two images, a Portuguese cake with buttercream and three Portuguese egg custard tarts
Bolo de bolacha (left) and pastéis de nata Credit: Alejandra Rivera

Alejandra Rivera kept burning the pastéis de nata. The flaky Portuguese egg custard tartlets, known the world over, should have a bit of dark-brown caramelized stippling on top, but the numbers on the old oven in her little flat had worn off, so she kept scorching the iconic pastries.

Rivera and her husband were reluctantly nearing the end of a two-year stint teaching business and geography classes to high schoolers and living in the idyllic coastal town of Cascais in Portugal. The couple, who first met and worked together in Rivera’s native Honduras, married and then spent four years teaching in Beijing. After the birth of their daughter, they relocated to southern Portugal and fell in love with it, particularly with its easygoing cafe culture.

“It was a dreamy little town,” she says. “Our house had the view of the ocean and the boats just sitting there. The setup was not perfect, but that view did it for us. I feel like I learned how to drink coffee there—while you’re looking at this vast display of pastries. Forget all the coffee flavors you get here. It was really good quality, very simple, and I feel like that applies to everything in Portugal. I think I connected with it because that’s kind of like the Honduran style. We put the social part of life way ahead of work.”

But Rivera’s father-in-law had been recently widowed, and even in low-cost Portugal, the sweet life the family was living was beyond their modest means. It was time to move to Chicago, but Rivera balked. “I was having a hard time dealing with coming back.”

That was when her husband, a former CPS teacher named Eric Carlson, suggested they open a Portuguese-style cafe in the States—along with its attendant array of pastries. “It was the perfect excuse to keep going back to Portugal,” Rivera says.

Rivera had built a career as a teacher, but she’d inherited a love of food and cooking from her Aunt Theresa, who was a devoted cottage cook in Tegucigalpa, canning leaves from her husband’s vineyards for sale to Middle Eastern restaurants, preserving eggplant for the Argentine berenjenas al escabeche that she sold on the side at the boarding school cafeteria she managed, and catering Rivera’s school events. “She was a hustler.”

In China and Portugal, Rivera taught students headed to the States how to prepare American foods, but during her time in Cascais, she hadn’t immersed herself in cooking much Portuguese food.

Alejandra Rivera in Lisbon’s Jardim de Estrela
Credit: Eric Carlson

“I immersed myself in eating it,” she says, but with the pandemic in full swing and their departure looming, the couple engaged in concentrated R&D. “[Eric] would ride his bike to different cafes around our region, come back with boxes of pastries, and we would take photos and write notes.” Rivera took a weeklong university pastéis de nata course, along with other online baking classes, but with the oven sabotaging her efforts, she concentrated first on the no-bake bolo de bolacha: Marie tea biscuits dipped in espresso, stacked between layers of coffee buttercream frosting, and showered with bittersweet chocolate shavings.

The dazzling universe of Portuguese pastries dates back centuries, was kick-started by colonial sugar production, and was widely incubated in monasteries and convents. The prevalence of rich, sunshine-yellow custards—like those at the core of a pastéis de nata—are apocryphally said to be the result of a surplus of yolks after their whites were used to starch nuns’ habits and monks’ robes (or, alternatively, ship sails).

In June 2020, the couple settled in Logan Square, Carlson returned to CPS, and plans for the cafe stalled while the couple contemplated having another child. But in December, Rivera flew to Honduras to stay with Aunt Theresa, sick with cancer. When she returned, something was different.

“That’s when it kicked me,” she says. “OK, I’m doing it, because she would have been in heaven [knowing] that I was doing it. It came from a place of sadness, but it was also a way to honor her.” She chose the name Cadinho Bakery, for a slang term meaning “a little bit,” and a cousin designed a logo meant to evoke the tiled street signs above the cobblestones of Cascais.

She introduced herself on a Logan Square Facebook group, offering her bolo de bolacha for sale. She didn’t get too many takers, but plenty of people who’d traveled to Portugal inquired whether she could make pastéis de nata. With her modern oven, she nailed it, and by January, she was offering new pastries each week: the coconut pastéis de coco, almond pastéis de amêndoa, and Brazilian brigadeiros.

That spring, the couple moved to McKinley Park to be closer to Carlson’s Englewood teaching job, shortly before United Airlines launched a direct flight to the Azores and placed an order for 1,500 pastéis de nata. She and Carlson enlisted neighbors’ ovens for a 24-hour tart-baking marathon, and Cadinho’s catering arm was born.

Meanwhile, they committed to opening their brick-and-mortar in McKinley Park. “We owe it to the neighborhood to stay here,” she says. “There’s no other bakery or coffee shop [where] you can stay and connect with community and neighbors. There’s Dunkin’ Donuts, but we wanted something that would have the same vibe that we had in Portugal.”

They found a spot at 35th and Archer, and while Carlson began to manage a build-out, Rivera continued to expand her repertoire, including whole Portuguese cakes and tarts meant for specific holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day. And last summer, they returned to Portugal for some intensive research. “I never thought eating could feel like a job,” says Carlson. “Every day it was, ‘How far do I run to work off everything on the agenda I have to eat?’”

The bakery, which is slated for a spring opening, will include classic blue-and-white azulejo tiling, and for Rivera in particular, a commercial oven, a dough sheeter, and professional mixers that will allow her to scale up production. They’re planning to offer a few American-style coffee drinks, but the focus will be on Portuguese simplicity. “I’m excited to have people walk in and just say, ‘Give me 12 pastéis de nata,’” Rivera says, “without having to put in an order and wait 24 hours.”

In the meantime, she’ll be offering a preview of pastries to come this December 4 for Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up at Ludlow Liquors. There she’ll debut a pair of savory pastries: the sausage roll pão com chouriço and a baked version of the shrimp-and-bechamel-stuffed turnovers rissóis de camarão.

On the sweet side, there will be French-style elephant-ear palmiers (some dipped in chocolate); the almond cream-stuffed pillows known as travesseiros; and individual slices of tarte de maracujá, a specialty of the island of Madeira.

And of course there will be the sobremesas that started it all: pastéis de nata, and bolo de bolacha by the slice.

“That one is dear to my heart because it was my only success while learning pastries
in Portugal.”