After a thorough discussion of Porto’s native Francesinha sandwich, a few of us decided to do a comprehensive tasting and find the very best preparation of the sandwich throughout the city.
We researched the restaurants that had the finest reputation for various versions of this wildly popular, traditional sandwich which can be found all over the place in Porto’s “tipico restaurantes.” I have been enjoying the sandwich for about seven years now and when arriving in Portugal before the rest of our group, I’ll sneak off alone to my favorite place, which is Café Majestic. I was pleased to learn of a few other restaurants that offer outstanding Francesinha sandwiches as well.
The FTLOP panel consisted of 2 Portuguese (Oscar Quevedo & Gonçalo Devesas) and 2 American palates (Andy Velebil & Roy Hersh) to provide a broad spectrum of opinions. Andy was finally going to lose his Francesinha virginity and he was ready for the challenge. Having a good palate and enjoying fine food, I knew he’d be perfect for this wild ride.
For those that are unfamiliar with the Francesinha sandwich and its history, I won’t try to rewrite the book and can suggest the best place to learn is either in the Food threads on FTLOP’s Forum, (if you so choose) but this is a totally unbiased version to be found on Wikipedia.
Our very first stop was Café Majestic, (Rua Santa Catarina, 112-4000-442 PORTO Tel. 22 200 3887) claims to be the birthplace of Francesinha circa 1995, which is the reason we chose to go here first, to see where it all began. Not everyone buys into the story that Majestic was first and other places also make similar claims. The Café was established in 1921 under a different name, (Café Elite) and converted to Café Majestic the following year.
The Majestic’s version of the Francesinha contains single grained bread, grilled ham, steak cut from the tenderloin (think filet mignon) and a neutral flavored cheese easy for melting. The hot sauce which framed the sandwich is a mix of red pepper, beer and ruby Port cooked together with a shrimp sauce for several hours at a high temperature. They chose beer because it lends such a fine flavor. The sandwich is generously garnished, crowned by a prawn and the sandwich sits atop the piquant sauce.
Notable positives were the freshness of ingredients but the beef albeit tasty, was lightly overcooked. The cheese was plentiful but not overwhelming with fine flavor and although the sauce was spicy and mildly hot, it is not overdone, and was quite complex in terms of the profile.
Gonçalo: 92 points; felt the sauce is more sweet than spicy and prefers it hotter
Oscar: 93+ points; steak is overcooked, enjoyed distinct flavors of the ingredients.
Andy: 92 points; happy to try his very first version and get a reference point for those to follow
Roy: 94 points; Ham not too salty, bread holds the moisture well and did not seem soggy. Spicy!
Group score: 92.75
Bufete Fase – (Rua Sta. Catarina, 1147 Porto, tel. 22 205 2118) – Our second stop took us to this tiny eatery, akin to a jewel hidden away; Fase (or “phase” in English) is captivating in its stark simplicity and the entire place possesses just four tables with capacity for a total of fourteen diners chef/owner José Meneses Pinto Filipa has built quite a “cult-like” following for his fabulous version of this signature sandwich and has even become known in local culinary circles. In fact, FASE won the Francesinha Festival in 2003 and was chosen by one of our panelists (Oscar) due to the fact that it offers his personal favorite Francesinha in Porto.
Bufete Fase is a casual local joint, with an exposed kitchen where there are no secrets (except the sauce) and a few Panini grills to cook the bread. Sandwiches are all prepared from scratch and cooked to order. They mentioned that some other well-known places prep them up ahead of time and then just cook them.
Chef Filipe incorporates four meats into his sandwich including: sausage, linguica, roasted pork and steak. The smoked meat is superb and the mélange of flavors derived, quite memorable. The Linguica is a stand out ingredient with wonderful flavors. The sauce is far more intensely spiced and fragrant than Café Majestic and Filipe’s recipe takes about five hours to prepare. But I am not so sure everyone would enjoy the sauce this hot/spicy. The cheese is simple, crispy and not of the highest quality. The bread is fresh and very thickly sliced. The steak is cooked to perfection. I found extreme heat on the aftertaste; but this is one of the many reasons why locals love it here.
Gonçalo: 94 points; sauce was creamy with full body and very good flavor.
Oscar: 95 points; overall this is a great version, eye appealing but slightly too hot.
Andy: 94 points; complex flavored meat and sauce, really like this version a lot.
Roy: 94 points; the sauce is very hot and spicy, while nearly overpowering some of the intricate flavors of the various grilled meats. The freshness and attention to degree of doneness on all meats was a pleasure with lots of variation in the textures too. Go with “sauce normal” unless you really like it spicy. It paired well with the fire extinguishing and delicious Sagres beer they had on tap.
