The 3 iconic Portuguese meat sandwiches: bifana, prego and leitão
In the world of gastronomy, the humble sandwich has transcended its simple origins to become a canvas for culinary creativity and cultural expression. In virtually every culture, sandwiches have unique interpretations. Here in Portugal, they are not merely quick bites but reflections of our rich culinary traditions.
Feat photo by whatforbreakfast
In Portugal, the tradition of sandwich eating extends far beyond the conventional lunchtime fare. We have a versatile approach to sandwiches, making them an integral part of our daily diet, from the morning light to the twilight hours. This custom is rooted in the concepts of pequeno almoço (breakfast) and lanche (mid afternoon or mid morning snack), which are essential elements of Portuguese eating habits. Breakfast often features simpler sandwiches. These are typically light and provide a gentle start to the day. Classics include sandes mista (ham and cheese sandwich), sandes de queijo (cheese sandwich), sandes de fiambre (ham sandwich), or with other cold cuts from the long range of Portuguese charcuterie, as well as the ever-so-simple yet beloved pão com manteiga (bread with butter). These sandwiches are often accompanied by a strong coffee, setting the tone for the day ahead as part of what would be considered a typical Portuguese breakfast.
Photo by A Padaria Portuguesa
The concept of lanche is particularly distinctive in Portuguese culture. It refers to mid-afternoon and mid-morning snacks, a tradition that punctuates the daily routine, and which could somehow be compared to tea time in the UK, fika in Sweden or merienda in Spain. These snacks are enjoyed not only by children but also, very often, by adults. They are not just about sustenance but also about taking a moment to pause and enjoy and, why not, they also serve as a great excuse for yet another cup of espresso to keep you going. During lanche, the sandwiches are again relatively simple, mirroring the choices of breakfast, but they serve as a comforting bridge between the main meals.
However, as we shift towards the heartier meals of the day, the sandwiches transform in character. They become more robust, packed with flavors and textures, turning into a meal in themselves. This is where the meat sandwiches – the focus of our article – come into play. These sandwiches are served in cafes and local pastelarias, in snack bars and restaurants, but also often found in street food settings, making them a popular choice during festivals, concerts, and other public gatherings, like for example the festivities of St. Anthony during June in Lisbon (pictured below).
Photo by Câmara Municipal de Lisboa
Eating a Portuguese meat sandwich is both convenient and delicious. In this exploration, we delve into three meaty marvels – bifana, prego, and sandes de leitão – which are without a doubt the most iconic sandwiches from Portugal. They may be quite simple indeed, but each one of them is a testament to Portugal’s love for hearty and soul-satisfying fare, and eating them certainly represents a worthy culinary experience when traveling around Portugal.
Photo by Cultuga
Bifana: the classic Portuguese pork sandwich
The bifana, which stands out for its flavor as much as it does for its simplicity, is a testament to the Portuguese culinary philosophy of making extraordinary dishes out of ordinary ingredients. At its core, the bifana is about pork, even if the name may be misleading for English speakers as it certainly brings up the idea of beef to the mind. To make a juicy bifana, the pork cutlet is traditionally marinated in a concoction of white wine, paprika, garlic, and a blend of herbs. Even though, in certain contexts, particularly outdoor parties during which grills are set up in the streets, bifana can also stand for an even simpler grilled pork steak tucked inside a bun.
The origins of the bifana are modest, emerging from the taverns and local markets of Portugal, where they were a staple for workers seeking a quick, affordable, yet nourishing meal. Its roots are often traced back specifically to the town of Vendas Novas, where Portuguese foodies are known to travel to for the sake of seeking to experience the sandwich in its most authentic form. The town boasts numerous eateries dedicated to perfecting this simple yet flavorful sandwich, each claiming to serve the quintessential version of this Portuguese classic. Despite its origins and the prestige of Vendas Novas’s bifanas, many argue that the ones found in Lisbon could easily rival those of its birthplace in both taste and quality.
Over the decades, this sandwich has woven itself into the fabric of Portuguese daily life, becoming a beloved meal or in-between-meals snack enjoyed at all hours. The true art of the bifana lies in its balance. The pork must be tender but not overly soft, its edges slightly crisped from a quick fry, so that each bite has some textural contrast. The marinade, absorbed into the meat, offers some gentle aromatic spiciness that hits the spot and is often complimented by washing it all down with a cold beer. The bread, typically a soft roll with a crisp crust, is the perfect vessel – sturdy enough to hold the juices yet yielding to every bite.
