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Notable Sandwiches #43: Chopped Cheese
A New York cult favorite that's taking over the world
Welcome back to Notable Sandwiches, the feature where we trip merrily through the strange and ever-shifting document that is Wikipedia’s List of Notable Sandwiches, in alphabetical order. This week, David takes on New York’s finest: the chopped cheese.
Much like America’s collective sanity, the chopped cheese sandwich blew up over the course of 2016. Unlike the very foundation of our political system, however, the chopped cheese blew up in a good way—going from local favorite in a few uptown New York neighborhoods to a spot in the national limelight. Consider this—in a January, 2016 article for the website First We Feast, author Justin Bolois made the following observation: “Poll a random collection of New Yorkers about the chopped cheese and you’re likely to garner more than a few blank stares. Yet in certain parts of the five boroughs—most notably Harlem, but also pockets of the Bronx and Queens—the bodega specialty is as iconic as the tinfoil-wrapped BEC, steeped in regional lore and subject to fierce rivalry.” By the end of 2016, the New York Times’ Ginia Bellafonte opined, “were we to review the year in terms of gastronomic controversies, we might begin and end with the debate over chopped cheese.”
Six years later, the chopped cheese is everywhere. In the last month alone, there have been headlines about the sandwich in Minneapolis, Denver, and Detroit. You can find dozens of songs on Spotify named after the chopped cheese, which is a longtime favorite of the hip-hop scene. (Just this week, Pittsburgh rapper Fedd the God released Timberlands and Chopped Cheese.) And next week sees the publication of Ghetto Gastro Presents Black Power Kitchen, in which the Bronx-based food collective provides a recipe for a plant-based “chopped stease” sandwich.
How to explain this meteoric rise from cult curiosity to Times trend-piece topic to near ubiquity? To start with, it is a truly great sandwich. Something like the bastard offspring of a Philly cheesesteak and a classic cheeseburger, the chopped cheese is cheap, filling, and delicious. At the start of 2016, I had (admittedly, shamefully) never heard of a chopped cheese. Today I consider it, arguably, New York’s most iconic hometown sandwich. (The argument boils down to whether you consider a dirty-water hot dog a sandwich, and whether New York can truly lay claim to the pastrami on rye or the bacon, egg, and cheese.)
Unlike so many of the sandwiches we’ve covered in this series, the chopped cheese has an origin story that is not really in doubt. According to street lore, thirty-odd years ago, at a bodega in Spanish Harlem, the late Carlos Soto chopped up and griddled a hamburger patty with onions and American cheese, stuffed it all into a hero roll, added tomato and shredded lettuce, and topped it with ketchup and mayo. Apparently, someone had ordered a cheesesteak, and he improvised. The bodega, located on 110th Street and 1st Avenue, is now called either Blue Sky Deli or Harlem Taste or Chopped Cheese Delicious, depending on which awning you’re looking at. But everyone knows it as Hajji’s.
One wrinkle to the chopped cheese origin story is the possible contribution of an unnamed Hajji’s employee from Lebanon, a nation with a cuisine rich in chopped, minced, and ground meat dishes, such as shawarma (chopped), sfiha (minced), and the mysterious dagha yamneeya (ground). In fact, the appeal of griddling or frying chopped or ground meat is apparent in dishes as diverse as larb ped (ground duck) from Thailand, menudo (ground pork) from the Philippines, and chili con carne (ground beef) from Texas. Anyone who has labored over an authentic ragù alla Bolognese knows how magical the browning process is in coaxing the most out of the ground beef. It’s the same reason a smashed burger is so good. It’s called the Maillard reaction.
An alchemical dance between amino acids and sugars, the Maillard reaction is “what creates the crust on your steak or burger, the golden brown color on your toast, and the complex, pleasing aromas and flavors that accompany that browning,” according to esteemed food brainiac J. Kenji López-Alt. “It's the smell of a steakhouse and fresh bread from the oven. And it's the smell of a good burger joint. It doesn't just make meat taste good, it actually makes it taste more meaty.” The more browning, the better the flavor. And a chopped cheese is basically like a cheeseburger gone “OOPS! All browning.”
