We scour the streets near the Hotel Internacional on the lookout for somewhere inviting… somewhere serving something particularly Portuguese. Rua Galeria de Paris, the night-life centre of the old city, is a couple of streets away. We head in that direction based on the premise that where there’s bars, there’s food. It’s a good plan and after humming and hawing over a few options we strike gold.
At a bustling bar restaurant in the streets near Rua Galeria de Paris I’m introduced to francesinha and fall in love at first… no I’m not going to say it.
I expected Porto’s signature sandwich to be a croque monsieur with knobs on and I wasn’t about to order what I thought was basically a cheese and ham toastie to introduce me to Porto’s cuisine. But everyone in the Aviz Café was tucking into an intriguing and chunky dish that we couldn’t quite identify. When the waitress told us these were the francesinhas my stomach took control of the ordering process.
The francesinha isn’t going to win any awards for having a sophisticated appearance. It looks a bit like a square brick covered in melted cheese that’s floating in a sea of tomato sauce. This is no sandwich that you can pick up with your hands…unless you’ve got some sort of fetish that involves being covered in cheesy, tomato sauce. It’s the only sandwich I’ve ever eaten that was served in a soup bowl.
In the Avis Café they add chips to the sauce (women get the option of having their chips separate – ‘it’s less over-facing’ was the reason given). This is one serious carb hit.
Messy looking though it is, the francesinha holds a Pandora’s Box of surprises. The first being that the tomato sauce doesn’t taste of tomatoes and it’s got a kick like Bruce Lee. Apart from tomatoes, hot spices and beer figure in the sauce’s ingredients. Then there’s the contents of the ‘brick’. Two inch-thick slices made up the floor and ceiling of the francesinha – if this is a variation of a toastie, it is one made for titans, not mere men. Then there’s what’s between the bread slabs; sure there was ham, but the francesinha’s ham was cured and like thick back bacon. Sure there was cheese, but the river of melted cheese engulfing the contents of the francesinha bore no relation to the flimsy cheese slices in many toasties. After that the francesinha totally parts company with any resemblance at all to the croque monsieur that is supposedly its inspiration.
Also layered between the bread was a generous and savoury Portuguese sausage called a linguiça. As though the sausage, ham, cheese and spicy sauce weren’t enough, there was a juicy piece of steak acting as a base for the cheese covered tower. There might even have been a fillet of pork in there as well.
And just to finish it off, the cheese also hid a domed ceiling consisting of a poached egg with a runny yolk (more scope for making a right old mess). There was not, however, a kitchen sink.
The francesinha was a culinary revelation. This sausage buttie, steak sandwich, bacon and egg roll, cheese toastie and spicy tomato soup mutant was by far the best sandwich that I have tasted in a long, long time… maybe because it was like having four favourites rolled into one… and then some.
I was hooked and have only the city’s steep streets to thank for not becoming ridiculously portly in Porto.
Fact File: you can pick up a francesinha just about anywhere in Porto. They average around €6/7 which might sound a bit hefty for a sandwich but as a francesinha is really a full blown meal, it’s actually very good value. I thought the ones in Avis Café were savoury sensations but have a look at this blog from people who really know their francesinhas for more suggestions about where to sink your teeth into a good one.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+