These days, a good Portuguese-style savory pie is hard to find – even in Portugal. In a country with so many great examples, namely in Alentejo, Beiras or Trás-os-Montes, where pies (or empadas in Portuguese) are beautifully made, it’s disheartening that in Lisbon you’ll find mostly dull and dry versions or disappointing fillings within good pastry.
Belmiro de Jesus, a native of Trás-os-Montes, one of the most remote and unspoiled regions of Portugal, always loved the empadas his grandmother would cook for special occasions or festive times of year, like Easter or the August village festival. So when he decided to open an empada-themed restaurant, he used hers as an inspiration but changed the format and developed a thinner pastry.
“I wanted something lighter and also with more flavor,” de Jesus told us. He bakes the dough with meat sauces instead of water and for shortening only uses butter.
The self-made chef started working at 16 cleaning restrooms in a restaurant. He stayed in the same place as a waiter for seven years and then moved to a classic Alentejo eatery in Lisbon, Charcutaria, sadly now shuttered.
When he created his own spot, Salsa e Coentros, he and his business partner were caught short when the cook left just before they opened. De Jesus took over cooking duty, and his four aunts gave him recipes and invaluable advice about traditional food. The critics couldn’t have loved it more.
The idea for the empada restaurant actually came from de Jesus’s wife. When he left Salsa e Coentros, where he built a solid reputation making traditional Portuguese fare, it seemed like the opportune moment to put pies in the oven. He opened up shop in October 2015.
Like us, he felt that it was difficult to get a decent empada in the city. “People just want to make money and sacrifice quality. Of course I also want to make money, but I think we have to be honest with clients and give them good quality meat and produce. For instance, I only use free-range chicken.”
At Bel’Empada you can find these delicious empadas in three formats: small, which is very popular for takeaway; medium, perfect for eating in the restaurant; and family size, which must be ordered in advance. Choices include partridge or lobster empada, duck or salt cod, a vegetarian version, turkey leg and a popular chicken pie with a slice of chouriço in the bottom.
Right now, de Jesus makes 300 empadas a day, which means a lot of work for this small shop in Alvalade, a residential area in the northern part of the city. For those not in the mood for pie, he offers other dishes, including daily specials.