Portuguese egg tarts, or pastéis de nata, have been an obsession of mine since I first discovered them in Macau.
When my husband and I lived in Beijing from 2011 to 2014, we were quickly severed from the American world of sweet desserts. Instead, we found ourselves living in the land of red-bean filling. Bite into a dessert, see the dark center and think, mmmm, chocolate. But nope — without fail, the filling was actually bean puree. And don’t get me started on dry, flavorless mooncakes, served during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Then we visited Macau. The Portuguese colonized Macau in 1557, and although China now runs this region near Hong Kong on the southern edge of China, the place retains its Portuguese character.
It was love at first taste for the pastel de nata — a custard tart in a puff pastry, small enough to hold in the palm of your hand but satisfying enough to serve as a breakfast treat, afternoon snack or dessert. Not too sweet, but sweet enough, pastéis de nata (the plural form) feature egg-yolk custard filling with a lightly broiled top. When it’s fresh, you take a bite, and you have A Moment.
More recently, my husband and I decided to visit Portugal, home of pastéis de nata. I’m not saying we went to Portugal expressly to eat them, but I wouldn’t deny it either. I also wouldn’t deny that to make it more interesting, I announced that we were on a one-week quest to find the best.
Jet-lagged, grungy and edgy after an overnight flight into Lisbon, we dumped our bags at our hotel and headed straight to the Tagus River waterfront. There, in the Time Out Market, inside the refurbished Mercado de Ribeira, we found a branch of Manteigaria, considered by many to be the best source of pastéis de nata in Lisbon. The little shop certainly had nothing else to offer in its glass case, just row after row of the doll-size pies with a gently browned top. It could have been the loopy sleeplessness mixed with happiness to be off the plane, it could have been the warm breezes on a sunny Saturday morning, or it could have been the quality, but those inaugural egg tarts were so good. I took a bite. I closed my eyes, and the warm custard filled my mouth with hints of lemon and cinnamon. The flaky puff pastry crunched just enough. There it was again: A Moment.
We headed to Belem, about six miles west of downtown Lisbon. We skipped for the moment the famous Jeronimos Monastery — the navigator Vasco da Gama rests inside, but he wasn’t going anywhere. Instead, we headed straight to the cafe that claims it is the home of the egg tart. At Casa Pasteis de Belem, the products seem to be identical to pastéis de nata. The casual restaurant, which also serves sandwiches, coffee and other pastries, turns out 20,000 egg tarts a day. Two long lines for takeout stretched down the block. But following a tip from our Uber driver, we slipped inside, where a much shorter queue waited for a place at one of the cafe’s 400 seats. Yes, the cafe is a tourist hot spot, but it’s been a tourist hot spot since 1837, so it must be doing something right.
Before very long, we were seated and ordering one — no, make it two; no, make it three — egg tarts, along with a strong cup of cafe com leite (coffee with milk). The menu described a sugar-cane refinery and small store originally on this spot. When Portugal closed down its convents and monasteries after an early 19th-century revolution, a worker from the monastery came up with the pastry as a means of survival, following “an ancient secret recipe from the monastery.” That secret recipe, cooked up in a “secret room” inside the cafe, is still used today.
Within minutes, we had our prize — three plump egg tarts. The crust was a degree crunchier. The custard filling was warmer and more soufflé-like, so they were most likely whisked from the oven minutes before. On the table were shakers with cinnamon and confectioner’s sugar, which some diners added to their tarts. I sprinkled one with cinnamon. But to be honest, I think I preferred the plain version. They were good. But were they the best? I wasn’t ready to declare a winner.
We hopped on a train to Evora, about 85 miles from Lisbon in the Alentejo region, which is known for its hearty cuisine. In this charming medieval city, we were presented with a new dilemma. Yes, there was pastel de nata, but there was also a new specialty, the queijada de Evora. We stopped at Cafe Arcada, a no-frills place right on Praca de Giraldo square in the center of the city. We needed to try the Evora specialty. Purists would say that we were comparing apples and oranges. Or queijada and pastéis. Purists would be right. In my defense, this was a tart exactly the size of pastéis de nata, and the same golden color. But the queijada de Evora was filled with dense cheese custard, more like an Italian ricotta cheesecake than a soufflé. It was good. Really good. Even so, I wasn’t ready to drop my pastel de nata allegiance.
