Sangria and Tres Leches – Lula Cocina Mexicana

lula cocina mexicana, main street, santa monica, ca - sangria
While at UCLA, I took an internship with a large-ish manufacturing and distribution company in LA that, though it was very “normal” corporate and profitable on the outside, on the inside, it was very oddly family-owned and operated. Two brothers and one of their old college buddies were the Cs, various sons, daughters, nieces and nephews were VPs of Stupid Stuff that They Can’t Ruin and Managers of Make Something Up that Will Look Good on a Resume for When They Have to Look for a Real Job, and the entire accounting department was one of the owners’ wives. Yikes. The entire responsibility of balancing the books lay on a slightly mentally unbalanced woman who drove a ridiculously large Lexus truck to the office, presumably to drive her children to and from their very 90210 activities but I think it was for the family’s real princess, a little Yorkie that really could have fit fine inside a Yugo. She was always dressed as though she had just been paged off of Rodeo Drive, and very rarely removed her enormous sunglasses from her head. The wife, that is, not the dog.

Though I poke fun at them as people, I loved working for their company. I would often sit somewhat amused in my tiny cubicle wondering how on earth the company not just stayed afloat, but really flourished, run by this strange hybrid of the Brady Bunch and the Carrington Dynasty. Someone somewhere had to be paying someone else off.

On one day unlike any other day, Mrs. CEO floated into the office as she always does, waving her perfectly manicured nails that somehow mysteriously could do 10-key, shrieking, “Hello! Hello!” and waltzing around the cubicle farm that was her husband’s empire herding us into the tiny fluorescent lit break room to show off…a cake. It was a cake to celebrate something. Maybe a birthday? Maybe an anniversary? I don’t remember because everyone in the office was jockeying their way to a position that would ensure them a big fat slice and I was very intensely focused on trying not to get shoved, elbowed, and pretty much trampled as if it were the running of the bulls. But I caught a glimpse of it – a tall, fluffy, white rectangle.

Mrs. was beaming as she boasted that it was a homemade tres leches cake. Homemade? I certainly was impressed. Homemade. I had no idea Mrs. could bake with those sunglasses on all the time.

Well, she can’t. Their Mexican housekeeper made it. LOL!

It was the first time I had ever heard of pastel de tres leches, the simple sponge cake of Central American origin that is soaked with heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk (hence, the name “three milks”). I thought it was odd that when I had stepped up to the table where Mrs. was now cutting and serving the cake, a creamy white liquid was seeping out from under the cake. But when I tasted it, my tastebuds were falling all over themselves for the fluffy meringue frosting and soft cake dripping with sweetness. It was incredible. From that moment, I was in love with tres leches cake.

lula cocina mexicana, main street, santa monica, ca - tequila
just looking at that shelf makes my hour happy
lula cocina mexicana, main street, santa monica, ca - sangria
watch it now, adam – it might be fruit, but it’s still poison

Many Mexican restaurants serve flan, but only a select few have pastel de tres leches. Since that internship, I’ve tried my hand at home baking tres leches once (I’ll just have to wait until I can afford my own Mexican housekeeper), had it a few times at La Serenata Gourmet, and didn’t know until just recently that Lula, one of my favorite “Mexican” restaurants in Santa Monica serves it. It’s very rare to ever think about dessert after a Mexican meal that includes getting full on chips, salsa, and guacamole even before ordering the main event, then proceeding to gorge oneself on beans, rice, and whatever happens to be stuffed inside tortillas. But we had just come in for our own personal late happy hour, and had only snacked, leaving room for dessert – tres leches, baby.

lula cocina mexicana, main street, santa monica, ca - pastel de tres leches
maybe tres leches on the plate, but not on the palate

Lula’s tres leches cake looks very different from all the others I have had, which were thick, very light white, drippy slices cut from a larger cake. This one was a small, individual cake, shaped like a miniature Bundt, no meringue frosting, drizzled with caramel, and served with a tiny scoop if vanilla ice cream. The outside of the cake was dark brown, and cutting into it with my fork revealed a fairly dense, medium tan colored cake inside. It looked pretty on the plate, but it didn’t look (or feel) like tres leches. I was skeptical.

Sadly, it didn’t taste like tres leches. Tres leches cake is made with a light, plain sponge cake that is fairly dry when first baked, which works to soak up the milk syrup. This cake was dense and heavy like a pound cake and dry because it didn’t seem like it had soaked up any sort of milky syrup. Instead of tasting like sweet cream, there was a strong caramel flavor in the cake part, which was apart from the actual caramel that had been drizzled all over the cake. If it was just meant to be “cake,” it was okay, but it was meant to be “tres leches” so it was *sigh* just wrong.

Oh well. I can live with Lula’s chips, salsa, and margaritas. Now where am I going to find a Mexican housekeeper?!?!

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  • sarah

    actually, tres leches wouldn’t work as a babycake unless they are baked in tiny ramekins of something more sturdy than simple baking cups to hold the milk syrup, which is quite liquidy. that’s why i was even surprised that lula was serving it as a small individul cake.

    when it’s baked as a single large cake, it’s usually left in the baking dish (la serenata’s cake is baked in a deep wide bowl) or has to be served right away if the cake is set on a plate first then soaked.

  • stef

    hi sarah, i’m a new reader and found my way here through “life begins at 30” :) it’s such a wonderful coincidence that i baked my own tres leches cake this weekend for a dinner party that was serving latin american food. it was a hit but mostly because it’s so simple. i cheated and baked a white cake mix [i used whole eggs, not just whites though]. then i mixed evap milk, condensed milk, cream and some rum. then i iced the cake with some whipped cream. it was quite yummy if i may say so myself :) but my point is that, it’s a simple but very delicious cake. i served mine with sliced kiwis.

    i have heard that tres leches can be baked in a big bundt pan and would work well.

  • sarah

    hi stef! you’re new here – but i vist you over at da*xiang all the time, lol!

    did using the whhole eggs make the cake really moist, though? i always imagine that tres leches does well because the actual cake part has to be pretty dry in order to soak up the milk syrup.

    ah well, i will probably also try again, but for now, can you send me a slice of yours? LOL! :)

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