Face to face: I finally meet Francesinha. She’s a stunner.

I have a special place in my heart for complicated sandwich-as-meal inventions. Whilst in Porto I took the time, twice, to introduce myself to one of my food bucket list objects of desire.

When I was a teenager I read a lot of Hunter S. Thompson. I spent a fair while unravelling the truth from his fiction and enjoying what he had to say. One thing regularly stuck out for me though, alongside his fevered narcotic consumption and never-ending thirst for Wild Turkey was his careful detailing of what he ate. Or more specifically how many Club Sandwiches he consumed along the way. Discovering the triple-decked Club Sandwich was a revelation to me and I would happily consume them wherever I saw them advertised. Delighting in the sacred combination of bacon and chicken, but always insisting on coleslaw, fried egg, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and lightly toasted cheap white bread.

Once the knowledge of the existence of the Francesinha drifted my way it raced into the upper echelons of the Gobble Gallery, an often greasy list of foodstuffs I must consume before I die. Probably of heart failure. It is a noble list which used to contain Calzone, squid ink pasta, Souvlaki, Burek, Kobe beef, and currently contains such unknowns, to me, as the Beef Wellington and Pho. Here was a potential rival to the Club Sandwich I thought.

Francesinha are Portuguese born and bred, and most famously associated with the country’s second city, Porto. Check out this guy spraying a slightly disturbing picture of one onto the front of a stage used in a music festival in the city:

A Francesinha being spray painted onto a live music stage in Porto

Francesinha usually consist of pieces of fleetingly-fried bread, housing a who’s who of cured and cooked meats, coated in a melted cheese niqab and doused very liberally with a slightly spicy red sauce apparently made from a beer base. Variations include putting even more meat on top, which even to me feels superfluous, or more often just a fried egg – the ‘Especial’. This artery-troubling package of joy is usually accompanied by chips and a glass of cold Super Bock lager.

Oh man, just writing these past two paragraphs has sent my mouth salivating so much I might have to give Noah a buzz.

When I booked a trip to Porto it didn’t take long for my Most Wanted food list to heave its corpulent bulk into view and prod me with a flabby finger:

Oi, Booth, you need to get your chops around a Francesinha, and some custard tarts while you’re away.”

I barely even heard the second suggestion (though they are also very tasty) because that ugly but strangely alluring beast Glutão had his voice drowned out by my raving fingers scrambling through the Internet to discover the ‘Best+Francesinha+Porto+Portugal’. I found this blog post by Brenna Holeman of This Battered Suitcase fame, it has much better photography than mine but as ever when I get a bit food crazy I forget to snap the surroundings.

The gist here is that it persuaded me to visit the Café Santiago because it was only a few minutes walk from my lodgings at the Tattva Design Hostel. After checking into the hostel we pretty much ran to the Café Santiago, I had scoped out the route on Google before we even left the UK… Standing outside the Café my heart sank briefly, not because of the impending assault upon its valves and tubes, but because the tables were completely occupied. I pushed open the door and headed up the stairs at the back to see if there was any more room. There wasn’t. The waiter signalled to us with a beaming smile and a smorgasbord of hand gestures that it would be five minutes until a table cleared, and would we like to wait on the stairs?

“THIS IS A DISGRACE!” I shouted and flounced out.

And so ended my attempt to eat a Francesinha.

Tiny violins played the saddest song in the world to lament my failure. And Tenacious D wrote a tribute to it.

Nay, the event didn’t actually sound anything like this. I humbly and hungrily accepted the waiters’ proposal and let my eyes eat up the meals already delivered to the broth of happy heads on the café floor. They were almost all Francesinha. As promised we were seated soon after and I picked the Francesinha Santiago from a menu which, unusually for me, I barely needed to investigate. This type is equivalent to the Especial seen in most other restaurants, so it would come with a fried egg on top, surrounded by a palisade of chips. Kristina was less ravenous and so went for the basic Francesinha.

First came the beer.

And then came the food, warbling an enticing song that only I could hear.

A tear rolled down my cheek.

Kristina and our Francesinhas at the Cafe Santiago, Porto, Portugal

I think they look a bit like little tables with cheese tablecloths.

I tucked in.

Oh yes, THIS is exactly what I hoped for.

It was sooooo goooood. And worth all those extra o’s. I didn’t want to pick apart the meaty strata too much because I wanted to enjoy the taste sensation as intended. What I did manage to divine was that the Francesinha Santiago has mortadella ham, normal ham, perhaps a thin pork chop, spicy sausages, and some other porky fun as well. The cheese was so stringy I often had to wind it around my fork like spaghetti. The sauce was lovely and even Kristina, who usually hates sauces, approved. Though she did also manage to cut in half and almost eat the toothpick holding the sandwich together, so maybe she’s not the best one to ask.

My Francesinha Especial, at Cafe Santiago, Porto, Portugal

Check out the stringiness!

All too soon I had ticked off another entry to my food bucket list. I poked at the plate with my fork, carving arcane runes in the remnants of the sauce, trying to conjure more food into being. And then Kristina told me she was totally full so I finished hers off as well. BLAM!

Feeling like a happy butterball I left the Café Santiago a most contented man. We returned the next day for another go and it was just as good a second time. Is it better than a Club Sandwich? Well I reckon it’s a better main meal than a Club Sandwich because a Francesinha is much hotter. However it is a lot messier to eat and you couldn’t shovel it down in an emergency. But they are quite different animals. They serve different pangs so I am delighted to announce that they can live together, in perfect harmony, in their own cage in my meal menagerie.

Due to our wandering feet and eyes over the long weekend we spent in Porto we worked out that the Café Santiago is slightly more expensive than other Francesinha joints. My one was, I think, 9.50 Euros plus 1.30 Euros for a beer. You can see other places around the city advertising for as little as 6 Euros. Crucially though all these other eateries didn’t have awards for their Francesinha posted prominently but not intrusively on the window. Naive or lazy I may be on that point, but it worked for me.

Whatever you do don’t leave Porto without trying a Francesinha somewhere. But, boys and girls, I would recommend following the herd down to Cafe Santiago, on holiday.

The Café Santiago can be found at Rua Passos Manuel 226, and here’s their website for opening times.

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2 thoughts on “Face to face: I finally meet Francesinha. She’s a stunner.

  1. thisbatteredsuitcase says:

    Ha ha – glad to know my SEO is working! 😉 Seriously, though, how good is that sandwich? The kindness of the staff there also made me feel okay about spending a few extra euros. Glad to know that you enjoyed the experience as much as I did!

    • Ha, indeed!

      It was so good that I’m sitting here back at work intensely sad for not having some sort of delivery service here. *grumble grumble*

      When I went to Lisbon, years ago, I was astounded by how rude staff were. Porto couldn’t be more different. I am very glad of that fact.

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