I fear I’ve let my people down. As a Philadelphian, I take perhaps inappropriate pride in my ability to eat copious—or, more accurately, unhealthful—quantities of meat and cheese, especially when they’re sandwiched together between the cushiony flanks of well-chosen bread. Indeed, even as a young lad, I boasted of my sandwich-demolishing acumen: The standing deal my father and I had, as we drove back to the suburbs from Sunday-afternoon Phillies games, was that he would buy me two cheesesteaks from Dalessandro’s if I was able to finish the first one before we arrived back home. (Also, I wasn’t allowed to tell my mother that I was consuming nearly my body weight in fat and protein.)
But last week, my steak streak came to an end: At a friendly, unassuming diner in Porto, Northern Portugal, I was confronted with and ultimately defeated by a sandwich that has taunted me for years: the francesinha.
It’s a mouthful of a name for a mouthful of a sandwich. Rendered phonetically as fran-seh-zheen-ya, this gut-buster is traditionally consumed in and around Porto, a beautiful city more famous for its association with its eponymous wine. And, as I’d been told countless times before, it is best enjoyed at night, preferably after a bit of imbibing, or before a bit of imbibing, or, let’s be honest here, while imbibing.
Like the cheesesteak, there are infinite variations on the classic, but it’s generally agreed that a proper one includes a garlicky, smoky linguica sausage, ham, grilled steak, fresh sausage, cheese melted on top and around, and a bath of tomato-beer sauce. All of this is accompanied by fries, and washed down with a beer, preferably Super-Bock, a Portuguese gulper both crisp and refreshing.
This was my third trip to Porto, and my fourth to Portugal overall, and yet I’d never tucked into one of these before. I’d like to claim that this glaring omission in my Portuguese culinary education was the result of scheduling snafus or some other such ridiculousness. But the truth is this: I was afraid. I’d heard stories of grown men brought to their proverbial knees by the francesinha, and I wanted nothing to do with that level of failure—especially as a Philadelphian with serious pride in my ability to gorge myself.
But there was no more putting off the inevitable, and the night before flying home, a group of colleagues and I—we were all there to taste and explore the amazing wines of Vinho Verde, which I wrote about here last week—headed out to Capa Negra, a quick cab ride from our hotel, for a sample.
We ordered several bottles of Vinho Verde and a handful of Super-Bocks. And then the francesinhas began arriving. At Capa Negra (“black hat” in Portuguese), the classic is supplemented with what looked like some sort of sliced olive loaf, the creamy pink expanse studded with oval slices of green olives. But the rest was as I’d expected: A magnificent gathering of all the various ways in which the cow and the pig can express themselves and interact with one another, the steak charred and mineral, the ham vaguely sweet, the linguica punchy, the olive loaf acting like a wormhole through the space-time continuum, bringing me right back to my childhood and elementary-school lunches in brown paper bags. And it was crowned with a fabulous egg: Bring on the defib paddles!
I rushed into a second bite, and then a third. Mouthfuls four through eight went by in a blur. But then the world slowed down. The first prickles of the meat-sweats glazed my upper lip. My jaw failed to move with the same alacrity it had just five minutes earlier.
That’s when the unthinkable occurred: I hit the wall. My colleagues began taunting me. I was suddenly faced with a choice: Would I power through and force myself to finish? Would I gather up all the testicular and gastric fortitude I could muster and plow through the rest of the sandwich?
I looked down at it, glistening in its shimmery sauce. It glowered back up at me. I’m pretty sure it smirked.
I tried; I really did. But in the end, the great francesinha of Porto defeated me. My one solace is the memory: In my mind’s eye, I no longer see the laughing faces of my colleagues; I have managed to get past the hurt and shame I felt at that moment. Instead, all I now remember is that first bite, and the one after it, and then after that, when the world was my sandwich bread, and all the meat stuffed between was just waiting for me. I look back at the magic that that justifiably legendary sandwich elicited that night in Porto. And I smile through the shame. Great food, after all, supersedes the normal spectrum of human emotion, and the francesinha more than earns that mantle.
I just hope they don’t kick me out of Philadelphia for not finishing it, and for bringing whatever shame on our city that has resulted from my failure.
Either way it was worth it: This, indeed, was an epic sandwich, and more than worth the wait.
Dinner with Luke Palladino