A Piece of Cake: Tres Leches

Creamy, light and just sweet enough, tres leches cake is a splendid, springtime dessert and finding a slice in the Crescent City is as easy as . . . cake!

Made with an airy, eggy sponge and three kinds of milk, tres leches cake (a.k.a. pan tres leches) is a wondrous Latin American dessert which is both delicate and rich at the same time. Many countries claim to be the home of the tres leches cake, from El Salvador and Nicaragua to Argentina, Cuba and Columbia. But all we know for sure is the recipe popped up, alongside the advent of canned milks, sometime in the 1940s. It started becoming popular in the U.S. sometime in the early 80s, specifically in Miami where it began appearing on local menus in the Latino and Hispanic community.

These days, you can find tres leches cakes anywhere, from Honduran cafes and Dominican restaurants, to taco stands and bakeries. But how do you choose? The mark of a great tres leches is found in its airy sponge and moist, but not soggy, texture. It’s a cake that should never be dry or sitting in a big puddle. It should burst with the flavor of lightly sweetened milk, a rich, creamy bite of bliss just begging for another.

Uptown on Magazine Street, chef/owner Edgar Caro has been delighting diners with his Latin-Caribbean cuisine since 2007 at Baru Bistro & Tapas. Most diners only have to spend one warm, Spring evening, kicking back at a comfortable table on the balcony, sipping a sweet caipirinha and munching on their signature pulled pork arepas to fall in love with this neighborhood gem. Topping off the evening should include a pristine square of Baru’s tres — or should we say cuatro leches cake? “We use four forms of milk; evaporated, condensed, whole milk and media crema,” says Caro. “It makes our tres leches cake succulent, richer and irresistible – the way it should be!” This fruit-topped cream of the crop will set you back $10, but it’s worth every bite.

Mais Arepas

One of a minuscule number of Colombian restaurants in New Orleans, Mais Arepas is an incredibly popular spot for an affordable, and tasty, lunch, dinner . . . and dessert. Located a block off St. Charles Avenue on the corner of Carondolet and Clio (AKA CL10), this restaurant is known (obviously) for its thick, fluffy, corn flour arepa served stuffed with everything from skirt steak and sweet plantains, to chorizo, Gulf shrimp and pulled pork – almost all of which are $15 and under. Ringing in at only $8, the tres leches at Mais Arepas is not only sweet, cool and creamy, it’s completely gluten free! Owner David Mantilla, former business partner Edgar Caro of the above-mentioned Baru, has spent years perfecting their gluten-free version of tres leches and was unwilling to reveal their secret recipe, but who can blame them? Just go, eat, and be happy.

Alma Cafe

After opening in a “cursed” location in Bywater during the pandemic, and surviving, Alma Cafe should not only be on your radar, it should be in your regular restaurant rotation. Owned and operated by Chef Melissa Arujo, a local industry vet who has worked in kitchens such as Susan Spicer’s now-defunct Mondo and Restaurant R’evolution, launched the neighborhood joint featuring Honduran cuisine in Fall of 2020. Open for breakfast and lunch, Alma’s menu is always changing with dishes like ground beef enchiladas with green cabbage and sliced boiled egg, chorizo and cheese pupusas, and (if you can get there early enough) house made, sweet cemitas with a cookie-like crust. Though it’s not always on the menu, consider yourself blessed if you can score a massive slice of Arujo’s tres leches made with yellow cake (as opposed to sponge), a blend of aromatic spices (aka “old family secrets”), and topped with burnt meringue.

Maya’s Restaurant

Opened in 2007, Maya’s Restaurant on Magazine Street has always seemed to fall under the food media radar, though the reason why is a mystery. Born in Honduras, co-owner and chef Edgar Irias does a spectacular job serving up plates of mahi ceviche with jicama and avocado, bean and chorizo empanadas, shrimp and crab meat tostones, and roasted Chilean seabass. Though the prices are a tad high overall, Irias’ tres leches cake is still under budget, a gorgeous, spongy Nicaraguan version steeped in milky goodness and drizzled with strawberry coulis.

La Providencia

On the other side of the Mississippi River, La Providencia is a stand alone Mexican restaurant serving flautas, nopales, fajitas and pupusas to Westbank denizens since 2014. This Belle Chasse Highway spot offers huge plates of chicken mole, pork and cheese tamales, and massive bowls of pozole for well under budget, so you’ll have plenty of pesos left over for their creamy tres leches, topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry, which will only set you back $3.99! They also make a killer flan for the same price, so you might as well get both.

We’re ending this tres leches tour at Val’s, a taco stand by CureCo opened during the pandemic in June of 2020. Located on the busy Freret Street corridor, the vintage service station-turned restaurant offers a simple menu of tacos, corn chips and salsa, guacamole, and queso along with a slew of specialty cocktails as only the folks at Cure can create. Along with churros and chocolate flan, Chef Alfredo Nogueria also offers an incredible tres leches cake for $9 a slice. “The cake is a chiffon cake that we make in house, and take great pride in,” says Nogueria. “I am a lifelong fan of tres leches and have done many iterations over the years.” Topped with Louisiana strawberries and served in the Louisiana sunshine, it’s a sweet, springtime adventure you should experience at least once.

*Article originally published in the April 2023 issue of Where Y’at Magazine

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