In most of L.A. county's Latino suburbs, the news of a bakery opening isn’t usually anything to get excited about, let alone anything that makes the gossip circuit. Not the case in Downey, though, home to a cafecito-drinking, pastelito-loving community of Cuban immigrants and their descendants, my family included.
And, until now, a one-Cuban-bakery town.
For those not familiar with Cuban eating habits, here is why bakeries matter: We love the starch. Doughy bread embedded with chicharrones, flaky ground-meat pastelitos and guava-and-cream cheese pastries (the latter once nicknamed “Marielitos” after participants of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, for reasons I can't explain), deep-fried starchy things like papas rellenas (mashed potato balls stuffed with meat, which taste far better than they sound). Bakeries also sell coffee, which we drink lots of. Bakeries are sacred.
For the past decade, Downey's Cuban-Americans have flocked to the Tropicana Bakery, a homey coffeehouse-style place decorated with nostalgic old-Havana photos that serves as an impromtu gathering place for friends who bump into each other when buying bread or pastries. Retirees sip coffee and gossip; their adult children drop by for a bakery box of nostalgia to go. But for more than a year now, I’ve heard the chisme at family gatherings: “Porto’s viene a Downey!” (Porto’s is coming to Downey!)
Yes, Porto's, the Glendale-based undisputed heavyweight of the L.A. Cuban bakery scene. And yesterday it happened: the grand opening of Porto's spiffy new Downey location, its third, tucked inside an impressive modernist gem of a building that looks absolutely nothing like old Havana.
Could two big Cuban bakeries survive in this town? What would this mean, for Downey, for its beloved Tropicana, for tradition, for all of us?
Yesterday I ventured down to the Porto’s opening, where an almost entirely Latino crowd – Cuban, Mexican, Central American – waited in a long line to enter as employees brought out trays of free pastry samples and, lucky us, papas rellenas. And as people angled for potato balls and shielded their eyes from the sun, the perceived battle of the bakeries was never far from their minds.
Maria Fernandez, 67, nibbling on a papa rellena, said she was glad to see Porto’s in town. “For years we used to drive all the way to Glendale to go to Porto’s,” said the first-generation Cuban immigrant. “I’ve seen Cuban bakeries come and Cuban bakeries go, but Portos’s has been around for many years.”
Her friend, Juana, said she liked Tropicana and vowed to keep visiting both: "When the sun shines, it shines evenly on everyone,” she said.
Some didn't take particularly well to the long line (long lines remind older Cuban immigrants of ration lines back home). One elderly man stalked off down the sidewalk grumbling “Se tiene que hacer cola!” (You have to stand in line!) into his cell phone.
And perhaps this was a boon to the Tropicana about half a mile away, where the line was almost out the door, likely fueled by people who had tried to get into Porto’s and given up.
“We really don’t look at it as competition,” said Michael Madrazo, a Cuban-American raised in Bell who co-owns Tropicana with his parents and siblings. “For example, you have multiple burger joints, you have McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. They all sell burgers with different flavor profiles that attract people who are looking for hamburgers.”
I was looking for more papas rellenas, so I ordered one of Tropicana’s and did a papa rellena taste test. The results? Porto’s: A little smaller, more moist, more tomato sauce. Tropicana: A little bigger, drier meat, but with nice homestyle touches like raisins and capers.
Different flavor profiles, both delicious. If having two Cuban bakeries in Downey means more papas rellenas for the entire community, what’s not to love? I'll be eating at both.