Group score: 94.25
Next on our path to discover the greatest Francesinha, we headed to A Restaurante Regaleira, (Rua do Bandardim, 87, Porto, tel. 22-200-64-65) which was established in 1953. They have been making these sandwiches for the past 66 years and they also claim to be the “original producer of Francesinha, in Porto.” I believe this to be true and Daniel David Silva bought Regaleira after he had lived abroad in France and decided to make a Portuguese version of the infamous Croque Monsieur sandwich. His creativity led to what we now know as the Francesinha. A mid-sized “tipico” restaurant, slightly run down and adorned with white table cloths, while sporting displays of old magnums of wine from the 1970’s – 1980’s. Otherwise the décor is quite Spartan in style and furnishings, completely old-world authentic Porto, in every sense of the phrase. After drinking a beer apiece in the last two restaurants, our panelists decided to switch off and try a “buyer’s own brand” Vinho Verde to accompany our sandwich. I should mention that this particular restaurant was chosen by Gonçalo, who loves it here.
As the sandwich approached, we were looking forward to tasting this one. The bread used in this sandwich is very firm to the cut and at least a day old if not two. The sauce is hotter in the spice profile than Bufete Fase due to copious quantity of cumin powder. The cheese quality is better here than the aforementioned restaurant too. Included in this version are two distinct types of sausage, and some roasted pork as well, which contains lots of smoky flavor. Yet, there was no beef whatsoever in this sandwich, showing Francesinha is truly adaptable depending on where it is made.
A Restaurant Regaleira’s Francesinha ratings
Gonçalo: 94 points; very spicy … actually, too spicy, but I like the meat and especially the two types of sausage.
Oscar: 91 points; too much bread and it’s a bit hard, but I like the sauce, even though it is very spicy.
Andy: 87 points; it was hard to get past the stale bread. I like it this spicy!
Roy: 89 points; the sauce was way too hot for my liking, the smoked meats were the best component, but the two day old bread was just too hard.
Group score: 90.25
Now we were really getting hungry and it was time for our fourth version of Francesinha at Chamiço, (Rua da Constituição, 1057, Porto, tel. 22 508 8216). We were now joined by a 5th panel member to fortify our ranks as we started to get even more serious in our quest for the greatest of Francesinha sandwiches. Gustavo Devesas, an employee at the Graham’s Port Lodge and brother of Gonçalo, met us just in time to enter this modern snack bar.
We discussed the Francesinha at Chamiço to make sure that with Gustavo now in our midst, we remained a cohesive group of tasters. I took notes of what was being bandied about the table and did my best to capture the quotes. “Fresh bread; the beef was cooked properly; too much ham; high-quality sausage was being used; moderately spiced; the flavor is “ok” but I preferred the first three restaurants better; it is all in the sauce and this one is not that great.”
Gustavo: 90 points; sauce is too mild and there is way too much sauce.
Gonçalo: 94 points; there is too much ham, but the sauce is not spicy enough.
Oscar: 91 points; the meat and bread are both good and overall I liked this one.
Andy: 92 points; good balance between all ingredients, but the spice is only noticeable on the finish.
Roy: 91 points; tasty but “contrived” as it seems like these are disparate ingredients that don’t fit.
Group score: 91.6
Daytime had faded into night and we headed to a very popular denizen of the Francesinha persuasion. There was a line for a table inside so we decided it was certainly warm enough to enjoy some fine Francesinha outdoors. This was our fifth restaurant since meeting up around 1 p.m.
Restaurante Barrigas (Rua 25 de Abril, 415, VILA NOVA DE GAIA, tel. 227 12 1429) – This had a cool pub feel to it and it was loud and with lots of attractive young people milling about having fun, and it was still too early for dinner time here. Music was blaring and we had to wait quite awhile to be served and even longer to get our food. It mattered not, as we had plenty to talk about while we waited patiently for the next Francesinha(s) to be placed before us. We learned that this was a small chain of restaurants, but our friends took us to this original location known for their Francesinha sandwich wizardry of which they offered several types, plus other regional Portuguese fare. The beer was good and cold and finally … the meal was served with plenty of French fries which we had experienced at each and every stop, the natural accoutrement.
My first impression was that I liked the simple interpretation and the presentation with the fries inserted in the sauce, rather than on a separate plate. There was a good balance of meat, bread and cheese. Overall, from an eye appeal standpoint – very nicely done. Now it was time to take a bite!
Gustavo: 88 points; simple and lacks complexity; the sauce seemed clumsy.
Gonçalo: 87 points; the beef was overcooked.
Oscar: 89 points; the sauce lacked complexity and was too sweet; I agree the beef was too well done.
Andy: 87 points; we’re all saying the same thing. I didn’t like the sauce flavor or the beef either.
Roy: 86 points; unevenly spiced sauce that was thickened poorly. Fries were the best feature.
Group score: 87.4
The next restaurant was considerably better and far less commercialized. Back across the Douro into Porto to a fun restaurant that was right along the Cais but about a half mile from the Ribeira District. I have walked or driven by this place dozens of times and never even noticed it sitting there during the daytime. At night with the signs all lit up, it is far more visible, as you can see, even though it is below street level.
Verso em Pedra (or: Poetry Carved in Stone) ~ (Rua Arménia 16 - Porto, tel. 22 205 8009). The interior is what you’d imagine of a beer driven sports bar, with TV screens all over. Lots of large and small groups of all ages were gathered to enjoy meals, enjoy futbol and a lively drinking scene. Nary a glass of Port in sight though I did notice quite a few people drinking white wine which looked to be Vinho Verde from what I could tell. But this is a beer mecca and “Palacio da Francesinha” could easily have been the name of this restaurant.
