Dear Francesinha,

I honestly can’t remember when we first met. I was probably just a young girl who listened to her Walkman too much and liked bad boys with dyed hair, a girl whose knowledge of food didn’t go further than distinguishing her grandmother’s dishes from a Big Mac. Truth be told, I knew very little about life back then. But I always thought you were cute.

Ours was a simple relationship; we demanded very little from each other. For me, you were just an excellent meal before a night of drinking with friends: a portentous sandwich of white bread, with a steak, ham, and a lot of melted cheese, smothered in a beautiful spicy sauce.

You never made me feel sick or uncomfortable and, back then, you didn’t even make me gain weight. Life was light, uncomplicated. Whenever I missed you, all I had to do was meet you at any snack bar in the city, from Baixa to Boavista, and you would satisfy my craving.

But things started to go south over time. Maybe it was my fault. As I grew older, I became more demanding, noticing that your steaks were frequently tough. Your sauces were often lumpy and lacked salt. And sometimes the loaves of white bread were so soft that you would unravel at the first knife thrust. Being aware of this hurt my stomach and broke my heart.

I didn’t give up on our relationship, though. I just had to get to know you better. So I did what anyone would do: In two weeks I tried 20 different versions of you. I wanted to find your best self. Ten pounds and a lot of antacids later, I realized that the bad moments we had together were not your fault, but the fault of those who mistreat you: adding seafood-stock cubes to your sauce or using sliced supermarket bread instead of going to a good bakery.

I was about to give up when I found you at your best, at Café Santiago’s counter, thanks to Mr. Fernando Pereira and Dona Isabel Ferreira, the owners. They were able to recognize your true potential. Sitting on a barstool, I could appreciate the whole process of how they make you beautiful and tasty. Dozens of loaves of good bread and meats wait in turn to crackle on the griddle. First comes the bread, then a fresh sausage. After that, a smoked sausage and finally the steak, lightly seared.

(Photo by Maxine Schnepf)
(Photo by Maxine Schnepf)

Every step has a purpose, and your layers are carefully mounted. Slices of cheese completely cover the bread, leaving a hole for the yolk of a fried egg. Finally, the epic end: They pour the boiling spicy sauce—cooked in the same pot for more than two decades—over this tower of sin.

By this time I’m nearly writhing, desperate to lay my teeth into you. And here you come, smoking hot, surrounded by homemade, hand-cut, perfectly seasoned fried potatoes. We were so happy in that moment, you and me. Remember?

Later I discovered some things about your past. You were born in A Regaleira, on Rua do Bonjardim, near Baixa. Your father was Daniel David da Silva, who had lived in France for quite some time. Inspired by the French croque monsieur, Daniel used leftovers of roasted lunch meat, some different types of sausages, and voilà you were born. He called you “francesinha”—little French girl—because, he said, you were hot and spicy. (This made me like your father a little less, I have to say.)

For years people looked at you exclusively as a man’s dish. They thought girls couldn’t handle your fiery sauce and batch of meats. Can you imagine, my dear, what would have become of us if I had known you back then?

One day at Bolhão Market I grew even fonder of you. I got to know Salsicharia Leandro, the small butcher that provides the sausages used in the best francesinhas in town. This Porto institution is managed by Vítor de Araújo, who has been working there since he was 11. He is 62 now and a true superhero, having rejected several million-dollar proposals to sell the recipe of his fabulous sausages.

(Photo courtesy of Café Santiago)
(Photo courtesy of Café Santiago)

Don’t kid yourself, Francesinha: Most people do not know you like I do. They don’t know how you were born or where the products you need come from. And there are those that actually hate you, calling you a high-calorie-low-level culinary creation.

Some tried to change you, replacing the steak with seitan and the sausage with zucchini. Others put you in the wood oven, cooking you au gratin. They simply do not realize that you, my dear Francesinha, are not and will never be a lasagna. Your cheese must melt by the heat of the hot sauce—nothing else.

I know we haven’t seen much of each other lately. It’s my fault. I moved out of town and haven’t been great at keeping in touch. And you’re so popular now. Whenever I try to visit you at Café Santiago, I see giant queues of people who have come from afar just to meet you. That makes me proud.

I know I can go to other places, try my luck at Bufete Fase, Cervejaria Diú, or even new venues like Francesinha Café, where I’ve heard they treat you like a queen. But Francesinha, there is no love like the first true one. And I will never forget you there, waiting for me at the counter. We’ll always have Santiago.