The line goes out the door and around the corner. Pretty much all day, every day. And there is really only one thing on the menu: the Pastel de Nata. Sure, you can get a coffee or a soda, but who waits in line for upwards of 30 minutes for a Coke?*
Those little Pastéis (the plural of Pastel, for the grammar nerds) though, well, they’re a different story. We’re happy to wait as long as it takes. There’s something about a warm pastry filled with a rich egg custard that really hits the spot.
The story goes that these pastries were born from leftovers, invented by nuns who used to use the whites to starch their habits and then found themselves with a lot of spare egg yolks. Then, after Lisbon’s famous Mosteiro dos Jerónimos fell on hard times in the 19th century, the monks started selling Pastéis de Nata to try and save their monastery. In the end, the attempt failed, so they sold the recipe off and to an entrepreneurial family who saw some serious pastry potential, and the famous Pasteis de Belém bakery is still selling thousands of tarts every day, nearly 200 years later.
These days, a rough recipe is easy to find, but the best places in Lisbon guard their own secrets closely, and in Belém, the dough and custard are prepared in a secret room, away from prying eyes. But that’s of little concern for us, because when they’re this good from the bakery, we’d never consider messing up our kitchens at home. As we stand at the counter, sipping on our espressos in wrinkled shirts that tell tales of lazy packing, there is one think we can’t help but wonder, however. Now that the nuns are no longer on the scene, what happens to all the egg whites? We could sure use a starching.
*João’s pro tip: Walk straight past the line. The queue is for takeout and tourists, but there’s table service inside.