Monday, September 24, 2007


Located in Glendale since 1960, Porto’s is the most famous—and possibly the best—Cuban bakery and cafe in all of L.A. county. Even though I grew-up right next door in Burbank, neither Tim nor I ever ate there until last spring. Our first visit was most memorable.

Vaguely remembering its address, I creeped along Brand Blvd. until I saw cars jostling for parking spots in front of a store with sidewalk tables and umbrellas. We parked two blocks away and walked in the front door.

Inside was pure chaos as mobs of people stood on line for pastries (on the right) and hot food (on the left). Even with 20-30 employees working behind the counters, the lines were ridiculously long—but everyone was happy! We decided to stay.

After about 20 minutes, we ordered two “pan con lechon” (roasted pork) sandwiches and then went in search of a table. We found one right next to an open doorway that led to another entire store filled with Porto’s goodies! Over Tim’s shoulder, I could see shelves lined with bread in all shapes and sizes. I could barely finish my sandwich before leaping out of my seat and running over to see what other delicacies awaited.

Of course, it was complete unbridled havoc in the bakery. Where the cafe had (albeit long) lines of patient customers, the bakery was another matter altogether, with everyone standing in one massive group waiting for his or her number to be called. We grabbed a number (#83) and joined the crowd. There were some 20 people ahead of us.

Porto’s is probably best known for its fabulous cakes which, in most cases, look like works of art. The people ordering cakes seemed to know exactly what they wanted; but for the rest of us the options were endless. I spied something that looked like a knot of dough covered in cinnamon in the corner of the display case and so squeezed through the crowd to get a better look.

“They’re brioche,” I reported back to Tim. “They look phenomenal!”

“I’ll have what she just said!” the man next to me replied when his wife asked what he wanted. Our collective appetites were soaring!

Finally I heard a voice behind the counter yell my number and I snapped to attention.

“EIGHTY-THREE!! EIGHTY-THREE” I cried as I elbowed my way to the front of the pack. No one was going to stand between me and my brioche!

I ended up taking home four brioche, half-a-dozen polverones (Spanish sugar cookies that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid), and a baguette—and all for the remarkable price of only $7.50. A haul like this would have cost twice that much on the west side.

We now find an excuse to stop in Glendale every time we’re east of downtown L.A., including last Saturday when I convinced Tim to accompany me to a paper collectibles show by promising to eat at Porto’s afterward. The place was as crazy as usual, but the food smelled just as tasty; so we slipped into line and waited to order. Mmm, mmm! Pork and pastries—what a feast! And such a deal, too!


Thursday, September 13, 2007


While others solemnly commemorated the sixth anniversary of 9/11, Tim and I cheerfully headed downtown to hear local author James Ellroy speak at the Los Angeles Public Library. A native son of El Monte and Hancock Park, Ellroy is most famous for his darkly complex stories about the seedy underbelly of mid-century Los Angeles. “L.A. Confidential” and last year’s “Black Dahlia” are film adaptations of two of his better known works. Although we have never read his novels, we know him by reputation and were anxious to see him speak. But first we had to get downtown.

L.A. is, of course, notorious for its impossible rush hour traffic. Ellroy was speaking at 7PM, so we left the house at 5:40PM, motivated by a curt email, received earlier in the day, threatening to give away our seats if we did not arrive by 6:50PM. As natives ourselves, we knew better than to take the freeway and so flew down surface streets. It looked like we would arrive with plenty of time to spare, until we got to Figueroa and waited ten minutes to turn left. We then came to a screeching halt as road construction forced everyone to merge from four lanes down to two. At 6:40PM Tim looked at me and asked if we should just turn around and go home.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss James Ellroy after coming all this way!” I exclaimed and zoomed down a side street. Ten minutes later, I pulled into the library’s parking lot.

“Run ahead,” I told Tim. “I’ll catch up later!” It had taken just as long to travel the last mile-and-a-half as it had taken us to drive the eight miles from Culver City to downtown.

We checked in at 6:55PM and got the last pair of seats. I heaved a huge sigh of relief. The man sitting next to me, however, was a nervous wreck, frowning at the door and looking repeatedly at his watch. There was an empty seat next to him. Obviously he was waiting for someone.

“Traffic is horrible,” I offered, trying to put him at ease.

“No, it’s my son-in-law. He went to validate his parking and I’m sure he got lost,” he said, wagging his head as if he still couldn’t believe his daughter had married this guy.

Meanwhile, Tim, who had run off to the restroom, came back with news of food being set-up in the courtyard outside the auditorium.

“Oh, yeah,” my seatmate explained. “They always have great food after these things.” The son-in-law then appeared and the man finally relaxed—so much so, in fact, that he slept through most of the program.

