“The chopped cheese is probably a drug-dealer sandwich,” says Harlem-born rapper Bodega Bamz. “It hasn’t really [spread its wings] yet, unlike the Philly cheesesteak, which is more of a trademark. But it’s a premiere item in New York.”
His enthusiastic embrace of the dish isn’t shared by everyone in the city, though. 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.
The comparison to a cheesesteak is a natural starting point for understanding the sandwich, which on the surface appears to be NYC’s answer to the Philly’s signature export: In place of thinly sliced steak, ground beef is grilled on a flat-top with peppers, onions, and seasoning, chopped with a metal spatula, covered with cheese slices, and dressed with standard-issue condiments like lettuce, tomato, hot sauce, and mayo. A more conservative definition demands that it’s served on a toasted hero, but rolls are a minority option too.
“It’s not like a Wolfgang Puck dish,” says Bamz. “There’s not some secret ingredient, like, ‘Oh my god, where did you get the beef from, Poland?’ But it’s a piece of culture that New York only has. It’s for us.”
Just as real New Yorkers have tricks for weeding out the impostor Halal Guys carts in Midtown, a loose formula exists for identifying chopped-cheese purveyors. Crucially, the deli must have a grill. But there are other, less obvious signs of authenticity: “If a place has a Yelp review, you already know their chopped cheese is going to be trash,” says Bronx native and Twitter/TV personality Desus Nice, who—along with his cohort The Kid Mero—grew up eating the sandwich. “A good chopped cheese has to come from a bodega that has bulletproof glass, a cat, and a guy behind the counter named Mohammed, Papi, or Ahki.”
Yet any further attempts to divine its history and emergence into bodega culture will lead you down a rabbit hole of tall-tales and discrepancies. “Facts are thin on the ground with this sandwich,” wrote New York Times food critic Pete Wells in an e-mail. “There are various precedents; it’s not too different from the Loose Meat or Tavern sandwich of the Midwest, but I don’t really believe it came to the Bronx from Iowa. It’s slightly more likely that it comes from Philly, but I’d say only slightly more likely.”
“It’s a piece of culture that New York only has. It’s for us.”
It’s no surprise that the marriage of cheesesteak and burger into one form has also given the chopped cheese a reputation for being a favorite late-night drunk food. That’s how I first caught wind of it about a year ago, from two whiskey-loving friends—including a New Jersey transplant who pronounces Mario “mary-oh”—living in Crown Heights. On their wall hung a whiteboard with a tally representing how many nights they had gone without eating a chopped cheese. They made weekly runs to the bodega on Nostrand and Bergen, but I soon learned that if I were to do my due diligence and follow the trail back to its spiritual home, I’d have to take the 6 train up to East Harlem.
On 110th and First Avenue sits Blue Sky Deli & Grocery, known informally as Hajji’s, which Uptown personality and entrepreneur 40oz Van calls the “mecca of chopped cheese.” Van starred in a brief segment for Karma Loop about his favorite spot in Washington Heights on 164th and Broadway, but anecdotally speaking, it is generally agreed upon that Hajji’s is the de facto birthplace of the sandwich.
“Hajji’s was serving chopped cheese 10 years before it went anywhere, before Washington Heights and the Bronx,” insists Bamz, who first came across the sandwich in 1996 as a youth at the Harlem Boy’s Club, where he was introduced to it by the son of an Afghani bodega owner. “That was revolutionary. I respect [people] putting others on to it, but you can’t get that twisted—East Harlem was the hub of chopped cheese.”
Behind the counter, “Big Frankie Frank” works the grill and motions to a plaque on the wall of his deceased friend, Carlos, who played a formidable role in hawking chopped cheese to the community—including local music royalty. Across the street are the 1199 apartment units, home to family members of hip-hop mogul Damon Dash and Harlem rap legend Cam’ron Giles. “They’d come here all the time when they were young, before they were famous,” says the store manager Salah Alhubaishi.
