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Restaurant Review: Cuban Culinary Paradise

Indulge in Every Cultured Taste at Porto's

Posted: February 25, 2008 3:35 p.m.
Updated: April 24, 2008 5:02 a.m.
As soon as you enter Porto's Bakery and Café in Burbank, you are faced with two lines, both equally long, as well as an employee with a clipboard, the location's "cruise director," so to speak. He or she is always eager to help, and perhaps to also lift your jaw back up to your head when you see all that's available.

The line to the left is adjacent to the café seating, and if you choose to eat there, you need to find a table first. Sometimes it won't be long, or as it was when my parents and I went again recently, we waited much longer than the usual very few minutes.

Once you find a table, sit down, discuss with your party what everyone wants, and whomever volunteers should patiently stand in line. Your group's order may require two people to go up. Fortunately, there's much to keep wandering eyes busy, in all the cold cases, and on the menu boards near the ceiling. And it's worth the patience.

That first line presents patrons with a limited selection of baked goods, along with pre-made potato and chicken salads.

The second line, on the right, has all you could ever want from a bakery, Cuban or otherwise. Breads, the most delectable sweets you'll find in any bakery in Southern California, and cakes for all occasions. Dessert comes a little later.

The café seating area features paintings of the history of Porto's, and photos of Cuba. The paintings, of a Porto's storefront, as well as bread being put into an oven and a baker decorating a cake, are exactly what's happening in the kitchens as you're looking at those colors and designs and the apparent deep concentration happening in each of them. Just by looking at what's in the cases, and what comes from their kitchens, it's all a remarkable form of culinary art. The specialties also boost their reputation even higher than it already is.

Before I go further, there is one important rule to note if you haven't yet had a first time at Porto's: You cannot do take-out that very first time. It's all sit-down-in-public food. You have to take time for this. There is much to savor.

When I'm there, I never deviate from the chicken salad, the Cuban sandwich, an order of plantain chips in a clear plastic container, with garlic dipping sauce (more like liquid than an actual sauce, but just as good and garlicky), and sometimes whatever my folks are having, which leads to my mother telling me that I should order extra. And it's true. If you go there raring to eat, you may end up ordering more than you expect. Go with that feeling.

The chicken salad ($1.95) is their Cuban-style potato salad with shredded chicken, sliced elbow macaroni pieces, peas, and pieces of red pepper, all served on a leaf of red cabbage. Guaranteed you'll get a sizable chunk of shredded chicken in each scooped serving, with smaller shreds embedded in the potato salad.

The chicken salad alone introduces a taste of harmony, really. Each flavor in the chicken salad, from the red pepper to the chicken to the amount of mayonnaise in the potato salad, all works together, different as the ingredients are. That thought continues with the Cuban sandwich ($4.25), with ham, slow roasted pork, Swiss cheese (now that's the biggest surprise because when you see it in its melted state, it seems like another kind of cheese), mayo, mustard, and pickles.

The bread is the catalyst for that order, slanted at the top, giving way as soon as you bite in. It's the most generous bread made there, giving easily into each bite.

The mustard is spread across the top slice, with the pickles next, the cheese, the pork, the ham, and then what must be the mayonnaise at the bottom. The cheese will inevitably be pulled from the sandwich at least once, while again, all the flavors come together to create their own culture as you eat. No matter how many Cuban sandwiches you may have had, this will become your first.

After this particular lunch, I finished off a pork sandwich ($4.50) on a croissant that my mom couldn't finish, and that has mojo garlic sauce, and grilled onions. Not surprisingly, it's a semi-greasy sandwich, but with purpose, creating a satisfying taste to want over and over again if arteries weren't such a concern.
The first time I had Porto's mango mousse, it was out of curiosity. Being raised on Cuban food back in South Florida, I'd been to restaurants that didn't have this much variety in their desserts, and with the always-replenished selection, it's an adventurous choice, particularly because I'm not into tropical fruits like mangoes.

This being the fourth or fifth time, I could pick it out without even looking at it in the case. It's a layer of white sponge cake made invisible by a dome of mango mousse, a rich yellow color. It sits atop a cookie that's glued to a small circular gold-colored platter with chocolate.

Now, I suppose the proper way to eat it is to move the spoon completely through, past the sponge cake, and breaking apart a piece of the cookie to join the ensemble.

I don't.

The raspberry on top is the first to go. The mango mousse gradually loses its form until I get to the cake within the mousse, and then the cake becomes smaller and smaller. Next comes the scraping of the rest of the mousse off of the cookie and then, cookie consumption ends the method.

Sometimes the chocolate comes up with the cookie, sometimes it has to be taken off with a spoon. No matter how you might eat it, it's one of the reasons we have taste buds.

There's different kinds of espresso if you need it, there's smoothies, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee, and I'm done telling you about it.

Put down Escape and go.

One more piece of advice: When it comes time for dessert, if you're not alone, use the bakery line. You can't possibly leave Porto's without ordering a few things to take home and by doing it at the same time you get dessert for your table, you only have to stand in line for a second time.

And watch out for the funk that may hit you while walking back to the parking lot. It comes from being surprised that the experience is over so quickly, even though you've been there for a while. If that happens, you could always get back in line and start over.

Porto's is located in Burbank at 3614 W. Magnolia Blvd. ((818) 846-9100), and also its original location in Glendale at 315 North Brand Blvd. ((818) 956-5996).


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