The gauntlet was thrown down by our Dave Lieberman, who responded to my post about Porto's Bakery and its cheese rolls with a comment, nay, a challenge: "The cheese rolls at Tropicana Bakery (also in Downey) blow Porto's out of the water. I just bought some today for a meeting--they were hot out of the oven and it was perfection writ pastry."
That was a few months ago, but Dave recently reminded me that this was as good a subject for a Dueling Dishes as any we've ever done.
In order to conduct a fair fight, I had to consume them both within minutes of the oven. Key to a cheese roll is freshness. Nothing less than a side-by-side showdown would do.
Porto's was as packed as it ever was that day, resembling the chaos of a busy LAX terminal. Employees directed the hordes like traffic. There were zig-zagging queues of bodies. Orders of freshly pressed Cuban sandwiches found their way to their destinations directed by agents wearing earpieces.
Tropicana, on the other hand, couldn't be more different. There were fewer people, which is not to say it wasn't busy--just not "Porto's busy". This is the kind of neighborhood bakery that recalls those I've been to at Miami's Calle Ocho, with the mambo music blasting from outside speakers and everyone behind the counter wearing Cuban-style fedoras made of straw. The owner addressed me warmly as "honey" and she meant it. Given the opportunity, she'd pinch my cheeks and tuck me in for the night. She warned me, like a mother would, not to touch the pastry she packed away in a box for a few minutes. She had just taken it out of the oven, she said, and it was still too hot.
Where Porto's was coldly corporate, Tropicana was organic and cozy. I immediately liked Tropicana.
The glaring differences between Downey's two Cuban bakeries extended to the subject of this post itself: the cheese rolls.
Tropicana's cheese rolls were wider and taller. Side-by-side, it was like the poster for Twins: the baked goods embodiment of Schwarzenegger and DeVito. Tropicana's pastry were folded at the corners to hug the cheese filling rather than completely encapsulating it like Porto's. The sugar crusting they use is of a bigger grain than Porto's. And for dozen, Tropicana levies $10.68 while Porto's charges $8.55.
But while I love Porto's cheese rolls, I only liked Tropicana's.
As I've said before, Porto's cheese rolls are a wonder rhombus of flakiness, the cheese danish of the Gods. The sugar dusting on the top crackled 'neath our teeth, the layers of crispness parting in shards, and the salty/sweet/savory cheese oozing out the sides like halted lava flow, the soft landing we needed. Our eyes rolled back into our heads. Baked goods don't get more orgasmic than this.
Despite its bigger girth, Tropicana's had smaller flavor. Tasting one after tasting Porto's was as jarring as going from a sauna to a freezer. The taste differential was overwhelming...in Porto's favor. In Tropicana's there was richness but it was not followed by the sweet, the savory, and the soul that Porto's smaller frame had in excess. Tropicana's pastry was merely a vessel, crispy but not much else; and the cheese was also bland by comparison--the difference between unsalted and salted butter.
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My two fellow taste testers agreed. We fought over who gets to eat the last of the Porto's dozen and but was rather relieved that an oversight gave us only ten in Tropicana's box and not the dozen we paid for.
Readers, do not take this to be the final word on whether you should go to one Cuban bakery or the other. In fact, take it as an invitation to conduct your own cheese roll challenge. And for goodness sake, try something else, also. You've driven to Downey already.
Porto's Bakery & Cafe, 8233 Firestone Blvd., Downey, CA 90241, (562) 862-8888; Tropicana Bakery & Cuban Café, 10218 Paramount Blvd., Downey, CA 90241, (562) 806-8343