Fall River, Massachusetts’ distinctive dining delights include Portuguese kale soup and bean pudding cake, a unique chow mein composed of locally made noodles, and French and British pork pies, not to mention first-class hot dogs and bakery-style pizza. But one of the old mill city’s most stealth dishes, which an unsuspecting traveler might not even recognize as something special, is a hot cheese sandwich. It sounds ordinary—and really, there is nothing wild or freakish about a Fall River hot cheese sandwich, certainly nothing that is going to get it on a TV food show that looks for outlandish eats—but this item, as served by a handful of storefront diners, is hardly bland. It’s unique because of the character of the cheese: good sharp cheddar that’s grated to become rugged hash reminiscent of riced potatoes—soft and rich, but nicely textured rather than molten.
Graham’s, a modest little joint that opened in 1962, keeps its cheese warm in a big metal pot from which it is retrieved by the scoopful, miraculously moist and fluffy rather than clumpy or melted together. When packed into a steamed bun, it makes a sandwich that is warm and simple, but brought to a new level by the intriguing rugged texture of the cheese. package, unique in the great extended family of toasted, melted, and grilled cheese sandwiches, is an essential edible for all cheese sandwich lovers, and especially for anyone who wants the full and real flavor of Fall River. Beyond starring in the sandwich, which costs all of $1.90, Graham’s beguiling cheese is notable for how well it accompanies so many of the other items on the menu, most of which also are Fall River signature dishes.
Take the bean dog. Once again, franks ‘n’ beans are commonplace, but in this diner the combo is transcendent, the beans flecked with glistening petals of onion and suspended in a porky sweet sauce. They’re a hot dog’s finest friend; and when you top the happy duo with a spread of sharp, hot cheddar, you have a truly magnificent two dollar sandwich. If you’d like to take it to the next level, Graham’s will replace the hot dog with spicier chorizo sausage (hereabouts pronounced shore-eese); and if you are on a budget or allergic to cheese, Graham’s also offers a bean dog—nothing but those sweet, piggy beans in a bun. That one costs $1.15.
Graham’s is also is a top purveyor of the hot dog known as a Coney Island (or, over in Rhode Island, a “New York System”). This is a pork and beef fingerling frank that by itself is bland, but fairly glows when haloed by fine-grind beef chili with a kaleidoscope of spice reminiscent of Greek cooking (nutmeg? cinnamon? cardamom? coriander?). Atop the chili goes a spill of crisp chopped raw onions, and atop the onions you want a sprinkle of celery salt. And, of course, the whole shebang can be topped with a dollop of hot cheese. One other alternative is to eliminate the hot dog altogether and simply have a sandwich of hot cheese and Coney Island chili sauce, with or without the chopped onions, in a hot dog bun or a hamburger bun. Graham’s chili cheese fries, made with freshly cut and fried-to-order spuds, are a hearty meal unto themselves.
If you are not a hot dog fan, consider a Whimpy burger. Another Fall River favorite, and just as often spelled Wimpy on diner menus about town, this curiosity is a hamburger topped with big soft petals of onion that have been sautéed in burger drippings. The term Whimpy refers not to the burger part of the equation, but to the onion condiment, which can be had atop hot dogs, cheese dogs, chorizo, or simply beans.
While the variety of sandwich choices at Graham’s is awesome, bargain-hunters should be aware of the house giveaway: Buy six of any one single item and you get the seventh free.
Fall River is close enough to Rhode Island that the favored beverage at Graham’s is the Ocean State’s official drink, coffee milk. Dating back to the early 20th century and probably derived from Old Country traditions of gentling strong coffee with plenty of milk, coffee milk is slightly sweet, similar to chocolate milk, but made with coffee syrup rather than chocolate.
Graham’s is a brick-face neighborhood storefront so plain that it is virtually invisible to an uninformed passer-by. It is a cozy place, paneled in mid 20th century wood veneer, featuring a lineup of “seats” made from vintage school desks with tables attached to the chairs. Although the desks were made for children, a full-size adult will fit—but they’re snug enough to become a not-so-subtle reminder to perhaps forgo that fourth hot cheese sandwich.
Graham’s: 931 Bedford St., Fall River, MA. 508-678-9574