Thursday, February 4, 2010

Recipe: Academica/Caravela-Style Portuguese Steak Sandwiches 2010

Way back in November of 2008, I posted the first recipe for Portuguese-style steak sandwiches on Chop Onions, Boil Water. In that entry I recounted my first experiences with that type of sandwich at a Fall River, Massachusetts restaurant called "The Academica". I went on to explain how my friend Dave Leboeuf had, observed how the locally-famous (now internationally famous, right Kiwis?) sandwiches were made, and how he tinkered in his home kitchen until he came up with a good version. I took his version and tuned it to my personal tastes (admittedly, not much tuning needed thanks to Dave's work) and created my own recipe. This all took place a year or two before I ever posted the recipe online. If you're interested in that Portuguese steak sandwich recipe, just click here.

Since that time, the Portuguese steak sandwich situation in Fall River, Massachusetts has gotten a little "complex". It seems that a while back the cooks at the Academica restaurant decided to open their own place and did so, right on the side of the Academica! They named their new restaurant "The Caravela Family Restaurant" and proceeded to create the same sandwiches and other dishes that they did at the Academica. Today, each place has its adherents and I'm sure they have good personal reasons for which restaurant they patronize. I have my favorite and that's where I take my out-of-town guests and they love it too. Hell, I've even heard there may have been a split at the Caravela and there could be a third contender for the best Portuguese-style steak sandwich in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Why a new recipe you ask? Because, as good as the original one was, it was never perfect. Something about it was always just a little less than authentic and that sent me to thinking about it.

Now, Dave had seen the whole process, he'd seen the ingredients, so why couldn't we absolutely nail it in our home kitchens? I talked to him about it a couple of times and we came to the conclusion that it must have something to do with the repeated cooking. The Academica and the Caravela produce hundreds of steak sandwiches everyday. We figured that the remnants of each steak: the juices, garlic and seasonings are allowed to collect and simmer on that grill over the course of the day, and that somehow effects the final flavor of the steak. In the end this ended up being easy to test because Dave is the president of a social organization and he often cooks some of their large dinners. For a few of those dinners, he decided to create his version of Academica sandwiches and he confirmed that the steaks that came off the stove later in the night tasted more authentic than the ones that were prepared earlier.

After some thought about Dave's experiences I created a work around to avoid having to prepare hundreds of steaks for hours to get the right flavor. I discovered that if you slowly cook some of the ingredients in a separate pan before you cook your steak you be able to recreate what happens on the stoves of these restaurants. It takes a little time, but it is easy and makes a huge difference in the flavor.

Another thing I noticed about the Academica and the Caravela's steak sandwiches were the peppers that came inside each one. They were denser, saltier and not nearly as juicy as the ordinary pickled peppers available in the market. I searched the local markets for similar peppers and tried a variety of them and while the resulting sandwiches were always good, the peppers were never really right. Finally, I asked my Azorean friend Sandy to call her mom and describe the peppers that were in the Portuguese sandwiches. Her mother recognized the description and informed us that they were called "Pimenta Salgada" (salted peppers), she also directed me to the local markets where I could find them. I did find them, and PRESTO they were the real deal. Props to her mom as well because she also gave me a generous amount of them after I had inquired.

The resulting steak sandwiches were, and still are the best that have come out of my home. My wife, who is as big a fan of Portuguese-style steak sandwiches as anyone has pronounced them as better than either restaurant. Yeah, I know... my mom says I'm very handsome as well.

Academica/Caravela-Style Portuguese Steak Sandwiches 2010

2 Tbs olive oil
2 Tbs butter
1 head of garlic (all cloves picked off, peeled and lightly crushed)
Frank's Hot Sauce® or Texas Pete's Hot Sauce®
Steak, not too thick, cubed steak works well. It should be 1/4" to 3/8" thick.
1 cup of dry white wine or beef broth
Stick-style sandwich bread
Pimenta Salgada (Portuguese salted peppers)*
Salt to taste

In a small saucepan or skillet, add 1 Tbs olive oil, butter and a splash of the hot sauce. Place it over a low flame, when the butter is done foaming add all the garlic and allow it to cook SLOWLY until the garlic darkens, softens and just begins to caramelize. Be sure not to burn the mix. I usually start this part of the recipe an hour before I begin cooking the steak. Go LOW with the heat and SLOW with the cooking and you'll be fine.

