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Is the Francesinha the World’s Best Winter Sandwich?

The francesinha is a mind-blowingly rich experience


THE FRANCESINHA IS TO PORTO, PORTUGAL, WHAT POUTINE IS TO QUEBEC: a signature dish that doubles as both a point of pride and a likely precursor to countless cardiac events. My local friend Juan tells me that the sandwich is made of thick-cut bread that is stacked with seared steak, cured ham and spicy linguiça sausage, and then panini-pressed and topped with cheese and a fried egg. OK, I’ll bite.

The Francesinha is served at just about every restaurant, café and snack shop in Porto, but “There’s really only one place to get it,” Juan insists. And so I find myself at Café Santiago near the old town, where the 1 p.m. lunch line snakes along the exquisite mosaic stone sidewalk.

As I gird my nerves for the sandwich, I reflect upon how it came to be. Not much time for girding, it turns out, as the line moves quickly and the history of the Francesinha (which means Frenchie in Portuguese) is short: apparently, Portuguese emigrants to France tried the croque monsieur and thought it needed some help.

I take a swivel stool at the curved granite counter and am greeted by an affable, mixed-generation staff wearing blue polo shirts. Behind them I see industrial-sized sandwich presses working away on Francesinhas.

Francesinhas waiting to be served at Café Santiago
All told, there are nine featured elements in Café Santiago’s version of this local treasure: bread, bologna, fresh sausage, linguiça, beefsteak, ham, cheese, long-simmered tomato-beer Francesinha sauce and optional fried egg (oh, and it comes with fries on the side). I order my sandwich along with a Super Bock lager and await sweet death.

Within moments my lunch is set before me, a single, upper-right-corner toothpick holding it all together. I slip it out and go at the sandwich with my knife and fork, diving into waves of smokiness, tender steak and butterflied, crisped linguiça on toasty bread. I swim through sheets of cascading cheese, runny egg yolk and a moat of sauce, encountering surprise peppercorns amid the giant layers of flavour.

Let it be known that this sandwich is not my type of thing. Yet it quickly becomes my thing. I put down my cutlery, angling it to the side, and look away, only to have the siren call of spicy beer sauce pull me back in. I must have pushed back my plate half a dozen times.

It felt like breaking up with and getting back together with a boyfriend your friends keep telling you is just no good for you.