Eating Portuguese Food in China’s Las Vegas

Macanese custard tarts had gone from linking me to a culture I didn’t remember, to a loss I didn’t want to remember, to a person I was finally ready to conjure up.

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May 28 2016, 6:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Simon D

Every year on my birthday, I'd ask my mother for a hamburger patty, canned corn, and Velveeta Shells & Cheese.

She's from Utah and tended to make things like tuna noodle casserole when I was a kid. My dad was born in Macau, a former Portuguese colony in China, and grew up in Mozambique and South Africa. He preferred more exotic foods, like bacalao, dried codfish you can reconstitute by soaking it in milk, and biltong, smelly cured beef.

After moving to San Diego, he largely adopted 90s Southern California cuisine. He ate Total cereal every single morning. For lunch, he would toss a Yoplait yogurt, baby carrots, a couple of slices of whole-wheat bread, and a banana in a plastic grocery bag. Sometimes he'd have a piece of chocolate after dinner, but then he'd complain that his stomach hurt or that he had nightmares.

Around Portuguese food, though, his appetite ballooned to "typical Yank"-size. (The typical Yank was my dad's self-described opposite: pale, gluttonous, and bad at soccer.) This was especially true of pasteis de nata, Portuguese custard tarts he could hoover up with zero indigestion. They had burnt-looking tops and a thick crust. Compared to my dream foods at the time—blueberry muffins and Planter's Cheez Balls—I thought they were bland, like Snackwell's with a ton of calories.

These tarts are a huge deal in Macau, which I traveled to in the spring of this year. This makes sense in light of its Portuguese history, but not so much when you consider that Macau has 16 Michelin-star restaurants in 19 square miles and is the subject, along with Hong Kong, of Michelin's first-ever street food guide. In just one of its many casinos, you can eat lavender-flavored sole, ten-foot noodles, and more than 40 kinds of dim sum.

READ MORE: Macau's Cuisine Is an Oral Tradition

So it was weird to see the humble custard tart, which always made me feel so self-consciously first-generation as a kid, being Instagrammed left and right. Every other shop seemed to sell them, and the St. Regis served a miniature version as a Bloody Mary garnish. There's even a bakery chain, Lord Stow's, devoted to the tarts.

Photo via Flickr user wenzday01

Macanese egg tarts. Photo via Flickr user wenzday01.

I wanted to tell everyone I saw eating them that they're just OK. But also, "You don't understand how special they are." Special because they were my dad's favorite, and he died a few years ago, at home, as I was eating In-N-Out at the kitchen table. By the time I cleaned up the leftover fries and half-eaten burger, there were ants crawling all over them.

One night, as I was sitting with my travel companions on the patio of a Macanese restaurant, someone showed up with a box of tarts from Lord Stow's. I'd been avoiding these tarts—and In-N-Out—for years, but I finally felt like I could bite into one without getting literally choked up.

I'd already sprinkled my dad's ashes in Kauai (where, I should note, you can get malasadas, another Portuguese dessert with conquistador status). I'd found a home for his belt buckle collection. And now I'd traveled back to his birthplace, closing a loop that once seemed infinite, when my early grief felt bottomless. I was sitting a few yards from a Catholic church he would have liked.

So I took a bite. Surprisingly, the tart tasted delicious. An Englishman actually brought them to Macau in the 80s, so they're a little different than the traditional pasteis de nata, flakier and less sweet. And my taste buds have certainly changed since I was a child. I now enjoy pickles, ketchup, mushrooms, and tropical fruit, all of which I'd previously despised.

Mainly, though, I think the custard tarts tasted better than they used to because they'd gone from linking me to a culture I didn't remember to a loss I didn't want to remember to a person I was finally ready to conjure up.

RECIPE: Macanese Beef and Pork Minchi

When I was younger, I tried to distance myself from my dad's foreignness. He and I traveled to Portugal together once, and I declared the food all "oily fish and rice" and ate a lot of imported ice cream treats. In my 20s, I glommed on to WASPs who kept Carr's Table Water Crackers in their pantry and drank vodka tonics.

Now that my dad's gone, his weird foods—the tarts, but also baked rice pudding and piri-piri prawns and Portuguese sweet bread—are comforting, not embarrassing. They remind me that he'd lived on three continents by the time I was born, and that he didn't get a long life, but it was relatively full. Sometimes, when I see bacalao on a menu, I order it. And I may request the egg tarts for my next birthday.