While pastry-spotting in London over the summer, I kept noticing a little tart, which looked like the dan tat or Chinese egg tarts you see swirling on dim sum carts in San Francisco, but distinguished itself with a browned top. A baker friend quickly corrected that these were pastéis de nata or Portuguese egg tarts. Once back in the Bay, I found a new appreciation for our local version, and started to keep an eye out for their close cousins, which have been making an appearance around town.
Dan tat tend to be incredibly tender, with a crumbling crust often made from lard (though some use Chinese-style puff pastry), filled with an eggy custard that shudders on nudge. In contrast, pastéis de nata have a laminated crust made from butter, closer to a rustic puff pastry, the custard is thicker and creamier, and it’s blitzed in a hot oven until blistered on top, kind of like a torched crème brȗlée. While the dan tat melts in your mouth, the pastéis de nata is a juxtaposition of creamy and crunchy textures.
To be clear, there’s no need to pick egg tart teams. They’re both lovely little snacks, not too sweet, and few can resist the charms of a hand pie. But it begs the question — who stole the tarts? And how did they get here? A mini history of mini tarts: Portuguese egg tarts date back to the 1800s, when monks who used egg whites to starch their clothes were looking for ways to use up the yolks. In the 20th century, Guangzhou and Hong Kong restaurants catering to British businessmen started making the Chinese style with a lard crust and wiggly custard. Later, Macau picked up the Portuguese’s finishing touch, imitating the browned top.
But whether it’s a Portuguese tart routed through Macau, or a British custard by way of Hong Kong, egg tarts have crossed oceans twice to reach San Francisco. First, thanks to Chinese immigrants who established bakeries such as Golden Gate Bakery in Chinatown, an institution known for both excellent dan tats and erratic hours. But now, the Bay Area is experiencing a second wave of egg tarts, as pastéis de nata are becoming increasingly popular due to the opening of several Portuguese restaurants, cafes, and bakeries in the past couple of years. From Noe Valley and the Sunset to San Jose, here’s where Portuguese egg tarts are popping up the Bay Area.
Uma Casa in Noe Valley
“Pastéis de nata are very much a trend,” says chef Telmo Faria of Uma Casa, a Portuguese restaurant that welcomes families with big share plates in a blue-and-white tiled space. He points out that in the last five years, Lisbon has become a hot travel destination, with more Americans discovering its delicious pastries. “I mean, it’s essentially a crème brȗlée inside a croissant. It’s pretty hard not to like.” Faria grew up in Portugal, moved to San Jose at age 13, and spent years cooking for Mexican restaurants, before returning to his family’s heritage and opening Uma Casa in 2017. Pastéis de nata have been on the dessert menu since day one, and they’re a labor of love. Faria rolls puff pastry into cylinders, slices off rounds, and presses them into special pans, which are baked off daily. Unlike a standard puff pastry or croissant dough that rises up, these cut edges are flush with the bottom of the pan, so they bake down and out, rendering them crispy and crunchy. Sometimes guests try to order six or a dozen tarts to go, and the chef refuses. But they’re a sweet ending to a dinner of salt cod fritters and piri-piri chicken.
Boavida Cafe in Outer Sunset
Boavida is a new Outer Sunset project from the former owner of Cafe St. Jorge in Bernal Heights. Andrea de Francisco’s family is originally from Portugal, and she wanted to get back in the food business with a laid-back neighborhood market slash cafe. That means that Portuguese egg tarts are now kicking it at the beach, and they go great with either a cup of coffee in the morning or with a glass of wine to wind down the day. De Francisco hopes to bake her own eventually: “They’re tricky to make,” she admits. “The custard we’ve got down, but we’re still perfecting the crust.” Fortunately, for now, she’s got good connections. Avaro Silva from Silva Bakery, a Portuguese bakery in Hayward, comes from the same Portuguese island as de Francisco’s family, and is hooking her up with wholesale. Silva makes his tarts by hand, according to the traditional method, with a rustic pastry crust and good custard.
Pastelaria de Adega in San Jose
Adega, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in San Jose, calls the city’s Little Portugal immigrant neighborhood home. It hosted a viral pastéis de nata event this year: The restaurant tried a Saturday morning pop-up, and promptly sold 1,000 egg tarts in the first hour, according to Mercury News. It opened a sister bakery called Pastelaria de Adega a few months ago, dedicated to pastéis de nata, and the layers of the laminated dough are perfect, while the custard runs thick.
These three spots aren’t making the only egg tarts on the street. Word is that good pastéis de nata can also be found at longstanding Popular Bakery in San Jose, and of course, bought directly from the source Silva Bakery in Hayward. They also sometimes turn up at Chinese bakeries, dim sum restaurants (like Dragon Beaux), and bakeries that specialize in croissants — such as the cult-favorite Patisserie Rotha in Albany. If any bakeries try to get away with making the crust with repurposed croissant dough, which is yeasted and prone to puffing, it’s not quite the same crispy, crunchy experience.
But on any menu, and in any of its iterations, it’s worth giving one of these little tarts a two-bite test. As chef Faria attests, they’re hard to dislike.