Taste Test: The Best Egg Tarts in Shanghai
One (literally) sweet memory from my childhood are the egg tarts from Lillian’s Bakery. Every weekend after my violin lesson in Puxi, I would not fail to stop by and buy a couple before taking the metro home. This was back in 2004–Shanghai was a radically different place to what it is today–when there were only 2 metro lines and less than a block away from Lillian’s was the original Yang’s Dumplings (小杨生煎) on Wujiang Road before it franchised out.
This little ritual soon stopped after I quit the violin some time around 3rd grade. As we no longer had a reason to visit Puxi, the only egg tarts I’d occasionally get were from Bread Talk or Metro (yes, the German wholesaler), but they were like Megabloks substituting for Legos. In fact, even now, every time when I pass by a Lillian’s in the city, I make sure to bring back a half dozen.
I’m pretty sure that if you were to ask anyone in the city what the best egg tarts were, most would say Lillian’s bakery. With more than 50 locations in Shanghai alone, Lillian’s Bakery is a household name. In fact, its Chinese name is simply 莉莲蛋挞, which refers to just Lillian’s egg tarts. Back then, Lillian’s had a daring slogan: 可能是全上海最好吃的蛋挞, which roughly translates to “possibly the tastiest egg tarts in Shanghai”. But this slogan has long been removed since my Violin days; it disappeared some time around 2010 before the bakery started massively expanding.
So is Lillian’s Bakery the best egg tarts in Shanghai today? I decided to taste test some of the contenders to find out. I had only 1 criteria: the egg tarts had to be independently purchasable as a snack, i.e. I didn’t consider egg tarts that were a dish in a restaurant.
A little bit of background on egg tarts
There are 2 main types of egg tarts: the Portuguese pastel de nata and the Cantonese style dan tat that you typically see at Dim Sum restaurants. In Chinese, the former is 葡式 (literally Portuguese style), while the latter is called 港式 (yep, you guessed it). Comparatively, the Portuguese style has a flaky crust with a crème brûlée like filling, while the Cantonese style typically has a plain, more “egg-y” filling and often a shortbread-like crust. The history is that the Cantonese egg tart, which originated in Hong Kong in the first half of the 20th century, is from the confluence of the British custard tart and the Portuguese pastel de nata from neighboring Macau.
However, despite the Portuguese influence in Macau for hundreds of years, egg tarts only became massively popular in Asia during the late 1980’s. Somewhat unexpectedly, this “egg tart fever” was kicked off by Englishman Andrew “Lord” Stow, an expatriate pharmacist and restaurant manager for the Hyatt Regency in Macau. Having visited Portugal on his honeymoon with his fiancé Margaret, the two became inspired to open Lord Stow’s Bakery, whose egg tarts quickly became immensely popular. When the two split up, Margaret started her own Margaret’s Cafe e Nata. Both bakeries still exist in Macau today.
Lillian’s Bakery 莉莲蛋挞 (5.8 RMB)
It is probably not a coincidence that Lillian’s is also the greasiest egg tart of the ones I sampled; my hands were left uncomfortably oily after finishing. But personally and evolutionarily, I think we all quite like it this way. Also, an egg tart is already some 250 calories and a marginal 30 isn’t a big deal…or at least that’s how I rationalize it.
The crust is textbook perfectly crispy and flaky. The filling has a richer taste, partly due to the butter (or is it lard?), which also provided the perfectly soft texture inside. Together, the egg tart also had the subjectively perfect tart to filling ratio. By the end of the day, Lillian’s is still the gold standard of egg tarts in Shanghai.
KFC 肯德基 (7.5 RMB)
It often comes as a surprise that KFC has some pretty good egg tarts. Back in the late 1990’s when egg tart fever was spreading across Asia, KFC executives approached Margaret for her secret recipe, which she ultimately sold to them for a lump sum. Egg tarts soon began spreading in mainland China piggybacking off of KFC’s expansion in the early 2000’s, bringing many Chinese their first taste of western cuisine (and egg tarts). Oh also, today KFC makes their egg tarts in house at each location.
Overall, KFC’s egg tarts are much less greasy than Lillian’s. The crust is still nicely flaky yet not too buttery. However, the batch I had was also probably cooked less; there was a hardened floury taste. On the other hand, the filling was good. It is doesn’t compete for the richness of Lillian’s, with a a slight yet somewhat distinct egg flavor.
Croissants de France 可颂坊 (6 RMB)
I decided to try an egg tart from a typical bakery. Don’t do it. The crust shell was very rigid (like Nokia phone rigid) and was also inconsistently flaky. The filling was hardened and a little too eggy. The worst part probably was that the temperature was cold: a nice hot egg tart right out the oven is just so much better.
Queen Sophie’s 酥妃皇后 (8 RMB)
This was the only Cantonese style egg tart shop I visited. Originally from HK, Queen Sophie makes egg tarts with a puff pastry crust. The tart was huge: it was probably 1.5 times the diameter of normal Macanese style egg tarts.
Queen Sophie’s egg tarts are pretty good. The crust was very crumby and less flaky, unlike Macanese egg tarts. The filling was much lighter also due to the lack of cream and lard, with the sweet egg taste and steamed-egg like texture coming through much more distinctly. However, it’s simply just much more plain than Macanese egg tarts, so…
Jen Dow Vegetarian Bakery 台湾人道烘培 (7 RMB)
This was the only non-chain bakery that I tried. Jen Dow is perhaps more famous for its vegetarian hotpot, but its bakery is also worth a stop with amazingly colorful loaves of bread with fruity fillings. However, I noticed that nobody batted an eye at the egg tarts on sale, and they did this probably for good reason: their egg tarts are just not great.
To put it in a good way, it was probably the healthiest egg tart of the ones I tried. Overall, it was much less sweet and not greasy. This made it inherently less satisfying to eat, and the hardness and temperature didn’t help either: it was perhaps even more rigid than the egg tart at Croissants de France. The tart also probably had the highest crust to filling ratio, which was not helped by the hardness of the crust.
Notably, the sweetness is supplemented by a layer of caramelized brown sugar mixed with glutinous rice powder, nested in at the bottom of the filling right above the crust. I can’t say it doesn’t work well, but this purist part of me feels like it is taking something away from the egg tart, in addition to the sweetness. Nonetheless, it’s worth a try if you’re curious.
Port Tea 葡茶 (6 RMB)
This egg tart is an example of having a crust to filling ratio on the other end: there was too much filling and the crust was way too thin. The filling was also very soft such that without the tin foil, the egg tart probably would not have been able to hold it shape. This made it pretty challenging for me to eat as the crust was too delicate to get the egg tart out and some sections stuck to the foil. I ended feeding myself using the foil, very inelegantly I might add.
The crust was very soft and moist, and basically did not have a presence in the egg tart. The filling had the texture of a liquid-y steamed egg you can get in some Chinese restaurants. The taste was otherwise decent.
Lillian’s Bakery is still the best egg tarts you can get in Shanghai. It’s also very common and the cheapest (by 2 jiao), so why not?
It also turns out that KFC’s egg tarts are pretty good, who would’ve thought?So are Queen Sophie’s dan tat, if you’re feeling something different. Lastly, unless you want to be disappointed, do not go to a typical bakery for egg tarts: they’ll generally be cold and hardened.