With 11 different exotic Francesinha sandwiches as well as the “tradicional” ones, in varying sizes for children, “1/2 portions for women” and then manly sized ones, of course. You name it; Francesinha here came in chicken, mushroom, hamburger, Aphrodisia and many other variations on the theme. We decided to order the Traditional one for comparison sake and also tried the mushroom version which sounded absolutely delicious.
The young and perky staff was very attentive and there was a lot of them working, which was a good thing, as there were groups of 8-15 people all over the place and probably 100+ guests in all. The service was much better than expected and after our last restaurant experience, this was a pleasure. Now for the two versions of Francesinha we ordered:
The traditional Francesinha was good but not remarkable, edible but quirky. The sausage used tasted like your average hot dog and I would have sworn that was what they used. The sauce was creamy with a nice texture but mild, if not bland. The beef was cooked on a “volcanic rock” and the waitress actually brought one over to the table for us to look at and hold, which was a funny moment for sure. For sheer mass and height this version took the prize and was an enormous portion, yet it lacked some of the love we found in the ingredients during some of our experiences earlier in the day.
Would you believe that people could order this thing to eat by themselves with fries and beer? I could not get a straight answer when asking the manager for how many calories were in this dish. My guess would be somewhere around 4,318 calories in this Francesinha incarnation.
Gustavo: 92 points; excellent bread: extremely thick and fresh; I like the cheese and sauce here too.
Gonçalo: 90 points; the sauce to too milky and I don’t like the flavor of the sausage.
Oscar: 89 points; the sauce was nothing special; overall it is an “ok” sandwich, nothing more.
Andy: 87 points; I can’t take another bite; do I have to try the mushroom one that’s coming?
Roy: 88 points; the sausage was a big turn off too me as it reminded me of a cheap ballpark frank. I did like the bread although it was fresh and tasty, it was also cut 1.25” thick. The beef was good too.
Group score: 89.2
The Mushroom Francesinha was our last sandwich ingested. It was our collective 7th sandwich and in some of our earlier visits we had ordered two. In all honesty, this was a fairly large step up in quality from the Traditional and I would be happy to eat half of one of these, anytime. It was still as enormous as the Traditional adaptation, but for some reason a few of the ingredients was much better, although some remained the same. For whatever reason, the sauce in this version was tangy, tasty and much spicier than the Traditional we had sampled a few minutes earlier. There was no doubt that the mushrooms were fresh and sautéed to order for inclusion in this sandwich and were really delicious. Although stuffed to the gills, we had to admit this was a really fine Francesinha.
As our group was starting to look a bit green and it wasn’t the lighting, I just asked for scores only!
Gustavo: 92 points
Gonçalo: 90 points
Oscar: 89 points
Andy: 91 points
Roy: 92 points; much improved sauce, fresh ‘shooms were excellent. Call me an ambulance!
Group score: 90.8
In order of appearance:
Café Majestic: 92.75 points – The classiest of all six dining venues and a must visit.
Bufete Fase: 94.25 points – Clearly the BEST Francesinha in Porto; for the true aficionado!
A Restaurant Regaleira: 90.25 points – Deserves kudos for inventing this great sandwich.
Chamiço: 91.6 points – The finest bread used on any of the Francesinha sandwiches.
Restaurant Barrigas: 87.4 points – Loved the outdoor ambience and music scene.
Verso em Pedra: 89.2 points – Friendliest & the best looking staff. Order one w/ mushrooms!
Overall Competition Ranking:
#1 finish – Bufete Fase: 94.25 points
#2 finish – Café Majestic: 92.75 points
#3 finish – Chamiço: 91.6 points
#4 finish – A Restaurant Regaleira’s: 90.25 points
#5 finish – Verso em Pedra: 89.2 points
#6 finish – Restaurant Barrigas: 87.4 points
(average overall points given – 90.9 points)
CONGRATULATIONS TO BUFETE FASE, the FTLOP Grand Award winner for their superb Francesinha. The lowest score given at Bufete Fase by any of our panelists equaled the highest score given anywhere else. From a pure “foodie” standpoint, this place is unrivaled and lived up to its amazing reputation.
WARNING: Do not try this on your own. Do not try this at home. Do not let your friends or children try this. Do not drive after attempting 10+ hours of Francesinha, French fries and beer, wine & water. The pure caloric intake of that one day, exceeded any in my entire lifetime. I kid you not. The rest of the aftermath will not be discussed, written about and hopefully can be forgotten … some day in the not too distant future. That said, I still love Francesinha!
Now for the good news. Upon returning to Porto in May, three of the participating panelists will return to BUFETE FASE to hand deliver the award from FTLOP, take some photos and to share this article with them. And then we’ll all eat there! I hope that it will provide some fun word of mouth advertising and attract some clients who are looking to experience the Best Francesinha in Porto!