Toronto's Secret Sandwich Is a Mountain of Meat, Cheese, and Mystery Sauce
At Toronto's Kapital Restaurant & Grill, only one person knows how to make the secret sauce that covers a steak, ham, sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich.
Photo by Aidan Johnston. Screengrabs via Ryan Varga/Daily VICE.
The Francesinha sandwich is a matter of international secrecy. Ask any chef who makes it what goes into its mysterious sauce and you will probably be met with suspicion and scorn.
What is known about the Francesinha, however, is that sausage, steak, ham, and melted cheese sit between two pieces of toast, which are then topped with a fried egg. That huge mound of protein is then coated in an enigmatic sauce and, as if you could possibly need more sustenance, is served with generous heaps of French fries. It looks like a cross between a croque madame and something from a George Romero film—but, when it’s properly executed, it can also be surprisingly complex and an unparalleled drinking food.
Inside Toronto’s Kapital Restaurant and Grill, nobody has been granted high enough security clearance by chef Paula Silva to know what goes inside the sauce, not even owner Josue Eusebio. Instead, Silva closely guards the sauce production; she makes it in the evenings when nobody else is around—and Eusebio is totally fine with that.
“Believe it or not—I’m the owner of the restaurant, she’s my chef—but she’s the only one who knows the secret of this sauce,” he says. “I don’t know. I don’t ask her how she does it, because that’s her secret, alright? That’s how it is.” Undeterred, I ask Silva what makes the unctuous orangey sauce so special. “The secret? That’s a secret!” she laughs. “I keep it a secret because it’s my work and too many people stole the sauce.”
Presumably fed up with me trying to guess what’s in there, Silva finally relents somewhat and divulges the base ingredients for her Francesinha sauce. “I’ll tell you just some… the basics,” Silva tells me. “The sauce is based in tomato sauce and mustard and beer. After, I can’t tell you, sorry.”
She says she got her recipe from a chef in Porto, in Northern Portugal, literally and figuratively miles away from the far lighter grilled meats and seafood usually associated with Portuguese cuisine. Silva also respects the promise she made to never share its contents, other than those few base ingredients—which could even be red herrings, who knows? The world of the Francesinha is complex and full of intrigue and even the origins of the dish are shrouded in mystery.
According to Eusebio, the word francesinha means “related to France” and according to lore, it may have been invented by a Frenchman, hence, perhaps, the croque madame connection. “This guy used to be from France and then he came to Portugal and he started this dish,” Eusebio recounts. “He worked hard and came up with this sauce—because the secret is in the sauce—it’s got like 15 different things in the sauce and it takes like ten hours to make.”
Ten hours later, the final product might look overwhelming but the sauce ties everything together with a certain acidity and lightness. You might also be tempted to ask for a bow saw to cut through that much bread and meat, but Silva’s sandwich goes down easily, something she attributes to the high quality of meats used at Kapital. Two of my lunch companions had already eaten a Francesinha—in Porto, no less—and they assured me that Silva's was far superior.
Despite originally being from Northern Portugal, the Francesinha is a dish very much at home in Canada. Certain staples—think poutine—make a lot of sense the further you get from the equator, no matter where you are latitudinally. Josue says that sales of the Francesinha are to the tune of 250 to 300 per week, which supports this hypothesis. “I love it so much,” Eusebio says pointing to his belly. “Our Francesinha has been very successful, thanks to our chef.”
Silva, who’s been cooking in Toronto since 2004, and Eusebio, who came to Canada in the 80s, take pride in showcasing the sandwich to Torontonians. “What really makes me happy is Canadians coming here, they get fish and a Francesinha and they like it. We brought something from Portugal and they like it. They gave something to me, so I offer something back to them. I enjoy that part a lot.”
Eusebio also enjoys introducing a younger generation of Canadians to the hearty sandwich, a generation that can really appreciate the Francesinha’s absorbent qualities. “For young people, it’s like a hamburger. Canadians like a hamburger, they’re crazy about it,” he says. “[The Francesinha] is like the Portuguese burger. It’s Portuguese drinking food because people like to drink with it, a beer or draught, that’s what goes with it. We have groups of ten, 15 people who get Francesinhas and they have a few beers and that’s it.”
But, he warns, the Francesinha is not child’s play and should be approached with caution and moderation. “You cannot go crazy; maybe twice a week, three times a week, and that’s fine,” Eusebio advises. “It’s like hamburger. I love a good burger. Eat a hamburger every day and you know what’s going to happen to you... you’re not going to look sexy anymore.”
Eusebio may joke when it comes to his appearance, but when it comes to Silva and her dedication to perfecting Portuguese classics like the Francesinha, he's dead serious. “She’s my anchor,” he says. “I could never do this without her, now that’s the truth, because when it comes to food, she loves it. I thought, ‘Why are you taking so long to make these plates?’ She would say, ‘Please, get out of here and let me do it!’ Because she does it with love—whatever she does.”