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A gloppy, meaty, cheesy brick served in a pool of sauce and with a mountain of fries: please meet the francesinha, the culinary pride and joy of the city of Porto.

Today, restaurant billboards proclaim in many languages that they serve the best version in the world, revealing the genuine power of this artery-clogging combination that, incredibly, was originally conceived as a snack. We have to say it though: eating a francesinha is worth every last calorie.

This dense sandwich, which is impossible to eat just with your hands, is often considered the lusophone version of the croque monsieur. While some place the origin of the sandwich in the 19th century, one popular story is that it goes back to the early 1960s – a historical moment for the Portuguese diaspora due to the post-war need for labor in Europe.

A returnee, Daniel Da Silva, apparently tried to adapt the classic French sandwich to Portuguese tastes. The snack’s name, which translates to “little Frenchie,” has to do with the spicy sauce, the creator’s reference to women wearing the miniskirt (probably more common there than in Portugal at that time).

Regardless of the origin, the makeup of the sandwich always follows a similar formula. Between two slices of bread are layers of meat, including linguiça (a smoked pork sausage prepared with garlic and paprika), chipolata, ham and beef or pork loin. The whole thing is covered with melted cheese and doused with the famous orange sauce, which is composed mainly of beer, meat broth, a bit of tomato paste, bay leaf and spicy piri-piri pepper sauce. Some chefs might add a secret alcoholic ingredient, such as brandy, whisky or Porto.

The francesinha has seemingly always existed in Porto, but its increasing presence can be correlated with the rise in tourism. With that, reinterpretations abound: the vegetarian version, which might seem at first a paradox, is now being served at Lado B, which is located close to the Coliseu theater and is one of our favorites for enjoying the original version, complete with fried egg on top. “Six years ago I decided to close my record shop and open this café, and it’s going really well,” owner Arturo Ribeiro said. “Our classic francesinha is not as heavy as others, and there are customers who eat it more than once a week; I usually have it for dinner every Saturday.” The veggie francesinha he serves already accounts for around 7 percent of the uptake. Conventional eateries have their own non-standard versions too, some using roast pork, mushrooms and cream, and even prawns or shrimp.

Rankings, routes, cooking demos and festivals devoted to the francesinha are popping up everywhere – not just here. One such festival recently took place at the international fair pavilion in Lisbon. You can also now buy bottled francesinha sauce in national supermarkets.

Back in Porto, locals still adore this “snack” and debate over its finer points: which place has the best quality meat, the finest composition of the sauce or the most fries to soak it up in. But if size is a defining factor in choosing where to eat a francesinha, Cunha probably wins in that respect. Their flavourful version also contains mortadella, and the sauce is unique, as it’s made with a local alcohol that the management takes great pains to keep a secret. This restaurant and patisserie located close to the Bolhão market is known for its great food and is an architectural reference in the city. Its modernist interiors were designed by the avant-garde Victor Palla, together with Bento and João Bento d’Almeida, and is still open until late every day: a classy late-night environment for Porto’s beloved comfort food.

This article was originally published on February 9, 2017.

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