On a recent trip to Portugal, Porto stole my heart. I spent my nights traversing its narrow alleys, tall bridges, and challenging staircases. It’s a beautiful city with approachable, down-to-earth culinary roots. Seemingly every restaurant in the city does a version of Francesinha, making it the city’s loosely official dish. You could best describe Francesinha as a Portuguese croque madame. It’s two pieces of thick bread filled with interchangeable meats, pushed on a panini press, completely draped with cheese, and then topped with a thin sauce made from beer and tomatoes.
Aside from those foundations, Francesinha is in a state of perpetual modification. As far as I can tell, that’s the essence of the dish. Of all the restaurants in Porto that serve it, you’ll hardly find it made the same way twice. There are thousands of different iterations: The meats are debatable, the sauce is constantly tweaked, the sides are different, etc. The place I first ate Francesinha was O Afonso, the restaurant Anthony Bourdain visited on Parts Unknown.
O Afonso pays tribute to Bourdain with a beautiful mural of him in the dining room. Several other smaller portraits of him surround it. There’s also a framed quote from his episode of Parts Unknown, in which he welcomes the Francesinha arriving at his table with: “Good Lord, look at that thing.” The whole vibe is very Catholic—Saint Anthony, the patron saint of good digestion.
The rest of the restaurant is decorated with Formula One race cars and empty packs of Marlboro cigarettes. While O Afonso will forever be an Anthony Bourdain joint, it also strikes me that it easily could have been blessed by Guy Fieri. The race car décor, the unpretentious staff, the heavy meals—Portugal, for all of its contributions of port wine, olive oil, seafood, and tapas, reminds me of an American city. If this place was located in West Virginia, Guy would have been on the case, and the Francesinha could just as well exist in Pittsburgh as it does Porto. O Afonso even serves lupini beans and an appetizer I swore was a pepperoni roll, things I ate growing up in Western Pennsylvania. I couldn’t shake this feeling that O Afonso felt like middle America. Maybe all bridge cities are the same. I’m sure Bourdain saw something overwhelmingly human in Porto.
The Francesinha is a simple, European, working-class sandwich. I hate superlatives, but this is one of the best things I’ve cooked this year. The recipe I’ve included is an adaptation of what I ate at O Afonso. A word to the wise: Don’t bother chasing authenticity. Authentic ingredients are often elusive. Plus, we’re thousands of miles away from Portugal. We don’t live in Porto. You and me? We live in whichever bridge city or suburb or town in America. Letting the dish reflect that is true to its spirit.
The Francesinha I had at O Afonso, the one that came recommended, was pork only. You’ll find versions that include steak, and I tried making it that way, but I’m not super on board. If you do add steak, it has to be pounded pretty thin or else it’ll be overly chewy. Plus, the addition of beef suddenly feels like the dish is a gimmick, a way to stack meats like some sort of Man Vs. Food challenge. Keep it simple: I used Italian sausage, a link of linguica, and mortadella. That’s more than enough.
A lot of recipes online say to use a combination of beer, white wine, port wine, and whiskey, but I refuse to believe that using all of that really deepens the flavor in any way. Port wine would be preferred, but we’re not close to the source, so I’m using beer. More specifically, I’m using Bud Light Clamato. My plan here was to enhance the tomato flavors. Don’t be scared of the clam part— it’s not overbearing, and really most of what you’re getting is probably MSG. Not the worst thing.
- 6 oz. ground Italian sausage, formed into a square patty
- 1 link linguica sausage
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- ½ white onion, thinly sliced
- 1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 celery rib, roughly chopped
- 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 pint Bud Light Clamato
- 2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 2 slices Texas toast or any thick white bread, each slice the width of your thumb
- 2 slices mortadella
- 4 slices Muenster cheese
- 1 handful fresh flat leaf parsley, stem and all
- An egg or French fries to top (optional)
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat a Dutch oven or small pot over medium-high heat. Add the sausage patty and cook both sides, but don’t worry about doing so fully; it’s all going in the oven later. Once it’s cooked roughly 80% of the way done, remove the sausage patty, wrap it in plastic and set aside. Then cut open the linguica lengthwise to butterfly it, cook it 80% of the way in the same pan. Remove, wrap in plastic, set aside.
Sweat the garlic cloves and sliced onion for a few minutes in the same pot, stirring around to pick up any bits of sausage left on the bottom. After a few minutes, add the carrot and celery. Cook for another 5 minutes.
Now add the 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. Stir for another 3 minutes.
Add the chicken stock, the pint of Bud Light Clamato, and the Worcestershire. Toss in a few bay leaves, and cook for 30 minutes to an hour. (The chicken stock, if homemade, already has some carrot, celery, and bay leaf in it, but we want to amp that up just a little more.) Strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve, and put it back on low heat. Salt, pepper, and add 2 tablespoons of butter to finish. The thickness of the Francesinha sauce should be a step up from soup: not too brothy, but still pretty thin. If you absolutely have to use a slurry, go ahead, but the tomato paste should have thickened up this ratio nicely.
In a hot pan, turn your two pieces of buttered Texas toast into, well, toast. Sear one side, flip, then add your meats like you’re making a meat grilled cheese on the stove. Since you probably don’t have a panini press, I recommend pushing this sandwich down with your hand for a few seconds to compact everything.
Now place on a sheet tray or casserole dish. Drape the sandwich in Muenster cheese. I used four slices; the cheese should completely cover the sandwich. Place in the oven on 300 degrees Fahrenheit for about 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted thoroughly. Serve on a plate, top with sauce, an over-easy egg, French fries, etc.