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The Best Made Flans

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Lactose intolerants, consider yourselves warned. The tastiest dessert at Kristoffer's Cafe and Bakery in Pilsen is the traditional Mexican tres leches cake, made with whole, condensed, and evaporated milk. Owners Carlos and Cristina Chavarria offer the classic vanilla rendition as well as a bouquet of variations, all startlingly moist but not too sweet: chocolate, hazelnut, Kahlua, and the recently introduced "coconut paradise."

Cristina does the cafe's baking, something she learned while apprenticing at her sister's small home-based bakery in Guanajuato, Mexico, last year. (Cristina has lived in the States since the 70s, as has her husband, who's originally from El Salvador.) She uses her sister's tres leches recipe. "I was very lucky that she decided to share it with me," Cristina says. "She's a perfectionist when it comes to her cakes. I did not touch her recipe. I've added new flavors, but the actual cake is the same."

But the recipe for Cristina's favorite dessert, flan with cheese, is her own creation. "This is my baby here," she says, pulling up a golden slice. It's made with cream cheese and has an almost fluffy texture, like flan-flavored cheesecake. When Carlos asks for a taste, she shakes her head and laughs. "You know when it comes to my cheese flan, I don't share!" she says, but forks over a bite anyway.

The couple opened Kristoffer's in November after several frustrating months trying to sell their cakes to restaurants and bakeries in the northwestern suburbs, where they lived. But most of their neighbors were unfamiliar with traditional ethnic desserts. "There are some Mexican restaurants, but they showcase nontraditional Mexican pastries, like fried ice cream," Carlos says. Even restaurants familiar with tres leches cake weren't used to a version like Cristina's, which is frosted with only a thin coating of semisweet chocolate. "I'd say 95 percent of all tres leches cakes here in Chicago have very thick icing--between one inch and three inches," Carlos says. "But when you carve through the icing to get to the actual cake, it loses its flavor. The quality of our cake, it's three times better than theirs." He gives the tight smile of someone about to deliver an unfortunate truth. "In some cases, theirs is frozen."

When his customers want to order lavishly decorated cakes, Carlos obliges, but he also tells them, "If you really want to enjoy a good cake, you don't need to dress it up. It's the same way I feel about coffee. I do offer a variety of syrup flavors, but a good coffee connoisseur does not use syrup. Our coffee doesn't need dressing up. Our cakes don't need dressing up."

Cristina smiles. "Carlos is very smart," she says.

"Me?" Carlos says, startled. "I'm not smart."

The cafe's atmosphere is quiet but cheerful. Patrons are welcome to take a book from a case in the corner as long as they leave one in its place. Wi-Fi access is free for customers who bring their laptops. There's also a chessboard--eventually, Carlos says, they'll host tournaments for chess clubs from local schools. Each month the cafe displays the work of a different local artist, and every other Friday there's live music from 7 to 10 PM. Poet and critic Vittorio Carli hosts an open mike on the second and last Friday of each month. And the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum's radio station, Radio Arte, makes occasional live broadcasts from the cafe.

Besides breakfast, desserts, and Intelligentsia coffee, the menu offers standard sandwiches and salads, plus a couple of ethnic dishes. Tamales come in two forms: Mayan (wrapped in wet green banana leaves and filled with potatoes and pork or chicken) and Mexican (bundled in the usual corn husks and stuffed with green peppers and cheese). Another variation on an ethnic standard, called "chocoflan," doesn't fare as well as its cheesified cousin. Made by fusing plain flan to a layer of chocolate cake, it's disappointingly gummy. For dessert, stick to tres leches or try one of the other cakes on offer, like German chocolate, cappuccino, or carrot.

The Chavarrias moved to Pilsen in January. They hope their business has found its niche there--and that they've found their niche as cafe owners. Carlos is a former Fortune 500 business analyst; Cristina was an executive secretary until the birth of their son (for whom the cafe was named) nearly two years ago. "I was ready for a change," says Cristina.

"Our true calling lies in cakes, I think," Carlos adds. "And coffee."

Kristoffer's Cafe and Bakery is at 1733 S. Halsted, 312-829-4150.

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