Variations of the bifana do exist, and have mostly to do with the marinade. Some cooks would switch the white wine for beer, while others prefer to add a more pronounced touch of spice. But the essence usually remains the same and it overall translates into a celebration of simplicity and flavor. To enhance your bifana, eateries usually provide mustard and spicy piri-piri sauce to be added according to taste.
These are the best bifana spots in Lisbon:
As Bifanas do Afonso
Once a Lisbon working class favorite, now it forms a queue of locals and tourists who have heard Sr. Afonso indeed serves some of the best bifanas in Lisbon
📍Rua da Madalena 146, 1100-340 Lisbon
Solar da Madalena
The bifanas at Solar da Madalena may well be the best-kept secret in the Downtown, wich has gone unnoticed, a tasty hidden gem in a spacious place with welcoming staff. Probably the real best bifanas in Lisbon – Find out by tasting them on our Lisbon Roots – Food & Cultural Walk
📍Rua da Madalena 228, 1100-335 Lisbon
The eatery where Anthony Bourdain indulged in a juicy bifana when he came to Portugal to shoot the Lisbon episode of No Reservations
📍Praça Luís de Camões 48, 1200-283 Lisbon
A Parreirinha do Chile
This snack bar in Praça do Chile is run by the self appointed “rei das bifanas” – the king himself will cook you an exemplary Portuguese pork steak sandwich
📍Praça do Chile 14A, 1000-098 Lisbon
Photo by XtremeFoodies
Prego: the quintessential steak sandwich from Portugal
If the bifana is an ode to pork, then the prego is a tribute to beef. The prego no pão (literally “nail in bread”), stands for a beef steak tucked inside two layers of bread, while the word prego by itself, unless listed on a sandwich menu, would normally refer to a steak served on a plate, with a variety of side dishes, similarly to a bitoque, minus the fried egg.
The prego‘s charm lies in its simplicity and heartiness. It starts with a thin slice of beef, typically cut from the rump or sirloin. This steak, marinated in garlic (a staple in the typical Portuguese kitchen) is either grilled or shallow pan-fried, often with olive oil, though not exclusively. The result is a steak that’s rich in flavor and satisfyingly juicy. This succulent piece of beef is then nestled within a fresh bread, traditionally a crusty roll but in more contemporary interpretations of the sandwich, it could also be in a bolo do caco, that is, a fluffy flatbread made with wheat and sweet potato, typical from the portuguese Atlantic archipelago of Madeira. Independently of the choice of bread, the crumb is usually enhanced by a smear of mustard or garlic butter, which makes the bread even more welcoming to the meat to be tucked in it. The combination of the warm, tender steak with the crispness of the bread creates a delightful contrast, both in texture and taste, making the prego an irresistibly hearty sandwich.
The roots of this Portuguese steak sandwich can be traced back to the old butcher shops of Lisbon, where simplicity in cooking was prized above all. Here, butchers would grill or fry leftover cuts of beef, serving them as a no-frills meal or snack, often in a bread roll for convenience. This practical solution to avoid wasting meat gave birth to a culinary tradition that quickly spread across cafes and eateries in Portugal. The evolution of the prego from a butcher’s quick snack to a national favorite mirrors the Portuguese approach to food: taking humble ingredients and transforming them into something wonderfully satisfying.
In Portugal, the prego holds a unique place not just in the sandwich spectrum but also in dining traditions. Interestingly, it is often consumed as a sort of “dessert”, following a seafood meal. This practice might seem peculiar to visitors, but it’s deeply ingrained in Portuguese dining culture. After enjoying the lightness of a mariscada, that is, an assorted seafood meal, the prego offers a satisfying, protein-meets-carbs conclusion to the meal, balancing the flavors and leaving diners fully satiated. It’s a tradition that initially surprises many, but trying it often leads to an understanding of how this seemingly unconventional pairing beautifully rounds off a dining experience. So, whether enjoyed as a standalone meal, a quick bite at a local cafe, or as the surprising finale to a seafood feast, the prego remains a testament to the unpretentious yet mouth-watering culinary heritage of Portugal.
