures, thick and creamy and sweet like I always expected real milk would be as a lactose-intolerant, lactaid consuming child. Mix that with some other lactose-laden products and let them soak into a sponge and you have a cake that I would even go so far as to choose over a chocolate cake depending on the day. The combination of the milk and sponge in the ramekin is akin to the perfection of the classic cake and ice cream combo. The cold moisture of the creamy dairy seeping into the nooks and crannies of sponge, filling any space amongst the delicious cake with even more sweet goodness. And while I am not usually a marshmallow topping fan, the lightly toasted dollop on top of this cake was the appropriate move. It kept the cake made dense with liquid below feeling light and manageable while adding an airy texture that complemented the sponge.

And while the quality of the sweets and space in the place was reason enough to be taken with Porto’s, all of that coming in at under $8 was the cherry on top sending us into utter infatuation with the LA institution. We walked away that night in utter elation and satisfaction, and dreaming about our return. For with a couple weeks left in LA there was no way would be able to keep away from this bakery sanctuary only four blocks away in the city where nothing is close.

And after raving about them in the house throughout the following days, our housemates were inclined to come with us for a return trip. Inevitably, they fell in love with Porto’s as well, and for the duration of our time in LA Porto’s saw us with regularity. We traversed the menu from their sandwiches (of the breakfast and regular variety. I’ll take an egg, cheese, and chorizo on Cuban bread over a BEC if you give me the choice, thank you) to their quality coffee, to their meat pies, and back to the pastry case. Nary a failure was found.

After my three weeks in LA I am definitely considering a move. Is it the weather? That varies. Is it the business? Definitely a factor. Is it Porto’s? I think you know the answer.