The potato ball is as good a place as any to start when talking about Porto’s. They are divine racquetball-sized orbs of fluffy mashed potato filled with a picadillo spiced meat mixture laced with onions, peppers and what tastes like just a hint of olive and cumin. The balls are coated in breadcrumbs and fried to a deep, tawny brown. The mild crunch of the exterior yields to the silky potato-y mass, only to reward further with tender meat and mild gravy. To eat one is to truly grasp the concept of positive reinforcement in behavioral psychology. To eat one is to see the potential of what shepherd’s pie could have been. They are worth every penny of the $1.09 they cost. They are perfect.
Rosa Porto died Friday, leaving behind a husband of 64 years, children, grandchildren and legions of customers loyal to the business she created, Porto’s Bakery & Cafe. Porto, who had started an illegal cakes business in Castro-era Cuba to make money for her family while waiting for the opportunity to come to the U.S., grew her life’s work into what became far more than just a Cuban bakery. Porto’s adapted to its environs over the years — changing Los Angeles demographics and a dwindling Cuban population — and shifted its menu constantly according to changing tastes. In doing so, the small bakery that began at Sunset and Silver Lake Boulevards in 1976 became the quintessential L.A. restaurant — and an incredible story of American success.
The first thing you’ll notice at any Porto’s, at nearly any time of day, is the chaos. Dining room packed, food runners dodging those lurking to nab the first empty table, and of course, the impossibly long line, 40 or 50 deep. The Saturday-at-Disneyland-like crowds and long queues of people waiting to get pastries, sandwiches and snacks can be off-putting to the uninitiated, certainly. But when you know, you know. Because the second thing you notice at any Porto’s is how quickly the line moves.
“What’s your name?” a young man behind the counter asks after I place my order. “I’ll meet you over at the register,” he says and disappears into a sea of two-dozen fellow employees, all balancing cardboard boxes stuffed with potato balls, chorizo pies and spinach feta pastries. I wave goodbye, like he’s someone going off to war — surely I’ll never see this person again. But he finds me somehow, and I pay and get my food, and it’s soon thereafter that the third and most important realization about Porto’s hits you: it all tastes really good . . .