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If there’s a patient zero most responsible for the chopped cheese’s transition from ghetto staple to culinary sensation, it may well be designer and entrepreneur Joel Fuller, aka. 40oz Van, who was first introduced to the sandwich in the mid-nineties. In February, 2013, Van took a video crew from the web series Munchies up to the Bronx for a chopped cheese, and the cat was officially out of the bodega. The next year, the late Anthony Bourdain spread the word further, when he encountered the sandwich during a “Parts Unknown” episode in the Bronx. And in 2015, Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote in a review of Williamsburg eatery The Meat Hook, “I ended up eating something that I would call the greatest cheeseburger I’ve ever tasted if not for the inconvenient fact that it wasn’t a cheeseburger. What I ate was a chopped cheese sandwich, also known—in the very small patch of the United States where it is known at all—as chop cheese.”
Just to reiterate: as recently as 2014, Bourdain—America’s foremost guide to global cuisine—had yet to encounter a chopped cheese. And in 2015, the New York Times chief restaurant critic—America’s foremost guide to Big Apple cuisine—had also yet to encounter one. But their respective imprimaturs were critical to the coming explosion of 2016. So too was the rise of the Bodega Boys, Desus & Mero, the recently-split Bronx-bred duo who have done more than anyone to spread the gospel of the chopped cheese. If 40oz Van is the sandwich’s patient zero, then Desus & Mero were the super-spreaders.
In the first episode of their “Bodega Boys” podcast from September, 2015, Desus described the indignity of trying to find a chopped cheese in Los Angeles: “Like, is this organic chopped cheese? Did you use organic bread?” A few years later, on their late night talk show for Showtime, the pair taste-tested sandwiches with top chef (and Top Chef host) Tom Colicchio. They taught Alison Roman how to make a chopped cheese at home. And they traveled the Garden State to sample a version at Salt Pepper Ketchup in Hawthorne, NJ.
Over numerous interviews during their time together, Desus & Mero were adamant on what constitutes a proper chopped cheese (hint: it has less to do with the quality of the ingredients than of the establishment in which it’s made.) In short, the bodega should smell “weird”; there should be someone—either a vagrant or an employee, or both—moving boxes around in the back; there has to be a cat around, and a hookah for sale behind the counter (which should be behind bulletproof glass, obviously); and the person making the sandwich should go by the name “Akhi” or “Papi” and be in possession of a fake social security card. The Bodega Boys took their sandwiches seriously, so was it any surprise that, when the erstwhile partners announced their split earlier this summer, fans buried their sorrow in chopped cheese?
Today, the sandwich that constituted the New York Times’ food trend of 2016 has both spread and mutated. You can get versions from tiny Tannersville, NY, to Tokyo, Japan. In 2022, Desus would have no trouble finding satisfactory chopped cheese in Los Angeles. In fact, Harlem-raised, L.A.-based chef Anthony Arias sells a variety of versions out of his New York Chopped Cheese food truck, including chicken, vegetarian, Southern barbecue, and picante. Back in Queens, NY, Jeremy Batista sells specialty chopped cheeses from his Bodega Truck, including sandwiches inspired by the BEC, Buffalo chicken wings, pizza, and even the Dominican chimi. A few miles South, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Rahim Mohamed has become an internet sensation crafting wild takes on the chopped cheese, made “The Ocky Way.” Elsewhere in New York, you can find chopped cheese empanadas, sliders, and burritos.
But the original remains the gold standard. In Eater’s 2019 list of “NYC’s 26 Most Iconic Meat Dishes”—which included such favorites as the Mutton Chop from Keen’s, Momofuku’s Bo Ssäm pork shoulder, Peter Luger’s Porterhouse, the Cote de Boeuf for two at Minetta Tavern, and the namesake specialty at Peking Duck House—the chopped cheese at Hajji’s on 110th Street took the number one spot. I should note, I suppose, that the list was ordered geographically, from North to South, and, again, Hajji’s is on 110th Street. But it deserves its place among the icons of New York. In the words of Princess Nokia:
And in case you wonderin'
I'm from Harlem, babe
I'm the diplomat girl with the Harlem shake
I'm on first ave, gang, we at Hajji's, babe