Alhubaishi had me scroll his Facebook for proof—sure enough, his photo albums featured multiple selfies of himself next to Dash and Jim Jones, flashing the peace sign. Hajji’s rap cred was subtly immortalized years later in a Cam’ron music video, which shows the emcee hanging out in the bodega and, at one point, slipping behind the counter to finesse what looks to be a rectangular heap of hamburger meat on the grill.
“My grandmother lived directly across the street from Hajji’s,” says Cam. “People travel from Yonkers, Bronx, and Queens to eat there. I didn’t use Hajji’s in Killa Season,” he says, referring to his cultish semi-autobiographical film about drug-dealing in the neighborhood. “There was too much traffic going in and out of there, and they wanted too much [money] to use the spot. But I did use Hajji’s for a video I did called ‘Child of the Ghetto.’”
Having located the source, I was hoping to find clues about the chopped cheese’s evolution, and whether I could trace its origins to a certain short-order cook, or momentous ‘aha!’ moment similar to when manager Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya—unable to locate his chef, and faced with the task of feeding ten military wives—melted cheese on tostadas and added jalapeños, giving rise to what we now call nachos. But most of the conversations with the Hajji staff was pure postulation—the type of boasting and brouhaha you’re used to hearing at your local bodega. Big Frankie claimed to have invented chopped-cheese sandwiches with Carlos 15 years ago, but Alhubaishi argued that Hajji’s had been serving them for, at the very least, 20 years.
Like many bodega store managers across New York City, Alhubaishi is from Yemen, and he offered a theory that ties into the rise of halal chicken and rice: Chopped cheese was an adaptation, a meal inspired by an Arabic sandwich, دقة يمنية (“dagha yamneeya”), which is essentially cooked chopped meat and vegetables, served with Yemeni bread. The Middle East connection may explain why another Yemeni bodega floor manager in Clinton Hill described chopped cheese not as a strictly definable dish, but rather as a method. “It’s a process that you can do with steak or roast beef. As long as you chop it up,” says Taw, who runs Classon Avenue Grocery & Deli. “They chop up everything in Yemen,” including things like lamb heart.
East Harlem may be the widely accepted ground zero for the chopped cheese, but other territories claim ownership of this hyper-regional sandwich too, leaving its form open to many interpretations by other bodegas.
“It’s a hood delicacy,” says Chris “Speedy” Morman, a Complex News anchor who was raised on chopped-cheese sandwiches in Queens. “It’s one of those sub-culture things. You only know about it if you’re from here.” Morman swears by Hollis Deli near Jam Master Jam Way, which chops the beef into quarter-sized chunks, but admits he will also eat versions with finely chopped beef.
While media outlets continue to debate best-burger lists and revise restaurant power rankings, chopped-cheese connoisseurs wage their own war of words on the fringes of the food-world discourse. “There’s definitely a rivalry,” says Morman. “I have friends from Harlem, and they’re always like, ‘We have the best ones!’” At Desus’ local bodega in the Bronx, he orders the “Desus,” made with bacon, pepper-jack cheese, roasted onions, and kettle chips.
The competition may have been amplified recently thanks to a rare moment in the spotlight for New York’s most marginalized sandwich: On a Bronx episode of Parts Unknown, host Anthony Bourdain is tipped off to the chopped cheese by a group of Bronx students listing off their favorite local specialities. The reference to the dish essentially put the bodega classic on the map for people outside the Tri-State area.
Despite migrating to different neighborhoods over the course of many years and taking on new variations, the chopped cheese retained its underdog status, evolving into a popular reference point for NYC rappers eager to rep their roots. Unlike filet mignon or champagne, typical markers in hip-hop of success outside “the hood,” the chopped cheese is a proud look inward—a local’s-only symbol of NYC regionalism similar to 8 Ball jackets and Timberland boots—and all the more reason why Uptown rapper Audubon paid tribute to it in his song, “Chopped Cheese.” In the intro, Audubon sets the mood that will shape the next four minutes of the track: “Frankie this shit feels like 3 in the morning / Ahki shit / Like I need a chopped cheese right now.“
“It’s a way to connect to an area,” says the Washington Heights native. “If you know the hood, you know it feels like home.”
