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Friday, Jun 14, 2024

Creating Roots in Glendale

Some of Southern California’s best empanadas can be found in Glendale.

The same can be said of pupusas, arepas, ceviche and ropa vieja. In downtown and south Glendale – a city known today for its distinctive Armenian identity – you will find a healthy offering of restaurants, bakeries and shops – small, thriving businesses – representing a wide swath of Latin America. One of those mom-and-pop originals – Porto’s Bakery and Café – took off from there, becoming a household L.A. name whose signature yellow pastry boxes are often the price of admission for house parties.

“Food brings people together. The love for food, the love for making food, the love for sharing food. There’s no dividing food,” says Beatriz “Betty” Porto, daughter of the namesake founders and one of the company’s co-owners. “It’s really cool to be working in an environment where you make people fall in love with the world, without going anywhere.”

To some, the proliferation of eateries has become an interesting part of the so-called Jewel City, a noteworthy characteristic of the county’s fourth largest municipality. Latino and Hispanic restaurants have taken off on a national basis – a Pew Research Center analysis this year found that 10% of U.S. restaurants serve Mexican food. Los Angeles County boasted nearly 5,500 Mexican restaurants at the time, leading the nation by a wide margin and composing nearly a third of California’s Mexican restaurants.

Porto’s in Glendale.

On why there are several very specific Latino outposts in the city, some see it as indicative of historic migration patterns among immigrant communities here.

“Glendale’s a very interesting place,” says Jorge Leal, a cultural and urban historian with the University of California, Riverside. “It’s suburban but it’s also central enough to
Los Angeles. The location has allowed people from the Valley, as well as people venturing from Central Los Angeles up north, to say ‘we’re going into town.’”

Porto’s drives people to Glendale

Formed in 1976 by Cuban immigrants, the Porto family’s first bakery moved from Silver Lake to Glendale shortly thereafter – in part because of a good deal on a location and also because a good number of other immigrants from the Caribbean nation lived in the area at the time.

“That area got kind of iffy, and my dad was afraid for our safety,” recalls Porto. “We would get out at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and the element that was hanging around wasn’t the best, so that’s why we moved to Glendale.”

El Morfi Grill’s Rene Vildoza with a plate of some of his eatery’s offerings.

The business moved into a 3,000-square-foot bakery on Brand Boulevard, a serious upgrade from the 600 square feet the family occupied off of Sunset Boulevard. The prior owner had trouble doing business at the bakery, Porto says, both because of the lack of meaningful foot traffic in what was then a sleepy downtown Glendale and ongoing street repair work in the area.

“But we didn’t depend on foot traffic because we had a clientele – mostly Cubans who lived in Atwater (Village) and some areas of Glendale – so they followed us. They knew us. It was a huge population around Glendale. Our people would come through the back, enter the back of the bakery. That’s how we did it while everyone else was going out of business.”

Porto’s has taken off dramatically from those early days. The company moved across the street to accommodate construction of a high-rise, for the first time owning property (and at a serious deal, thanks to the 1980s recession). It has since added five other stores in the county – including in Burbank and Northridge – and is planning to open a sixth at Downtown Disney.

Other eateries also see success 

A block away, El Morfi Grill has been serving up delicious Argentinian lunches and dinners since 1991.

Brothers Rene and Jorge Vildoza started the restaurant about a dozen years after immigrating from Buenos Aires. Rene Vildoza, who still manages El Morfi, brought along the business acumen he learned from growing up in his father’s deli, while Jorge Vildoza – who died in 2018 and had moved back to Argentina – was the brains in the kitchen, the one who helped develop the restaurant’s signature chimichurri sauce.

“He was a really good cook. He was the family cook, the one to cook for everyone,” Rene Vildoza says of his brother.

At the start, the customer base for El Morfi – a phrase akin to enthusiastically declaring, “this is it!” – was “100% Argentinian,” Vildoza says. While that clientele has significantly diversified since, Vildoza speaks with fondness as he brings up the generational customers he has.

“I’ve got families who started to come in 1991, and they’ve got kids then. And now, they’re 40, and they bring their own families,” he says. “I see that a lot. That makes me feel great. People really like this place.”

These two eateries are among many dotting downtown and South Glendale, a fact that does not escape the Glendale Latino Association. The group maintains a map detailing all of the locations of Caribbean, Central American and South American food outposts in the city and has put on “food crawls” to highlight the restaurants.

Near Porto’s and El Morfi, you also have Lola’s Peruvian and Natalie Peruvian Seafood; Cariaco, a Venezuelan bodega; El Sabrosito, a Salvadoran pupuseria; and a wide range of Mexican and Mexican-fusion options. This, Porto said, reflects the onetime ease in getting a food joint off the ground.

“When we opened, it was easy because you didn’t need a lot of capital. That’s why you see so many Mexican Americans have all of these mom-and-pops,” she said. “They’re easy to open. You need a mom and dad, two or three people. We started with my mom, my grandmother and my dad.”

Finding areas with high immigrant populations

Leal, at UC Riverside, isn’t surprised by this. Having grown up in neighboring Glassell Park, Leal said his family often gravitated toward Glendale for their outings, “as opposed to areas that are more traditionally Mexican.” In line with the Porto’s family’s story, Cuban exiles who did not land in Florida came to L.A., where they first took up in the Echo Park area, shifted to Atwater Village and Glendale as they built wealth, and then on to places like Northridge.

“Immigrants do that. They follow other immigrants,” Porto said. “We knew there was a lot of Cubans in this area.”

Additionally, Leal says, Glendale became home to nightclubs and bars that catered to Latino nightlife as a complement to daytime amenities like restaurants. He says the city developed a “pan Latino” identity, particularly in South Glendale as predominantly white residents moved out; the city was, infamously, a “sundown town” for decades, so-called because non-whites who remained in town after working hours risked their safety. The city formally acknowledged and apologized for this in 2020.

“The reason that more Latinos were able to begin residing in Glendale was because of white flight,” Leal says. “They started moving out and stopped renting homes and apartments, so Latinos moved into these parts where they could afford.”

Now, he says, housing costs have forced working class families – many of them Latino – into other parts of the county. Still, Glendale has enough draw to pull them back in for work and play. There are many second- and third-generation customers at longstanding places like Porto’s and El Morfi. And the 2020 U.S. Census showed that about 19% of Glendale’s population was Hispanic or Latino.

“Food connects people to their cultural background and origins, but also it creates new memories. It’s kind of like that ‘Ratatouille’ moment,” Leal says, referencing a scene in the iconic Pixar film when the coldhearted food critic is warmed by the familiarity of a dish of ratatouille. “These restaurants have a possibility to create new memories for people. I think that Glendale might be more of a destination, because of the cost of living in Glendale. That has happened with different groups of Latinos in Los Angeles.”

James Brock
James Brock
James Brock has worked in newsrooms around the world, including in New York, Paris, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Houston, and Los Angeles. He began his career with a Newhouse News daily, where he served on the news desk and the editorial page. He was the copy chief for The New York Sun, and founded and edited the personal finance section for Abu Dhabi-based The National, among other positions. He has interviewed Anthony Bourdain, Tom Ford, Mark Cuban, and many other individuals, and has written and edited thousands of stories and articles.

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