Best places to eat an authentic prego in Lisbon:
Rui dos Pregos
This is a prego focused restaurant going strong for over two decades
📍Doca de Santo Amaro, Rua da Junqueira 506/512, 1300-598 Lisbon
A beloved no-frills eatery in the neighborhood of Alvalade
📍Av. Rio de Janeiro 19, 1700-330 Lisbon
This uber popular seafood restaurant serves one of the finest pregos in Lisbon, thus showcasing the popular habit of indulging into a steak sandwich after a typical mariscada
📍Av. Alm. Reis 1 H, 1150-007 Lisbon
Photo by Dany in Bairrada Informação
Sandes de leitão: the exquisite suckling pig sandwich
The sandes de leitão, or the suckling pig sandwich, is where tradition meets indulgence. Before exploring the sandwich itself, it’s essential to understand the cultural significance of leitão (roast suckling pig) in Portugal, particularly in the Bairrada region. Renowned for its piglet BBQ, Bairrada has become a pilgrimage site for culinary enthusiasts. Many Portuguese travel to this area in central Portugal, drawn by the promise of savoring this dish, highlighted as one of The 7 Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy, and whose cooking process is a meticulous art.
The pigs, typically young and milk-fed, are seasoned with a blend of local spices, including garlic, pepper, and sometimes a hint of lemon or orange. But the true magic happens in the roasting process. The suckling pigs are roasted whole in wood-fired ovens, a method that imparts a distinctive flavor and texture to the meat. The type of wood used is crucial, as each variety lends a unique aroma to the leitão, with some preferring the subtle smokiness of oak or eucalyptus to enhance the flavor profile. This roasting process results in meat that is tender, succulent, and richly flavored, contrasted by a skin that’s irresistibly crackling and golden. Historically, leitão was a dish reserved for special occasions in Portugal, such as weddings and large family gatherings, symbolizing celebration and abundance.
As the fame of Bairrada’s leitão spread, this delicacy made its way to the bustling streets of Lisbon. Somewhere along this process, roasted piglets transitioned from a plate-bound feast to a more accessible street food format, in the shape of sandes de leitão. This adaptation of serving the roasted meat in a soft yet sturdy bread roll has made the dish more attainable for the everyday consumer, allowing everyone to experience a taste of this cherished tradition, whether it is still in the center of the country or anywhere else along the Portuguese map, including our capital city.
It’s important to note that despite its availability as a sandwich, the sandes de leitão is not as common or affordable as the prego or the bifana. Its preparation is more labor-intensive, and the ingredients are costlier, making it a less frequent, though equally beloved choice among locals.
Whether enjoyed in the heart of Bairrada or the bustling streets of Lisbon, the sandes de leitão continues to be a symbol of Portuguese culinary pride. Though a more modern iteration, the sandwich way of eating piglets (which does not mean roasted suckling pigs aren’t eaten on their own still as well), carries with it the essence of the traditional roast suckling pig, offering a nostalgic taste which obviously resonates with locals but tends to be well-liked by visitors too, as they partake in this delicious tradition.
Where to eat suckling pig sandwiches in Lisbon:
A mecca for down-to-earth Portuguese sandwiches in Lisbon
📍Rua do Comércio 2, 1100-321 Lisbon
Afonso dos Leitões
Simply put, one of the very best places to indulge into spit-roasted suckling pig in Lisbon, in sandwich format or otherwise
📍Rua da Junqueira 486, 1300-598 Lisbon
Eliseu dos Leitões
To sample a good sandes de leitão away from the tourist crowds, in the neighborhood of Benfica
📍Condomínio Parque Colombo, Rua Álvaro Benamor 2B, 1600-894 Lisbon
The bifana, prego, and sandes de leitão are more than mere sandwiches. They are culinary icons that can get you closer to the essence of Portuguese food culture bite after bite. These are the types of down-to-earth and democratic foods shared by most Portuguese. They are usually affordable, particularly bifanas and pregos, and as they are well liked by the masses, they can say quite a lot about the unifying power of food. If you are into sandwiches, with meat fillings and so much more, do not miss our recommendations for where to eat the best sandwiches in Lisbon.
When you travel to Lisbon, we would definitely recommend for you to try the most representative of Portuguese meat sandwiches hoping that, while at it, you get to taste a little bit of the soul of Portugal. For further local food recommendations, follow us on Instagram where we share regular content, and sign up for our newsletter to receive curated tips straight in your inbox each month.
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