The Sammy Olympics: Chivito vs. Francesinha

I am a fiend for stacks of protein (usually protein and add-ons) stuffed in between two slices of bread.

Yes, I admit it…I’m a sandwich maniac! I can immediately think of dozens of sandwiches I have enjoyed in my own kitchen for decades:

*tuna salad with celery
*sardines on French bread with butter, onions, parsley, lemon, olive oil
*the BLT
*egg salad
*rare roast beef on white with lettuce and mayo
*ham on rye with Gulden’s mustard
*Schmulka Bernstein salami on seeded rye, with mustard and tomatoes
*left-over beef goulash sandwich
*liverwurst with onions, mayo and mustard

The list goes on forever. But…then…when I think about distinctive sandwiches I eat out there…My GOD!

*Philadelphia hoagie piled with Italian meats and fried peppers
*New Orleans muffalletta
*fried shrimp po’ boy
*Carnegie Deli corned beef and pastrami with russian dressing, cole slaw
*Philadelphia cheese steak
*Parisian croque monsieur
*Vietnamese banh mi
*Istanbul street corner lamb’s head on hero
*hot brown from Louisville
*Monte Cristo

This list ALSO goes on forever.

Which is the best? I have thought about it often…ever-ready for the desert-island question! Many old faves have been given consideration…

However…I must confess…a new sandwich swam into my ken about a year ago, that, some say, is the greatest sandwich on earth. A game-changer. It is the Uruguayan chivito, in all its muchness. In fact, there ought to be a special category for sandwiches like these: those sandwiches on which more is more, those sandwiches which try to multiply and conquer. A simple tuna sandwich couldn’t begin to hope for victory in the Sammy Olympics against a monstrous tower such as the chivito.

There are chivitos all over Montevideo, and beyond. There are restaurants devoted to the chivito; there are other restaurants that feature it as part of a bigger menu. I have good news for us statesiders: the chivito thrives in New York City, and elsewhere in the U.S. I’m posting the following photo, because I want you to see what you can get without an 11-hour flight from Miami. Here is an excellent chivito made at a wonderful Uruguayan restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called Tabaré:

A chivito grows in Brooklyn

You’ll notice the intricacy…or at least the multiplicity!…of the structure: grass-fed filet mignon (a chivito IS a steak sandwich), bacon, mozz, black forest ham, fried organic egg, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, Spanish olives, butter lettuce, vine tomatoes, aioli, served on a bun, usually with a side of fries.

It works like a house on fire. Of course, there’s lots of chivito creativity in Uruguay, so you are likely to see who-knows-what added to your chivito. (NOTE: one of the favorite Uruguayan variations is the Canadiense…which includes Canadian bacon!). Whatever is on your steak sandwich, you can be sure it’ll be warm, drippy, heavy, lightened by fresh vegetables. It is a trip.

But is it the ultimate trip?

When I was in Uruguay last year, I scarfed a score of them. Me luv me chivito. It was definitely zooming to the top of my international sammy chart. And when they told me that Anthony Bourdain proclaimed it his favorite sandwich in the world, I was almost there…because Anthony’s word is golden, to me.

But then, a few months later, came my September return to Portugal, to the city of Porto–where I remembered an old sammy flame of mine: the francesinha (pronounced fraan-ses-SHEEN-ya). And the chivito was suddenly in gold-medal trouble.

Ah, the francesinha. Virtually unknown even in Portugal, outside of the northern city of Porto, and its environs.

Porto, the home of the francesinha

But in and around Porto…OMG. It is a religion. Say “francesinha” to any resident of Porto…..and you will get a cascade of recommendations. “THIS is the best francesinha in Porto.” “No, THIS is the best francesinha in Porto.” “No, you’re both crazy…THIS is the best francesinha in Porto.” It goes on, eternally.

My passion re-ignited by my September visit…and with the recent memories of chivito floating around in my mind’s palate…I realized the truth:

Call me a francesinha man. I declare the francesinha the world’s greatest sandwich–particularly if you’re in that very special category of wacky, way-too-much sandwiches! It was apparently invented in Porto about 100 years ago, by a Francophilc restaurateur who wanted to make a Portuguese version of the Croque Monsieur. Francesinha means something like “the little French one,” or, “Frenchie.”

Okay…what’s on it?

It is a panini-ed sandwich, on good white-bread type of bread.

It is built, usually (there is no classic recipe), from a steak, a hamburger, Portuguese ham, and two or three types of Portuguese sausage. Cheese is melted on top. A fried egg is usually placed on that. Then there’s the sauce: a rich, orange-colored sauce, always made from beer and tomatoes, sometimes with paprika added, always served in copious quantities above and around the sandwich.

Here’s a strip-show of a francesinha I recently tangled with in Porto:

A just-served francesinha, with a fried-egg on top

A francesinha with one of its sausages sticking out

Steak exposed

Ham extracted

The gooey, glorious mess of a half-devoured francesinha

Now you need to know: which are MY favorite francesinhas in northern Portugal?

If you’re going to Porto, you must visit a little place called Bufete Fase. Without doubt, for me, it is the greatest francesinha on the planet, with a cult following. It’s a tiny lunch place, with one man behind the counter artisanally, carefully making all the francesinhas. There are three tables, as I recall. Prepare to wait in line!

My other fave is in a city called Vila Real, which is about 60 minutes from Porto. Go there! Cardoso is an ancient-feeling, historic francesinha restaurant, with a long lunch counter, and more piles of sliced steak and sausage ready to go than you could ever imagine! The Cardoso francesinha doesn’t have the crazy lushness of the Bufete Fase francesinha, but it does define the subject. It is classic. I can’t imagine visiting northern Portugal without checking in for a francesinha here!

Now, if you need immediate gratification…the chivito ain’t so rare in the U.S. As I showed you, there is a great one in Brooklyn (at Tabaré), and there are other great ones in the Uruguayan strongholds of Queens. They’re also possible to find in South American neighborhoods across the U.S.

But my fave, the francesinha, ain’t so easy to find on these shores. I’ve never had one here, in fact. However, as I was researching this story, I became aware that several places in and around Newark, New Jersey (a Portuguese bastion) do serve them. I have no idea if they’re authentic, or good, or great…but you can be sure I’m going there soon to check them out! If you beat me to it…please let me know what you think!

Here are the New Jersey three:

Porto Restaurant and Bar
369 Washington Ave
Belleville, NJ 07109
(973) 450-4600

Porto Lounge and Restaurant
286 1st St
Jersey City, NJ 07302
(201) 420-9550

Cafe Opcao
68-76 Wilson Ave
Newark, NJ 07105
(973) 344-0004

Come hungry!

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One Response to The Sammy Olympics: Chivito vs. Francesinha

  1. Don Clemens November 27, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    David, you’ve done it again. I was happily eating my homemade (leftover) turkey and swiss sandwich, when I scrolled across your post. Damn! I feel deflated.
    The photos help, but if you ever figure out a replicable recipe for that Portuguese masterpiece, I would certainly appreciate it!
    Best regards,

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