Ellroy was outrageous—ribald and profane and definitely not PG-rated. The woman who introduced him reminded the audience that the event was being taped for radio. All I could think was that every other word would have to be bleeped out! After an insanely crazy 20-minute speech, Ellroy opened the floor to questions.

The audience seemed more interested in his movies and sordid past (drugs, alcohol, jail, extramarital affairs) until Ellroy demanded they start asking about his books. The errant son-in-law raised his hand and, to my astonishment, Ellroy called on him by name! Apparently they were friends. I was dying to get the inside scoop, but he and his sleepy father-in-law ran out of the auditorium as soon as the Q&A ended. We saw them a few minutes later, noshing hors d’oeuvres at the head of the reception line.

The food in the courtyard was surprisingly good, especially since the program was free. Hordes of people crowded the salmon and tamales table, while Tim and I headed toward the desserts. We piled our plates high with fruit and pan dulces (Mexican pastry) and then stepped aside as the swarms descended. Ellroy mingled with his fans, but we couldn’t even get close. We left after eating our fill.

James Ellroy has called L.A. an ugly place where people “come to vacation but leave on probation.” Still, I saw only beauty as we emerged from the library’s parking lot. No sporting events or concerts congested the streets on this sixth anniversary of 9/11. There weren’t even any film crews diverting traffic. Just a strangely serene city.

We rolled down the windows and drove home.


Thursday, September 06, 2007

Home Improvements

No home improvement project is ever simple. You make one small change, which leads to another and, before you know it, you’re neck-deep in a whole new project.

Case in point: After putting it off for several years, we finally had the outside of house painted last February. In the process, we had the painters remove the hideous old aluminum patio cover that the original owner had installed in the 1960s. The plan was to replace it with a new wooden structure; but when I saw glorious sunlight streaming into a kitchen that had previously been dark, I decided to leave the patio uncovered and paint it red instead. I then bought furniture and colorful umbrellas to create a much more festive atmosphere. I envisioned having lots of garden parties with friends as we luxuriated in the cool summer breeze . . .

But wait. What garden? Our backyard was a nightmare of brown grass and sad old rose bushes. Something had to be done!

I love our small postwar home and enjoy freshening it up with new furniture and interesting colors on the walls. But I know nothing about yards and things that grow in the earth. In fact, one of the first things we did when we moved in was hire a gardener to mow the lawns twice a month and periodically shape-up the bushes. As long as the grass was short and the plants neat, I was happy.

To get some help with this new project, I hired a landscaper named Joel, who was highly recommended by a friend. With water rationing seriously looming on L.A. county’s horizon, we decided to go with drought-resistant plants in the back instead of traditional grass. We then turned our attention to the front yard. Joel loved our fabulous Chinese elm—everyone does!—but was distressed at our neglected birch tree.

“What’s with this tree?” he asked incredulously.

“I don’t know. What’s wrong with it?” I innocently replied.

“It’s dead!” he announced.

“IT IS!?” I practically yelled, completely oblivious to the fact that it hadn’t sprouted leaves in more than two years.

With a great sweep of his arm, Joel declared that it had to go, while I stood there amazed that I could be so botanically-challenged. He also decided to yank the hideous junipers from our brick planter, but the camellia bushes, which do bloom once a year, could stay.

The backyard is another thing altogether. Everything has been demolished—including a fruit-bearing peach tree that I didn’t even know was there!—and replaced by mulch. Joel designed a short pea gravel-filled path that stops at the corner where the peach tree used to stand. It’s now up to me to find a birdbath to put at the end of the path—a much more difficult task than I imagined. Have you ever investigated birdbaths? Most of them are common monstrosities—the rest cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Needless to say, the quest continues.

It is too hot to plant natives during the summer, so my assignment these past couple of months has been to identify specimens that I’d like to see growing in our backyard. Joel loaned me a book to help me decide, but I ended up marking everything that produces red or purple flowers! So now I’m supposed to look at actual plants at nurseries or in other people’s yards. I hit the jackpot when we attended a wedding last month at the Estancia Spa and Resort in La Jolla. The grounds there were completely covered in California natives! I ended up taking more pictures of the plants than of the bride.

My second task has been to buy pottery to dress-up the patio and front porch. Tentative at first, I have now officially gone berserk and buy every pot I see. My downfall was a small store I spied as we were leaving our vacation rental in Shell Beach last month. For an hour I rambled through piles of Mexican pottery until I finally narrowed my search to three items. Now, of course, I’ve got to find plants to put inside them. I’ve heard of pot addicts, but pottery addicts? I think I’m the first.

We’re still waiting for the weather to cool down enough for Joel to return and plant the backyard. In the meantime, Tim has bought a lawnmower, which he uses every other week to trim the grass in front, while I occasionally pull weeds in the back. To be continued . . .