Travel: Quest for perfect Francesinha leads to extra belt hole

Porto, Portugal lays claim to what some call one of the world’s greatest sandwiches. The “Francesinha” is to Porto what poutine is to Quebec.

The first thing you need to know is the Francesinha is not a “Portuguese” sandwich — it is Portuense, meaning, it belongs to Porto. Nowhere else do they get it just right, much like Quebec and poutine. Or so I was told. (More on that later.) No other region appreciates the complexity and beauty in blending its indulgent, but otherwise simple, ingredients.

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On a recent seven-week trip to Portugal, I began a quest to find the perfect Francesinha. My belt still mourns this choice, due to the extra hole since punched into it. Sorry, belt.

What, then, is a Francesinha? Imagine a sandwich layered with a filet of steak, some ham and spicy linguiça sausage covered with a generous helping of cheese, baked until melty and puddling around the bottom. Then, because that’s not enough, smothered in a spicy beer-tomato sauce.

The sauce is not just tomatoes, beer and, say, Tabasco. It’s food of love. Cooked right, it’s a medley of extensive seasoning and spice blended with a deft hand and simmered many hours over a low fire. It should be milled to a puree and thick enough to lightly coat a spoon.

The sauce is considered so essential to a Francesinha, you should exit any restaurant that provides no surplus. Anyone attempting this cardiac onslaught correctly will accompany it with said surplus either in a gravy boat or, if truly traditional, in a covered tureen with a ladle.

To properly eat a Francesinha, one adds hot sauce in increments throughout devouring. Cold sauce is an offense against “the Little Frenchie.”

In Porto, every second restaurant serves a Francesinha. Locals all list different preferred haunts — some hole-in-the-walls, some of legendary acclaim. Ask your cab driver, your concierge and research it. You’ll see.

Culinary “legends” are a curse because seldom do they measure up. New folks come along and the legends get by on legacies alone. Case in point is Bufete Fase, the joint they’ll mention in every “Ten Best Sandwiches in the World” story.

Literally all Bufete Fase makes is the Francesinha. They fry stale bread with the toppings and sauce, then bake it till the cheese melts. They demolish vats of sauce. Vats! I felt it overrated. I was crestfallen. The meat tough, the bread hard to cut and sauce lacked the depth of flavour I knew existed elsewhere.

Most others don’t even rate a mention. Wrong cheese and it’s a plastic-like farce. Wrong sauce just leaves one sad. Bad meat, well, that’s self-explanatory. Bread, that’s the component people differ on the most. Some want a harder, drier bread so it competes in that bowl of sauce. Others want a softer bread so it mushes down.

I found the perfect bread was a strong dough, soft and lovely, but didn’t yield completely to the sauce. This I found in Yuko, a place locals generally don’t mention, but will be impressed you discovered. A $15 cab ride from downtown gets you there. Only open six hours nightly, its black-tie waiters and warm, ambient setting with quiet background music produces a classy air, miles above the standard Francesinha joint, but at €9.50, it’s well-priced. (I saw one for €20, or $30CAD, elsewhere.) Yuko also serves the greatest sangria you’ll ever drink, piled high with fresh fruit in zippy wine.

Their rich, perfectly spiced sauce comes in large tureens. The sandwich requires 30 minutes because it’s made to order and slow-baked in the oven. The meats are tender and it’s topped with a perfect sunny-side up egg, if you fork out the extra buck for one. (And you should.)

As lovely as Yuko’s experience was, I broke Portuense hearts when I confessed the best Francesinha I’ve had is from a hole-in-the-wall dive bar I found up a rickety, narrow staircase in a town with a population of 7,500, about an hour west of Lisbon. Colares’ Colheita 71 (“Vintage ’71”) is where you’ll find Lia Carmo, a squat, friendly woman. Her sidewalk chalkboard proclaims they offer “Francesinha moda Porto” — Porto style. She ain’t kidding. Born and raised in Porto, she defected south, opening her understated, unlikely eatery in a hard-to-find spot. Hers is a family recipe for the sauce. She tells me it sweats and simmers a minimum of eight hours over a low fire, with a secret blend of seasonings. She feels her sandwich is a point of pride, an ode to a classic in a region where no one else cares to get it right.

I had my first Francesinha there, knowing I was breaking the rules by having one outside of Porto, but instead of disappointing me, it instead set me up for disappointment, for nowhere in Porto could they match her efforts. Not until I found Yuko’s, in my last days after nearly two months in Portugal.

Still, when I call to mind the mighty Francesinha, the sandwich I’ll unlikely experience anywhere else in the world, the scapegoat behind the 10 pounds I gained in Portugal, it’ll be one from an empty dive bar in a small town on a quiet weekday night. Ah, memories.

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