You can have your cake and eat it, too

Tres leches cake is a trendy, traditional Mexican dessert designed for springtime munching.

by Grant Tillery

With Cinco de Mayo and picnic season right around the corner, the slippery sugariness of tres leches cake is beckoning diners across the Americas to order dessert. Long a staple of Mexican bakeries, the decadent sponge cake has popped up in haute restaurants and neighborhood cafes in the past few years. The cake’s sweet dampness is its main appeal — condensed milk, evaporated milk and half-and-half are added to cake mix to give tres leches its velvety texture.

But do the nouveau variants of tres leches stand up to their traditional counterparts? A&E pitted four of the Cities’ best tres leches against each other to find out.


Durango Bakery

Walking into Durango Bakery evokes the Hostess bread shops of yore. The pint-sized storefront’s walls are lined with cases, the denizens of which are brightly colored pastries and traditional Mexican breads.

The complexion of Durango Bakery’s tres leches is nondescript. A syrupy cherry is haphazardly slapped on top of a beige cake that looks like it came from Costco, sans colorful icing. The only giveaway that it’s tres leches is the milk dripping down the sides of the cake.

The taste, however, gets better after every bite. The frosting is a generic Cool Whip knockoff and leaves little to be desired. Ditto the cake’s edges that give away its Betty Crocker cake mix origins. But the marvelously milky interior was the best of the four, subtle at first, intensifying with each bite.


French Meadow Bakery & Cafe

French Meadow’s tres leches has all the underpinnings of a top-notch cake. The ingredients were given considerably more attention here than at the other panaderías. The Irish cream-infused whipped cream is real, a welcome relief from the corn syrup-laden iterations. Coconut milk replaces evaporated milk, adding meatiness, heft and the occasional coconut shred to the cake.

Where French Meadow’s version falls flat is that it’s not really a tres leches cake. The cake was too dry to be authentic, and the texture felt like the product of a brief, tumultuous love affair between sponge and pound cake. Though the additions of coconut milk and Irish cream are novel, they assail tradition to the point where the cake should be renamed.


Panaderia El Mexicano

This local stronghold has hawked dulces and pasteles for years, with outposts at both Midtown Global Market and Mercado Central. It’s a tad surprising then that El Mexicano’s tres leches was by far the weakest of the pack.

Though the cake’s wet texture was ideal, it was inexplicably bland. The cake mix to milk ratio was imbalanced, favoring the former, and the condensed milk was undetectable at times. The topping made Durango’s seem upscale and was further hurt by an unnecessary addition of chocolate stripes, which added nothing to its taste or appearance.


Cafe Latté

If whipped cream alone were the barometer of stellar tres leches, Cafe Latté’s would take the cake. Their offering is a whipped cream lover’s paradise. The sublime house-made topping is addictive and functions as the cake’s base, topping and middle layers.

But whipped cream is, unfortunately, the most negligible aspect of traditional tres leches. Cafe Latté’s sponge cake base is delicious and obviously not from a box but lacks the sweet aria sung by a hefty dose of condensed milk. The evaporated milk’s flavors are muted as well, overpowered by the heaping avalanches of whipped cream. Flavor wise, the cake is delicious, but like French Meadow’s tres leches, eschews authenticity for sumptuousness.


The Winner

Durango Bakery edges out Cafe Latté and French Meadow’s offerings by a hair; El Mexicano’s came in dead last. Though the frosting and mix was suspect, Durango’s liberal use of condensed milk cemented its authenticity and flavor. If Durango’s recipe were combined with Cafe Latté’s quality ingredients, that would make for the best tres leches in town.