I faced a new dilemma: My husband, Bob, the consummate sweet tooth, withdrew as a judge. In other words, he refused to eat another pastel de nata, let alone any other tart. Even though these sweets are generally less sugary than the average pastry, he had reached his limit.
There we were in Sintra, about 20 miles west of Lisbon. I needed to think fast. “Oh, look,” I said to him. “These pastries are a specialty of Sintra!”
Outside of Fabrica das Verdadeiras Queijadas da Sapa, I pointed to the sign that said the shop had been making queijadas since 1756. He took one for the team, although I don’t think it really took much to convince him. We plopped our euros on the counter.
These queijadas were made with a very thin, firm crust, and the filling was lighter and sweeter than the queijadas in Evora. They were good, but not life-changing, although that judgment could have been clouded by our exhaustion from fighting Sintra’s enormous crowds that day, coupled with unseasonable heat and — okay, I’ll admit it — a certain tart fatigue.
In search of breakfast, we stumbled across a little cafe in the Lisbon neighborhood of Graca selling something we ate often in China and loved: jidan guanbing. These treats are freshly cooked crepes filled with egg, a spicy sauce, meats and greens. Here was our chance to wax nostalgic about China and take a savory break from the pastel de nata immersion. Sitting next to us was a Chinese couple, visiting Portugal with their daughter who had just finished university in Scotland. They shared a truly global breakfast of jidan guangbing with a side of pastéis de nata. They offered us a pastry. We stuck with the jidan guanbing.
We visited the beach town of Cascais, about 20 miles from Lisbon. It was a brutally hot day, and we strolled along the town’s pretty beach. Walking through town, we glanced across the street and saw a shop named The World Needs Nata. But does it? We were momentarily tempted but trudged on. The tart fatigue was real.
As we prepared to leave Lisbon, we realized we had time for breakfast in the airport. Suddenly, the prospect of leaving Portugal made us regret those tart-abstinent days. How fair was this competition? What kind of judges were we? Then, just before the security check, we turned a corner and saw redemption: Confeitaria Nacional por Baltazaar Castanheiro, considered the oldest and most traditional confectionary of Lisbon. “Since 1829,” the sign said. This time, Bob needed no lobbying. With a sense of relief, we bought our last couple of pastéis de nata. The tops were a little over-broiled and the flaky crust a little too flaky. Even so, a mediocre pastel de nata is better than none. We bid a tchau to Portugal, with plans to return soon.
The winner? The pastel de nata of Day 1, made by Manteigaria. Sticklers will argue that our research was capricious and inaccurate. They might be right. But now that we’re home from Lisbon, I regret every single day without pastry in Portugal. I’m going to try to make those little beauties myself.
Bruno is a writer based in the District. Find her on Twitter: @brunodebbie.
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pastel de nata
Avenida 24 de Julho, Cais do Sodre
Original location: Rua do Loreto 2
There are several branches around Lisbon, but this one is fun because it’s set inside the Mercado da Ribeira at Cais do Sodre, with tables on the street just outside the market, perfect for people-watching. Each pastel de nata is from about $1 to $1.50, depending on the location.
Casa Pasteis de Belem
Rua de Belem 84-92, 1300-085
Visitors line up to buy the shop’s delicacies, which include pastel de nata, an English fruitcake and marmalade. The blue and white tiled walls and efficient service makes it a very popular spot. Besides pastries, sandwiches start at about $3 and coffee at $1.50.
Praca do Giraldo 7, Evora
This no-frills spot has the advantage of being in the center of Evora, with an array of other sweets and light foods. Queijadas are about $1 and sandwiches $2.
Fabrica das Verdadeiras Queijadas da Sapa
Volta do Duche 12, Sintra
Its name means “factory of the true queijadas,” and it’s been in business since 1756. Located just five minutes from the train station of Sintra, this is a great place to stop for fortifications before ascending Sintra’s hills, or as a reward for making it back. Pastries from about $2.
Confeitaria Nacional por Balthazar Castanheiro
Inside Terminal 2 of Humberto Delgado airport in Lisbon
(Original store is at Praca da Figueira, 18 B, Rossio)
The shop is the airport branch of one of Lisbon’s best-known purveyors of pastel de nata. It’s clearly less ambiance than a charming Lisbon shop, but it’s still good. Pastries for under $2.