Frontera Grill’s Rick Bayless gets spicy with snacks (and an unbeatable tres leches cake) in Pilsen.
Soon, he’s on his way to Kristoffer’s Cafe (1733 S Halsted St, 312-829-4150), a coffee shop/bakery he has been tipped off to by a friend. The tres leches cake is rumored to be great, but now, looking at the menu, Bayless is a little dubious. There are all kinds of three-milks (condensed, evaporated and regular) cake here, some in sacrilegious variations—flavors like eggnog, caramel, piña colada and Kahlua. “Here in the United States we tend to want 31 flavors of everything,” he mutters.
But when he sees that Kristoffer’s serves chocoflan, he practically melts. “Chocoflan,” he says longingly. “I didn’t see that!” Bayless is more than familiar with chocoflan, though in his world it’s called pastel imposible (impossible cake). The dish conglomerates chocolate cake and flan, but here’s the impossible part: Though the cake starts at the bottom of the pan, and the flan on top, the two flip-flop during the baking process, resulting in a pastel where the chocolate is on top and flan is on the bottom. It’s a huge hit on Bayless’s TV show, so he has to try a piece here, as well as a slice of traditional tres leches and—what the hell—a Kahlua-flavored slice, too.
He swoons at the first taste of chocoflan. And the tres leches—it isn’t good, it’s more than good. It is sumptuous without being soggy, satisfying without being overly sweet. Bayless sits at the table and falls into deep thought, forking cake into his mouth in silence. Finally, he walks up to the counter and asks to speak to the couple who own the place. He doesn’t have to introduce himself—they’ve been excited since he walked in. Now, as he gets ready to address them, they hold on to each other in nervous anticipation.
“I’ve eaten a lot of tres leches in Mexico,” he tells them. “And this—this is the best one I’ve ever had.”
Chicago Tribune July '05
Kristoffer's is a sweet stop in Chicago Arts District
By Donna Pierce
Tribune staff reporter
July 28, 2005
First impressions: Kristoffer's Cafe & Bakery is located amid the gallery and studio spaces of the Chicago Arts District. There's jazz on the radio. Three fans sweep just below a painted tin ceiling. The atmosphere is casual with tables placed far enough apart for a private conversation. If you're dining solo or sharing quiet time with dessert and coffee, pick up an interesting read from the bookshelf tucked along a back wall. Bring along a trade-in book and you won't have to worry about finishing.
On the plate: The multicultural menu including French toast, bagels and huevos rancheros, grilled cheese, banana-leaf wrapped Mayan tamales, corn-husk wrapped Mexican tamales and German chocolate cake has one common denominator: simple dishes made with fresh ingredients.
At your service: There wasn't a crowd during a recent visit, when the counter help (who couldn't have been more courteous or friendly) also spent time performing cashier, busboy and waiter duties. Turns out, the nice guy behind the counter, Carlos Chavarria, owns the cafe and bakery with his wife Cristina.(It's named for their 3-year-old son.)
Second helpings: Fresh chips with homemade pico de gallo and guacamole made fresh just after we ordered, were top-notch starters best described as refreshingly light and uncomplicated. Kudos, as well, for both the spinach quesadilla and the poblano-spiced Mexican tamales.
We shared everything at our table and couldn't reach a consensus about dishes until it came to the cafe specialty: desserts so luscious, folks in the food biz with names you would recognize have been known to book the spot for private parties. After the first delicious bite, no one at our table wanted to share the unforgettable tres leches or either the chocolate- or cheese-flavored flan.
Take a pass: If you're not a risk-taker, you may be put off by the tuna melt interpretation, which does not relate to the American diner version. Instead, it's melted cheese (American, mozzarella or muenster) toast with a cold tuna salad filling.
Thirst quenchers: Intelligensia coffee, apple cider, orange juice, tea, bottled water.
Extras: Free Wi-Fi access, weekend music, chess, checkers, dominos, whole cakes available, patio.
Price range: breakfast $3.99-$5.50; sandwiches, $3.75-$5.50; main courses, $5.50-$8; side dishes, $1.55-$4.50; desserts, $3; drinks, $1-$3.50.
Kristoffer's Cafe & Bakery
1733 South Halsted
Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon-Fri., 9 a.m.-5p.m. Sat. and
Sun Credit cards: A, D M, V
Noise: Conversation friendly Delivery: yes
Wheels plus: Pick out cool gear while you arrange to have your two-wheeler repaired. Or shop for a new or used ride at Irv's Bike Shop (1725 S. Racine Ave.; 312-226-6330).
Sampling culture: Expand your horizons at Casa Aztlan (1831 S. Racine Ave., 312-666-5508), a Mexican-American community cultural center showcasing Mexican traditions with children's programs, exhibitions and workshops.
Ratings key: 4 forks, don't miss it; 3 forks, one of the best; 2 forks; very good; 1 fork, good
Reviews are based on anonymous visits by Tribune staff members; meals are paid for by the Tribune.
Red Eye February '05
Red Eye Centerstage
No worries, tres leches cake has three.
Misty Tosh February 16, 2005
Sweets are such a mortal sin for me. I can never enjoy just one slice of dessert; it has to be a full shove down of half the cake No, it can't be a simple scoop of ice cream: Let's go with the gigantor-size banana split, extra caramel, extra chocolate.
That's always been my sick style and maybe it's because most cakes, cookies and pies aren't that satisfying, mostly made up of phony icing, cake box mixes and icky canned fruit. They always leave me in a rage and wanting more. But this is not the case with what God created as the queen bee, master of all master desserts, the incomparable tres leches cake.
Sadly, the best I've ever tasted is a plane ride away, at a small Latin restaurant in the Chelsea area of Manhattan, tucked away in a tiny hideaway called El Cocotero. When the sultry waiter presented it, I panicked for a second because it was cut into a square shape, and I'd only ever associated the wonder with a wedge-style version. But after one bite, I ripped it away from my dining buddy and practically shrieked, "Get your own damn cake!" I went back four times over the course of the week (solely for the cake, of course), and I loved the way they sprinkled fresh summer berries over the homemade whipped cream topping.
Tres leche cake...milky good. Nothing in Chicago has even remotely compared to the NYC version, but I have come impressively close at my newest haunt, Kristoffer's Cafe and Bakery. Located right in the heart of Pilsen, Kristoffer's has cornered the three-milk market for me. Served several different ways (vanilla, chocolate, coconut, caramel and Kaluah), this super little South Side find has pretty much perfected tres leches cake.
This intensely moist and buttery cake is soaked in three different kinds of milk, usually sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. (Of course, like most incredible bakers, owner/baker Cristina Chavarria will not commit to any certain milk for the recipe, and just pulls the 'ole one-two, half nod, half shake move. I'm sure she's terrified that tres leches thieves are on the make.) Then, coated with homemade whipped cream (I had the Kaluah flavored version), it's tossed in the refrigerator for hours until it has properly absorbed the milk. When it finally hits the table, the chilled cake has a heavenly sponge-like texture, almost slurpably wet with sweetened milk.
It'll literally leave your mouth agape with its unique taste. The kaluah coffee flavor only pops out slightly in the whipped topping, and the final kablamm! in your mouth is at the end, when the little coffee bean pops and crunches around with the moist cake, the oozing sugared milk and the velvety whipped cream. Bring on the milk.
The Final Rave: Seriously, in addition to the cake, order a cool dozen tamales while you're there. They come out smoking hot, packed with cheese and bundled in a cornhusk. Just $1.50 each and hauntingly addictive.