If there is one thing any respectable Southern Californian will tell you to do while in SoCal, it is to visit Porto’s Bakery. With three locations to choose from—Glendale, Burbank, and Downey—Porto’s is a family owned Cuban bakery that has been around since 1960. It not only specializes in a vast array of baked goods, decorated cakes, coffees and smoothies, but it also serves unique café items like sandwiches, soups and salads, all with a Cuban flair. Out of the many items they offer at Porto’s, one novelty stands out in particular. There is one item that any and all avid Porto’s fans will tell you is their favorite thing to eat. A must-try when you pay a visit to this jam-packed, always busy—line out the door—bakery. What is this treat that has everyone mystified and buying them by the dozen? Boxes and boxes filled to the brim with this Cuban delight? Ready to be eaten? Ready to be devoured? It’s Cuban potato balls. “Wait what? What’s that you just mentioned?” Yes. Cuban Potato Balls. Or Papas Rellenas if you feel like being authentic. Seasoned beef stuffed inside a ball of mashed potatoes. Breaded and fried until golden brown and crispy all around. It is so popular that the bakery even offers a sandwich filled with these treats.
Having been born and raised in Southern California, Porto’s was a staple in my household. Growing up, every birthday party or big event, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, my mom would go over to Porto’s and grab us a bunch of stuff. My sisters’ and I would always get a birthday cake from there. Of course until I got older, and started making our cakes myself. But as long as I can remember Porto’s was always there. It was part of my family. I grew up with it being a crucial component of my childhood. Fond memories of my mom and sisters and I having a good time playing games, watching movies, listening to music, eating potato balls. It became an expectation amongst the four of us. An expectation to always have Porto’s goodies present at our events. The events that meant so much to us. Some things gone unsaid, like papas rellenas. I continued to grow up and enjoy these treats all throughout my adolescence. Eventually getting a job at Porto’s my junior year of high school. Not because I loved these treats so much, I just had to work there, but because the culinary field was something I wanted to experience. I had gone there on a field trip, actually, for my culinary arts class and ended up getting a job before I walked out.
For two years I went to work, eager to learn as much as I could. Having started off with no experience whatsoever—they did not trust me to do much—so at the beginning for 8-10 hours I’d literally just put fruit on top of tarts. That’s all. I was a fruit placer. Yes, I just made up that title, but it’s one hundred percent accurate. That was the grand excitement of my day.Placing fruit on fruit tarts. My big culinary dream. Of course I eventually proved myself and after a few months, I was transferred to a different department and began learning how to decorate cakes. Which is where all my experience came from. The one thing that everyone always asked me was “Do you know how they make the potato balls?” Without fail. Without hesitation. “Do you know the recipe?” It was an instant reaction to my, “I work at Porto’s Bakery.” I always disappointed them when I said no. When I declared to them I did not know the secret. I could see their smiles fade fast. The truth was that I never was around or anywhere near that area. I decorated cakes, and I enjoyed it a lot more than frying potato balls all day that’s for sure.
I left there without ever knowing the recipe or even knowing the process of how these Cuban snacks are made. Even now when people find out I worked there, I still encounter the same exact questions. My sisters both love these treats so much that they’ve insisted I make them. Over the years I said I would, but never really did. As a surprise to them, I eventually came up with a recipe—a collaboration of research, various recipes, and Cuban knowledge—put together to create my own recipe. After taking a little from there, and a bit from here, I eventually found out that these, in fact, are very easy to make. The ingredients are simple and the process is not overwhelming at all. Sure some work can get tedious, like shaping the potato balls themselves or breading them, but granted I’m not making thousands of these on a daily basis like the bakery is. So it’s easy. With that said, if you’ve ever visited Porto’s before, then you know what I’m talking about. You’ll be delighted to see and taste the resemblance to the original. And if you’re not in California and have never tried these, or have never even seen or heard of these before, then you’re in for a nice surprise.
Shall we begin?
Here’s the starring cast: