FALL RIVER — With all deference to the brown-bag stalwarts of tuna fish salad or peanut butter and jelly, there’s really no end to what can go between two slices of bread to make a sandwich. That’s certainly true in Fall River, where handheld cuisine has a distinctive character as pronounced as the local accent shared by sportscaster Jerry Remy and star chef Emeril Lagasse.
Chouriço and fries sub
Nick’s Coney Island Hot Dogs is one of the most venerable of the wiener palaces in southeastern Massachusetts and northern Rhode Island. They all serve the so-called “Coney Island” dog on a bun with a topping of spiced ground meat sauce. Locals joke that Fall River has a Coney Island shop and a Catholic church on every corner.
The narrow joint with old wooden school desks along one wall was founded by Nick Pappas in 1920. It distinguishes itself by making fries the old-fashioned way. Place any order involving potatoes and the cook will pop into the back for fresh russets from a farm in nearby Tiverton, R.I., and place them one by one in a retro wall-mounted potato cutter. Pulling down hard on the lever produces perfectly segmented, square-cut pieces to pop into the fry basket.
The fries are integral to Nick’s most unusual sandwich: the chouriço and fry sub. The cook carefully arranges fried Portuguese-style chourico (pronounced shoo-REES in these parts) on the bun, then lays potato wedges lengthwise so the diner can wrap his or her mitts around the meal. Mustard is optional.
Cook Amanda Thompson serves a steady stream of customers all day long, but says that Nick’s is “particularly busy for the late night post-bar rush on the weekends. They come pouring in for a bite to eat before they go home.”
Hot cheese sandwich
Jennifer Pacheco confirms that J.J.’s Coney Island enjoys a similar late-night rush even though it stands just across South Main from Nick’s. Created by two police officers in the mid-1970s, the establishment is now owned by Pacheco’s mother, Elsie Medeiros. The long room is lined with big plate glass windows that let the sun shine in. J.J.’s is a family kind of place, and the menu reflects that homey atmosphere. Medeiros and another daughter make fresh layer cakes and bowls of “sweet rice,” as the Portuguese version of rice pudding is known in Fall River.
Of course, J.J.’s sells Coney Island dogs but it also upholds the Fall River tradition of the hot cheese sandwich, which local lore says was created at the now-defunct Nite Owl Diner on the other side of town. “People say that ours is just as good,” Pacheco says.
The sandwich consists of melted cheddar cheese heaped neatly on a hamburger bun. Place an order and Pacheco stirs up the cheese that’s held in a stainless steel canister in a hot water bath. She carefully ladles out the cheese, allowing the gooey conglomeration to form a thick, cheesy layer on the bun.
“It’s real stringy and hard to handle when we first melt the cheese,” Pacheco says, “and some people like it that way. But more people prefer it after the cheese has been melted for several hours.” At that point, the cheese assumes a soft, pillowy consistency that belies the slight bite of sharp cheddar.
Some aficionados like to top their sandwich with mustard and relish while others prefer it plain. The vast majority, however, opt for a little drizzle of Coney Island sauce. Naturally, J.J.’s has its own secret recipe.
The hot cheese sandwich is not as simple as it sounds. “A lot of people say they try to make it at home and they can’t,” Pacheco says with a smile.
Chow mein sandwich
The most unusual sandwich in Fall River is served at Mee Sum Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge. Regina Mark, who owns Mee Sum with her husband, Kenneth, subscribes to the story that an anonymous New Bedford diner invented the chow mein sandwich by accident.
“He asked for some bread to go with his takeout order of chow mein,” she explains. “The restaurant was out of bread so they gave him a hamburger bun. He took it home and made a sandwich out of it.” One of New England’s most idiosyncratic dishes was born.
The sandwich is so popular that when the Fall River noodle factory that supplies area restaurants was closed for a few months after a fire, Mee Sum made its own noodles to keep the culinary tradition going. Cook-owner Kenneth Mark deep-fries the noodles in soybean oil to make them extra crisp.
Mee Sum’s chow mein is the classic East Coast version, with large slices of celery and onion in a thickened brown sauce flavored with soy. It can be served plain over the noodles or with added beef, chicken, or shrimp. In any case, the generosity of the chow mein overwhelms the bun. Diners settle into cozy booths inside the wood-paneled dining room to tuck into their meals with knife and fork.
When a customer orders a chow mein sandwich for takeout, the kitchen wraps the combination in a special water-resistant waxed paper. By the time the diner arrives home, the noodles have soaked up the sauce and the sandwich is ready to eat — drip free.
The sandwich has a loyal following. Emeril Lagasse speaks fondly of devouring Mee Sum’s chow mein sandwiches when he was growing up in Fall River, and he still pops in for a takeout order when he comes home. He’s not the only Fall Riverite with a jones for the dish. “Three to four generations of families come here,” says Regina Mark, whose in-laws opened their first Chinese restaurant in Fall River in 1950. “When snowbirds come back from Florida in the spring, they stop for a chow mein sandwich before they even unpack.”
If you go . . .
Nick’s Coney Island Hot Dogs
534 South Main St.
Open Sun.-Wed. 10 a.m.-midnight, Thur. 10 a.m.-1 a.m., Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-3 a.m.
Chourico and fry sub $4.50, hot dog $1.40; cash only
J.J.’s Coney Island
571 South Main St.
Open Mon.-Wed. 8 a.m.-midnight, Thur. 8 a.m.-1 a.m., Fri.-Sat. 8 a.m.-2:30 a.m.
Hot cheese sandwich $2.50, hot dog $1.45; cash only
Mee Sum Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge
1819 South Main St.
Chow mein sandwiches $4.25-$6.95; cash onlyContact Patricia Harris and David Lyon at harrislyon@