Portuguese tarts at Pasteis de Belem, Lisbon: When the 'world's best' food lives up to the hype
There's a Starbucks next door. Is that a worry? I can see people out there on the pavement drinking their enormous coffees. Someone looks like they might even be eating a "pastel de nata", otherwise known as a Portuguese tart. That's definitely a concern.
I'm guessing the reason they're eating that sweet treat at Starbucks and not the best place in the world, which happens to be right next door, is the queue. At Starbucks you can wander straight in and sit down. Outside Pasteis de Belem there's a huge crowd of pastry fans milling around looking confused and hungry, not sure where to line up, not sure where to sit down.
Still, who comes all the way to Belem, Lisbon, to go to Starbucks? Not this guy. That's why I'm pushing through the crowd of onlookers, forcing my way into the cavernous interior of the building, walking past gangs of bakers working behind glass panels, avoiding waist-coated waiters who bustle past carrying trays piled high with coffee cups and pastry plates. I find a seat, eventually, in one of the rooms at the back of the bakery. One of those waiters appears, no need to proffer a menu.
One pastel de nata, por favor. This bakery is, after all, the pioneer of the Portuguese tart, the establishment that kicked off a countrywide obsession back in 1837. It's still run by descendants of those original owners, who oversee the production of more than 23,000 pasteis de nata every single day. Their shop is considered the world's finest purveyor of these sweet, delicious treats.
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And so, of course, I want to try one. This is not just a bakery any more, but a place of pilgrimage, a must-do for any visitor to Lisbon with the slightest hint of a sweet tooth. People travel from miles around. They queue up around the block. And for what?
There's an obvious danger to visiting places like this. You get yourself so pumped up to sample the best of the best – how can anything live up to that sort of expectation? You're setting yourself up for mediocrity. They're so TripAdvisor famous they barely even need to try anymore.
Tourists line up in their hundreds, after all, to drink a mojito at Havana's Bodeguita del Medio, famed haunt of Hemingway and Neruda, popularly known as having invented the Cuban cocktail of rum and sugar and mint. But is it any good there? Any better than anywhere else? Not really. It's just a nice cocktail. Nothing to write home about.
How about eating pizza at L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele, a Naples establishment that lays claim to being one of the first, and possibly the best purveyor of the world's greatest food? It's nice. They do extremely good pizza. But is it the best in the world? Is it even the best in Naples? That's debatable.
You could say the same for a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel. Sure, the surroundings are beautiful. But the cocktail is eye-wateringly expensive – almost $30 – and it's not much nicer than any drink you'd get anywhere else.
There are plenty of these places across the globe that travellers make pilgrimages to. There's Shish Mahal, a Glaswegian curry house where chicken tikka masala was invented. There's Harry's Bar in Venice, home of carpaccio and the Bellini. There's Kogi Food Truck in LA, inventor of Korean tacos.
Sometimes, on some days, these places will live up to the hype. But more often than not they'll fail to reach such lofty expectations. After all, just because you invented something, doesn't mean you'll always be the best at it (ask the Wright brothers).
And so here I find myself at Pasteis de Belem, ready to bite into just one of the 23,000 pastries made here every day, prepared for the inevitable disappointment of eating the "world's best". There are other Lisbon bakeries, after all, that are doing pretty great Portuguese tarts. I should know, I've eaten most of them.
The waiter arrives eventually with my pastry, weaving through the crowd, banging it down on my table. I pick it up and crunch into it. Whoa. OK. It's freaken delicious. Like, noticeably better than some already extremely good versions I've eaten in Lisbon. Damn.
The pastry is crunchier than other versions. The egg-yolk custard is perfectly sweet. It's still warm from the oven, as you'd expect from a place that's pumping out tens of thousands of these every day.
So. Good. It's so delicious, in fact, that I order another one. And then another one. And then I need to be wheeled out of the bakery on one of the tart trolleys. The people at Starbucks just watch on, bemused. What are they doing there anyway?