Inter-borough rivalry and hip-hop mythology bred a sub-culture around chopped cheese, but its appeal also seems to have sprung from practical concerns, such as price point. “It costs less than a cheesesteak,” says Barry, a Harlem resident who was at Hajji’s during my visit. “A chopped cheese is $3.50. A Philly is $5. A lot of people couldn’t afford that, so they came up with a chopped cheese,” he reasons. Budget constraints may also have been instrumental in influencing its signature form. For instance, one way to extend the hamburger meat is by ordering it in a hero instead of a roll, which requires a structural adjustment—to avoid overhang and properly fit a burger patty into a hero, one must chop it up to ensure even distribution.
“There’s definitely a rivalry. I have friends from Harlem, and they’re always like, ‘We have the best ones!’”
For reasons that may have to do with economics, NYC migration patterns, or the inscrutable network of bodega owners, the chopped-cheese fiefdom has expanded into other parts of New York. Brooklyn is no stranger to the phenomenon, either, but unlike Uptown bodegas, none of the outer-borough delis that I visited advertised it on their menus; you had to ask, or be in-the-know. At one bodega on Nostrand, I happened to overhear a woman named Angie order two chopped cheeses for her sons. Originally from Uptown, she says the authentic version is rooted there but concedes that “it’s anybody’s food now.” At that same store, I talked to Jeremy Mbu, who first heard about it when he moved to Queens. “It was a rite of passage to eat one,” he says.
At Finest Deli on Nostrand and St. John’s, the man behind the grill, Ali Kali, said they serve 40 a week, mostly to younger kids who moved from Queens and the Bronx. But there is no discernible pattern to identifying chopped-cheese shops in Brooklyn—just random clusters. A few blocks away on Prospect and Nostrand, the bodega employees didn’t serve it, despite knowing what it was. The man at the register, Abu Saleh, explained that at the bodega he worked at on Bedford and Greene, the demand was low. “But at Lafayette and Franklin, I was busy making them all day.” Meanwhile, in neighboring Bed-Stuy, when asked if one bodega served chopped cheese, the man behind the counter was at a loss: “A what? Look in the case.”
Most Uptown bodega employees swore I’d be “laughed at” if I asked about chopped cheese in lower Manhattan, but I struck gold on my first try. A spot on 6th Avenue between 25th and 26th in Chelsea sells it—albeit at a premium price tag of $6.90 on a hero, $5.90 on a roll.
“NYC is notorious for its regional take on pizza and sandwiches, so it’s crazy how the chopped cheese hasn’t really broken free from that [geographical] boundary,” says Gil Calderon of The Meat Hook Sandwich Shop, a popular Williamsburg spot lauded by the New York Times for offering, among other things, an updated version of the chopped cheese. His secret, he explains, is using grated cheese instead of traditional slices—a maneuver that he says wouldn’t work at a bodega, where short-order cooks have to keep their griddles at a lower temperature to prepare various types of food all at once. “[It’s] both melty and crispy, and throughly incorporated,” he explains; Wells agrees, noting in his two-star review that the update solves the architectural “flaw” of cheeseburgers—namely, how the cheese often sticks to the bun.
This rare crossover from bodega obscurity to the pages of the New York Times suggests that the chopped-cheese story may only just be beginning. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d only cracked the surface of its elusive origin myth. Was there a Philadelphia link I couldn’t track down? Were bodega owners passing trade secrets that I wasn’t privy to? Maybe a lone Bodega Kingpin was tracking my footsteps, conspiring against me. All the more reason why I felt determined to get to the bottom of this, not only for my friends back in Crown Heights who tipped me off to chopped cheese in the first place, but also for Salah in East Harlem, for 40oz in Washington Heights, for Desus in the Bronx, for Angie in Brooklyn—a whole patchwork of people purportedly bound by a simple bodega sandwich.
“You can’t just be a ghost hunter,” warned Bamz when I pressed him about how he thought the chopped cheese came into existence. “When you start breaking the code, you begin to realize this sandwich ain’t shit. It needs to have a secret to it.”