Season each steak and then tenderize the meat using grid side of a tenderizing hammer. Just a quick going over, don't mash it into goo!

When you notice the oil, butter and garlic mixture close to finishing, preheat a large, deep skillet over a medium-high flame.

Add the remaining olive oil, when it begins to shimmer, add the steaks one to two at a time to the pan.

Brush on a little hot sauce to the top of steaks while cooking.

When steaks are nicely browned on one side, turn them over, brush on a little more hot sauce and cook until browned on both sides.

As each steak finishes cooking, remove it to a covered plate to keep it warm while you continue cooking the others.

When all the steaks are done cooling, raise the heat to high. When pan is hot, add the wine/beef broth and deglaze the pan by scraping it with a wooden spoon while the wine or broth simmers.

Add the garlic, oil, butter mixture to the simmering sauce and continue simmering until sauce becomes thick.

Remove from heat, add the steaks and any drippings to the sauce being sure that each steak is well-coated. Cover the pan to keep steaks and sauce warm while you prepare the sandwiches.

Slice the bread, add the sauce soaked steak, be sure to get some garlic in there. Top with a slice or two of pimenta salgada and serve with french fries.

*Pimenta salgada can be purchased at Portuguese grocery and specialty shops. They are very salty, you may want to rinse them in fresh water or soak them in water during the cooking time to cut the saltiness. If you don't have them in your area don't worry, I'll be posting a recipe for making your own in the next few days.


  1. Henry, I don't know you and I have never typed a comment post. It is very important for me that you know what you have done for me. I grew up in Attleboro Massachusetts. When I was a little boy my best friend Joe Pavao had family in Fall River. On special weekends I would get the priveledge to accompany my friend on these trips and we would eat portuguese steak at Academica. As time goes on and you mature and are faced with adult responsibilities of life things you cherish take a back seat. I have always yearned for those days when life was simpler, care free and embraced just to be around friends and family. My girl and I just completed your recipe and it was dead on. I was immediately transcended to what I have sought all these years and one word comes to mind...Thankful. I am thankful for you Henry and that you felt enough about this recipe to post it and play a part in ressurecting my bigger spectrum of what it means to embrace life. Thank you.

  2. Hey Matt!

    Thank you for the awesome comment!

    It is one of the favorite recipes in my home and if I made it as often as my wife requested it, I'd be eating it 3 days a week!

  3. I grew up in Fall River but have not lived there since 1998 or so. I now live in Chicago and only get to eat Caravela steaks once a year. I cannot wait to try this recipe. My mom's recipes for portuguese dishes are excellent, but her steak was not. LOL. Thanks for all the hard work.

    Carlo Matos

  4. We just had them the other night! Thanks for the kind comments!

  5. I'm a Fall River native, who has moved away and I made this recipe last night. This recipe NAILS the flavor that I have come to love my entire life! I modified the recipe a bit to be a steak and egg plate. Thanks!

    1. Awesome! I'm glad you liked it. It is a favorite recipe in my home and we make it quite often!

  6. Kristy L. Alcaidinho DaubeAugust 19, 2012 at 6:42 PM

    I'm from New Bedford, MA and worked in Fall River for a few years in the early 2000s. I have since moved to North Georgia and I so desperately miss Portuguese food. I cook it as often as I can with ingredients my parents send me and am fortunate enough to return home about 3 times a year to enjoy the culture and authentic food, but I do miss my hometown so much. I have never cooked Portuguese steak before, but when I saw your recipe, I had to try it. It is SPOT ON with Academica/Caravela. WOW! My husband and I enjoyed every bite. I can't wait to make it again. Simple and so delicious. Thanks for sharing this. It was fanstastic!!!!

    1. Awesome! Happy to help! This is a regular recipe in my house!