It's something of a miracle to me, how a cake as soft and moist as a well-made tres leches can still maintain its integrity as, you know, an actual piece of cake, and not dissolve into a soggy mess on your plate. I mean, the thing is practically sodden, and it's served literally sitting in a puddle of milk — and they can last, too! Bring a slab home, stick it in the fridge, and 48 hours or so later it's still as good as new. Amazing.
The secret, apparently, is the lack of butter, so it's light and airy like a sponge cake, but strong enough to hold its shape and texture even under the onslaught of liquids, sweet condensed milk, less-sweet evaporated milk, and enough heavy cream to make you not miss the butter. And if you're craving a piece of the stuff as much as I am after writing this, know that the great Tres Leches Cafe, home of NYC's finest such cake, now has two locations where you can get your fix: the East Harlem original and a newly opened outpost on Orchard Street.
Founded by Ronaldo and Julia Felipe about a dozen years ago on the eastern end of 112th Street, Tres Leches Cafe (subtitled: Por la Gracia de Dios) has held its own during the pandemic, relying on whole-cake orders for most of its business. Which is fortunate, because although there are always single-serving containers available in the case here, it's not exactly bustling with passersby all the way over by First Avenue. The Lower East Side shop should attract more of a walk-in crowd, especially once the spring arrives and people are out drinking and strolling down here again.
These superb slices of Tres Leches Cake are based on Ronaldo's grandmother Maria Nelson's secret family recipe, which he grew up enjoying back in the Dominican Republic. But the Felipes also make an excellent Quatro Leches Cake (the fourth "milk" is the caramel added to the thick whipped topping), as well as versions topped with Guava paste, Pineapple, or Passion Fruit. These three latter desserts offer a pleasant and welcome tartness to go with all that rich cream.
My fellow caramel custard completists will want to try the Flan at Tres Leches, though be warned, this is loaded with sugary syrup beneath the eggy top—there's very little of that burnt-caramel "bite" involved—and probably the sweetest such dessert I've ever eaten. Another option is the Cheesecake, but I would suggest you stick with the bakery's namesake dish.
The original Tres Leches Cafe is located at 356 East 112th Street, near First Avenue, and is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (646-559-0176); the LES Tres Leches is at 160 Orchard Street, between Stanton and Rivington Streets, and is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 to 6:00 ( 917-675-6340, treslechescafe.com)