Q&A;: Betty Porto

Diabetic sweet-tooth Betty Porto is co-owner of Porto's Bakery, which helped transform downtown when it moved to Glendale in 1980. Porto's mother, Rosa Porto, started her bakery out of her home in Cuba, then immigrated to the United States in 1971 and opened her first bakery in Los Angeles in 1976. The bakery has evolved into a Los Angeles-area destination, drawing customers from throughout the region for its unique offering of breads and pastries. She co-owns the store, along with a location in Burbank and another under construction in Downey, with her brother, Raul Porto, and her sister, Margarita Navarro

ZAIN SHAUK: Let's cut to the chase: Porto's has been a part of your life for 35 years. What's your least favorite item on the menu?

BETTY PORTO: Oh my god. That doesn't exist. I love everything, especially desserts. I'm a sweet person, so I'd rather have desserts than food.

Q: There isn't one thing that you like less than everything else?

A: There is nothing that you can put in front of me that I will not devour and I enjoy it. Really, nothing.

Q: What is it about Porto's food that's special?

A: Well I think it's unique, you know? We make something that nobody else makes. For example, a potato ball, that's my mother's recipe. You know, nobody can make that, so people come from all over the city, even other states, just for the potato ball. That's one of her original recipes.

Q: Yeah, where did that come from? What is that?

A: Cuba. It's just Cuban. It's savory and it's been with us from the beginning. And we always try to make better desserts . . . But, if I go to a show, I take all this wonderful stuff and people love it, but at the end there will be somebody who will say, "Why didn't you bring those potato balls?" And I think it's because it's a staple. It's potatoes and beef, and that, in every culture, it's comfort food.

Q: You mentioned that the potato balls are unique to Cuba. What's Cuban about the food?

A: For example, there are my mom's recipes, the meat pies: Those are Cuban. The chicken and bananas are Cuban. The potato balls, those are our recipes. The ham croquettes, those are also our recipes. The little guava horns that we make, she used to make those for us at home. Those are our recipes that she tweaked and used over the years, and they're still with us.

Q: Speaking of Cuban tastes, do you have a perspective on Cuba's leadership?

A: I left Cuba when I was 13 years old. We left looking for, like most immigrants that came to this country, escaping communism, freedom of speech.

Q: What do you think of President Obama's efforts to warm up relations with Cuba?

A: He can try to do that, but Cuba has to reciprocate and start showing that they're willing to make changes. That they would allow people like you, or the newspaper, to come and question me. I mean, that doesn't exist.

Q: Do you contribute to any causes supporting Cuba?

A: The only way I would help Cuba is to use somebody like the Red Cross. I'm not going to give Cuba a penny for those people to do whatever they want with it. Why should I give to the government that pushed us out of our home country?

Q: How did they push you out?

A: Well, just by making life impossible. By trying to brainwash us against our parents. By trying to brainwash us daily . . . Now we're here and we're proof of what America is all about. You know, we came with nothing, penniless, without the language, and my mother was able to open a business, without the language. She was not educated here, but look what she was able to give us, in this country.

Q: Porto's recently expanded to Burbank. I understand you are planning on opening another location soon.

A: We're going to Downey next year.

Q: What's your long-term goal for Porto's? What's the next step?

A: We've been in business 35 years. Burbank opened about three years ago, so look how long it took us to be ready to expand. . . . So, I don't know, maybe in the future we'll open another one.

Q: Why is there always a wait at Porto's?

A: I think it's because, again, the quality of the food. We have incredible quality.

Q: But you always seem to have such a long line. Do you have enough employees?

A: Oh yeah, we have enough employees to handle the line.

Q: People sometimes use the beverages-only line to bypass the other lines. How does that affect efficiency?

A: People will do whatever they have to do when it is busy. They'll go in whatever line they can and we take care of them. So the beverage line is supposed to be fast for people who just want drinks. During lunch, let's say there's only two people in the beverage line and we have a long line, we pull you out of the line.

Q: How has the growing popularity of trendy dessert shops — like cupcake stores, frozen yogurt stores — affected business?

A: Competition is good for any business. So whenever we see that somebody's coming out and is going to be bringing competition, it makes us raise our standards.

Q: There's national concern about the so-called obesity epidemic. Do you feel that Porto's food, bakery food, contributes to that problem?

A: It's not so much the bakeries that are making people fat. I think it's the lifestyle, the driving, not walking, the kids sitting in front of TVs because the parents aren't around for hours, and indulging. You eat because you're bored.

Q: Full disclosure: I can't really eat anything at Porto's because I have a gluten deficiency.

A: I'm diabetic. I have the same problem as you.

Q: What? How are you diabetic and you eat all these sweets all the time?

A: Because what I do is I eat little pieces.

 ZAIN SHAUK covers education. He may be reached at (818) 637-3238 or by e-mail at zain.shauk@latimes.com.

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