Are Portugal's Pastel de nata custard tarts worth the hype?


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Welcome to "WORTH THE HYPE?" This is where I give it to you straight on the most overhyped travel attractions in any city. 

We begin today in Portugal.

There are a couple Portuguese dishes that every travel resource from Lonely Planet to cites as a "MUST TRY" when in Portugal.  Included on this list is salt cod, port wine, and sardines.  However, the shining star of the bunch is easily the Pastel de nata. 

Pastel de nata in lisbon, portugal - m.quigley

Pastel de nata in lisbon, portugal - m.quigley

As opposed to being a type of salty fish, the Pastel de nata is a custard tart.  The name "Pastel de nata" actually translates directly to "custard tart."  Pastels are eaten all over the country, and are a staple in any Portuguese cafe.  

Although the details of the recipe change from bakery to bakery (or pastelaria to pastelaria), the basic idea is simple: butter, sugar, and egg yolk. 

That got me listening. 

pastel de nata lisbon portugal

These tiny tarts are made by hand and are served piping hot from an 800 F degree oven.  To cut the sweetness, Pastels are served with cinnamon sprinkled on top. 

Interestingly, Portugal's most famous dessert was originally a French treat!

Legend states that hundreds of years ago, French monks living in Portugal were missing this treat. Because religious garb is starched with egg whites, there were a lot of leftover egg yolks in monasteries.  Put two and two together, and thus began the production of the classic Portuguese pastry. 

pastel de nata lisbon portugal

The famous shop to buy Pastels is Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon. They have the monopoly on being the place to try the treat of Portugal.  Legend also states that the recipe at Pasteis de Belem sources back to the original monks who first made the treat, but I am skeptical.  That sounds just a little too convenient for me. 

The issue with Pasteis de Belem is that the above information is no secret, and the shop is very crowded.... and this crowd isn't locals getting their Pastel fix, oh no.  The place is stuffed with tourists.

So, if you have the time and are in Belem, go for it. Make sure you stand in the right line.  However, if can't go, don't fret.

Purchasing Pastels from shops other than Pasteis de Belem is a sufficient way to experience the treat.  Just think, every locals who easts a Pastel isn't always going to go to Pasteis de Belem to get their Pastel fix. 

pastel de belem lisbon portugal

Also... the more places you try, the easier it is to pick your favorite.

The key is to make sure it is being done right.  Don't let your first one be cold, although those are good too.  It needs to be piping hot and recently sprinkled in cinnamon.  The cinnamon is essential, and the part a lot of people skip. 

Manteigaria is another shop with fantastic pastels.  The entire process from butter to tart happens directly in front of their patron's eyes. 

manteigaria pastel de nata lisbon portugal

The line can be long, but it moves fast (they only sell one thing).  Make your order simpler by ordering a dozen or half dozen.

Remember: The key is go somewhere where they are oven baked fresh and sprinkled with cinnamon.

So, with this gigantic mountain of hype surrounding the Pastel de nata, is it possible for these tarts to live up to their expectations?  

Two giant thumbs up and stained shirt, yes!  I was skeptical to begin with, and had been hurt in the past (beignets at Café du Monde in New Orleans and churros at Chocolatería San Gines in Madrid).  However, I am happy to state that the Pastel de nata changed my life.  I went every day for the remainder of my trip, and a Manteigaria sticker now holds a coveted spot on my laptop. 

How do I describe the Pastel de nata?  I can't, and if could, I wouldn't want to spoil it. I guess you'll have to see for yourself.  This is food worth flying for, and I don't say that lightly. 


Video of custard being put into the tarts - the chef uses his finger to control the flow of custard.

Click to read: Why getting leather gloves at Luvaria Ulisses in Lisbon isn't worth the hype

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