You can’t visit Portugal without sampling at least one pastel de nata (and believe me, you’ll quickly learn that one will not be enough). These flaky tarts filled with a creamy egg custard are a staple of Portuguese cuisine. Your mouth will start salivating as soon as you smell the eggy, vanilla custard and see the golden brown tart with the slight char on top. To me, a fresh-out-of-the-oven pastel de nata is the culinary equivalent to a warm hug.
Some background on this ubiquitous pastry of Portugal: A group of Catholic monks in Lisbon came up with the pastel de nata more than 300 years ago. Their monastery closed in 1834, and the monks’ recipe was sold to a sugar refinery whose owners opened Pastéis de Belém three years later.
As the home of the original egg custard tart, Pastéis de Belém itself is a major tourist destination. It’s actually located on the western outskirts of Lisbon, so it’s a bit of a trek to reach (about 45 minutes via public transit from central Lisbon). But it’s a journey many tourists and locals are willing to take, as seen by the long queues outside the shop each day.
Meanwhile, Manteigaria is the newer kid on the block. First opened in 2014, it now has three locations in Portugal’s capital: one on Rua do Loreto, another in the Time Out Market, and the newest on Rua Augusta. Unlike Pastéis de Belém, which whips up a variety of pastries, Manteigaria’s sole focus is these egg custard tarts.
Prior to trying these tarts, we assumed they would taste pretty similar. However, we discovered that there were actually noticeable differences between them and that we had a clear favorite.
Pastéis de Belém
We arrived here just after 9 a.m. on a Thursday and expected to have to wait. Fortunately, there was no line for the cafe’s sit-down area.
We each ordered two pastéis and a coffee to wash it all down. When the pastries arrived, we immediately noticed the beautifully blistered tops (reminiscent of crème brûlée) and extremely flaky crusts.
As soon as I picked one up, I knew how crunchy it was going to be. I squeezed it gently and you could hear the crust crackling.
After dusting the tops with some cinnamon, I plunged right in . . . with a spoon. Our Uber driver the day before actually advised us to try eating a pastel de nata by scooping the filling first and then eating the hollowed-out crust. It was tasty, but I still preferred enjoying the crust and custard simultaneously in one bite. The contrast between the extra-crisp crust that quickly melts in your mouth and the smooth, silky custard is heavenly.
We grabbed a pack to go to share with our friends whom we were meeting in Porto later that day. The taste was OK a few hours later, but the crusts had become soggy; pastéis de nata is definitely something to enjoy warm and fresh.
On our trip, we went to the location on Rua do Loreto in Lisbon, as well as their shop in Porto.
Its shop on Rua do Loreto is tiny; there are no seats, and you eat standing at the counter. The kitchen is in plain view; while savoring your tarts, you can watch the cooks making dozens of these pastries from start to finish. When we arrived, we saw them filling the tart molds with crust and pulling two fresh batches straight from the oven.
The one thing that strikes you about Manteigaria’s tarts is the flavor of the custard. It’s sweet with obvious notes of vanilla. I felt like you didn’t even need to add cinnamon to it because it was so flavorful already. As for the crust, it was light, thin, and flaky.
It’s a lesson in self-control at Manteigaria. At €1 per pastel de nata and with a front-row “seat” to the baking process, you’ll want to order another one (and another one).
It was ultimately the rich vanilla flavor of Manteigaria’s custard that did it for both of us. Pastéis de Belém’s custard had a more subtle flavor, and while it was still excellent, we preferred the stronger notes of Manteigaria’s. We did, however, love the extra-crisp crust of Pastéis de Belém, so if someone combined Manteigaria’s custard with Belém’s crust, it would be game over.
In the end, you cannot go wrong with either option and it really does come down to personal preference. Also, pastéis de nata is sold everywhere in Portugal. Unfortunately we could only sample from these two shops due to the limited time we had. Let us know if one of these places was your favorite, or if another pastry shop had better pastéis de nata!