Five to Try: Tres Leches

From the moment we first tried it, tres leches has monopolized a decent-size spot in our hearts previously reserved for chocolate. This originally Nicaraguan dessert is a vanilla sponge cake full of tiny, tasty air bubbles and topped with an incredible combination of three milks: evaporated, sweetened condensed, and whole milk or cream. The distinct texture, as holey and odd as it is, explains why the cake never gets soggy, despite being soaked in rich liquids.

As a dessert, tres leches provides just the right amounts of sweetness and splendor. But it's so loaded with calcium that we often like to consider it breakfast fare (don't judge!). The cake is moist without mush, light without air, an angel without wings. Calorie-wise, it's not health food by any twist of the lens, but it sure is a mighty fine way to finish a meal.

In a quest to find the best tres leches in town, we recently hosted a small blind tasting featuring the perennial city favorites. Here's what we learned.

5) Escalante's Escalante's serves up a beautiful-looking tres leches that's topped with a generous beat of shaved chocolate. While the gesture looks nice and all, we found that the chocolate's bittersweetness overpowers the inherent simplicity of the vanilla cake. (Should we tell them that vanilla and chocolate only work together in Neapolitan ice cream and Dairy Queen dip cones?) Even after we scraped the shavings off, however, this lackluster cake failed to impress. And at $7, Escalante's version of tres leches costs double the others, so we see no reason to place this piece anywhere but last.

4) 100% Taquito When you place your Tres Leches order at 100% Taquito, the chica behind the counter asks a simple question: Would you like caramel on top? And the answer -- obviously -- is yes. Laden with magically gigantor air pockets, the cake here is certainly the spongiest of the lot. But while we expected great things at the outset, the milk mixture is overly thin and doesn't soak into the cake quite right, leaving you with a filthy, runny mess. The caramel steps up the flavor punch, but it can't hide a downtrodden consistency that's moist on the bottom and dry on top.

3) El Bolillo The famed Mexican bakery on Airline knows how to do tres leches. Every day El Bolillo serves up multiple versions -- plain, peach, mixed berry, pineapple -- each better and brighter than the last. Wander in for a single-serve piece, or call ahead to pick up an entire sheet, decorated up and personalized to your liking. The cake itself is great, and the fruit provides a unique kick. But the whipped topping tastes a little like Twinkie filling, which knocked it down a few points. Even so, this is a cake you'd be proud to serve to family or friends.

2) La Guadalupana Shoehorned in a tiny spot next to a washateria on Dunlavy sits La Guadalupana, a bright, welcoming space that serves the freshest Mexican food around. Make sure you save room for dessert, though -- Owner Trancito Diaz, a former pastry chef at the Houston Country Club, bakes his tres leches with loads of vanilla to the perfect consistency. The thin layer of frosting is sweet without being overpowering. The word that comes to mind is clean -- this version is not loaded down with conflicting flavors. It is a simple, straightforward, and true version of the classic.

1) Amazon The Cordua family markets its fantastic tres leches at Amazon, Churrascos and Americas. For this reason, we didn't *want* to love it. We didn't want our favorite version to be from a culinary mogul. We didn't want to lick the plate in silent desperation when this was the first piece finished. We didn't want to be the nearly unanimous top pick. Really, we didn't. But Churrascos put tres leches on the map in Houston, taking the now-popular dessert into the mainstream some 20 years ago, and the first is still the best. The rich milk mixture is thicker than the others, giving it tremendous staying power, and the cake is a spongy dream. This? Is how dessert should be.

Any others we need to try?

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Ruthie Johnson
Contact: Ruthie Johnson