Expectations suck on most days. Expectations about food, in particular, have elicited countless disappointing experiences from as far back as I can remember. Don’t get me wrong here. Although I like to think I have a discerning palate–purely subjective, I know–I’m no food snob. I’m easy. I eat everything and really do enjoy eating everything, even when my mind is not blown by whatever it is I’m eating.
Pastel de nata was something I was geared to cross off my list–kind of like a food bucket list–just because I was in Lisbon. I had to try it, at least once. I wasn’t super excited like my friend Una was because I’ve never had a thing for desserts, even as a child. I can appreciate desserts, and I’ve had my share of truly amazing ones, but even so, I don’t crave it once I’ve had it. So, I was unprepared for the jolt of shock that ran through me when I took my first-ever bite of a pastel de nata from Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon, world famous for its creamy egg custard cups.
But first, some touristy activities were in order. Our first stop, the beautiful Torre de Belém, a 16th century defense tower at the mouth of the Tagus river, walking distance from the pastry shop.
And a late morning drinky at a roadside kiosk bar because we’re on vacation.
Once there, we managed to grab a table inside the pastry shop that seats 400–me, somewhat begrudgingly, because I only wanted a taste of one and I didn’t see the point of waiting in line to be seated. I would have much rather ordered half a dozen at the counter to take out and eaten at a nearby park instead. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long.
We ordered six–two per head to start–with coffee.
They arrived shortly after, six dainty tarts on a small plate with sachets of icing sugar and cinnamon on the side. They were served warm, the yellow custard top showing dark caramelized spots and the shell deeply golden. The tarts smelled intensely buttery. I barely noticed Una taking a bite, upon which she dropped the two words: “진짜 맛있어.” (“It’s amazing”.)
I picked one up and took a bite.
My initial reaction was confusion because it was SHOCKINGLY good. I savored every texture, every sensuous texture of that first bite, from the warm irresistibly creamy custard to the impossibly crispy flaky pastry cup. The sound of my teeth biting into the crackly shell was joyous to hear.
It was like biting into layers of deep-fried phyllo pastry, so crispy it was, and I shamelessly picked every shard of golden pastry that fell to the plate with my fingers. The whole combination was damn sexy.
We ended up ordering more. It is, hands down, one of my top memorable food experiences to date. Even if I’d gone with high expectations, I probably would have reacted the same way.
I’m sure there are excellent versions of pastel de nata elsewhere. But, I seriously doubt they will top the ones at Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon .
There is a reason why certain eateries have established themselves as institutions over the years–177 for this pastry shop as it opened in 1837–and I just hope the heritage will continue to be upheld for many more years to come.
On a side note, Una carefully nestled half a dozen of these babies back to Korea for her boo who, unfortunately, couldn’t join us on this trip.
Now, that’s love.