We first learned about the sandwich from our cab driver.
"Ah, you're American. How are you enjoying Portugal so far?"
"We love it!" we responded, cheerily. "It is so beautiful and the food is delicious!"
"Of course you think that. Americans would probably enjoy the Francesinha sandwich. It is so fatty."
Now, on a surface you might think... that's pretty rude and offensive. And, while both of those things are true, I never let my pride get in the way of a potential sandwich lead.
"Yeah, probably. What is it?"
"It is a ham, sausage, and steak sandwich with melted cheese on top. It is covered in a beer sauce, and it is usually served with fries. Oh, and sometimes there is a fried egg on top. It is so fatty, but the Americans would probably like it," he said.
You might be thinking, Alright buddy, you made your point, you don't need to keep harping on about Americans liking fatty food. But that is not where my head was. He was 100% correct. I consumed three of these sandwiches over the next seven days.
After learning of its existence, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to find a Francesinha before I left the country. However, I needn't worry. This was a case of frequency illusion. This was the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. (Both things I looked up to intelligently describe what happened next.)
As soon as I knew the Francesinha existed, I started seeing it everywhere.
Seemingly every restaurant I visited over the next week had a Francesinha on the menu. But, not only did they have a Francesinha, they had their Francesinha. Just as our, ahem, honest cab driver had mentioned that "sometimes there is a fried egg on top," well, sometimes there was a fried egg on top. Sometimes the cheese was melted. Sometimes the cheese was baked into the bread. Sometimes the sauce was spicy. The sausage varied. The thickness varied. The temperature varied. However, the name was always the same. Francesinha.
Even though I technically ordered the same exact dish three times, I actually order three completely different sandwich. Each was divine (see: melted cheese), but not fully related to the other... not siblings, but perhaps cousins.
As I learned, this is the trend with Francesinhas - every restaurant has their own recipe, and every local has their favorite spot. Of course, there are famous spots to find it, but I am not sure that is the point. The sandwich doesn't belong to anyone, and there is no wrong place to try it. Just as a local hunts around finding their own spot to get a Francesinha, it is easy enough to collect intel on your own spot while in Portugal. Who knows? You might even discover something they don't know.
Some call it the "Portuguese croque-monsieur," and even claim it was a French immigrant trying to adapt the sandwich into the Portuguese diet that led to its creation. Whatever the reason, it is now an absolute staple of Portuguese, albeit less buzzed about than the pastel de nata. Keep your eyes peeled, and your stomachs empty when in Portugal. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: find your own favorite Francesinha.