Yesterday, we dug into the history of one of NYC’s most enigmatic culinary icons, the chopped cheese—or what is essentially ground beef “chopped” on a flat-top with peppers and onions, smothered in cheese, typically served on a toasted hero. Think of it as the perfect marriage between a hamburger and Philly cheesesteak.
After three months of tracking down bodega owners, mining rap music videos, and talking to experts in the food world, here are a few things we discovered about the bodega classic’s origin story:
- East Harlem’s Blue Sky Deli, informally known as Hajji’s, is considered the de facto birthplace of the chopped-cheese sandwich. But it is also popular in parts of the Bronx and Queens, setting the stage for a fierce inter-borough rivalry.
- It’s a popular reference for local rappers like Cam’ron and Audubon, who use it as a shorthand to rep their NYC roots.
- Anthony Bourdain’s mention of chopped cheese in his Parts Unknown: Bronx episode introduced the regional specialty to many people outside the Tri-State area.
But as of late, the chopped cheese’s geographical boundary has expanded into parts of Brooklyn, including Williamsburg, where the The Meat Hook Sandwich Shop has taken the sandwich out of its natural habit and created an updated version. Under the guidance of Gil Calderon, The Meat Hook swaps slices for grated cheese, which produces crispy, fried bits that are incorporated throughout the meat mixture. Here, Calderon breaks down the steps to making the butcher shop’s twist on a chopped-cheese sandwich. It may not be Hajji’s, but it offers its own unique pleasures that you can recreate at home.
The Meat Hook Chopped Cheese
Yield: Serves 2-4 (enough for 2 chopped cheeses)
Prep/cooking time: 15 minutes
- 2 deli-style hero rolls or seeded semolina long rolls
- 1 pound freshly ground beef
- 1 tbsp Canola oil
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1/4 cup grated yellow cheddar
- 4 slices mozzarella cheese
- 4 slices American cheese
- 4 tbsp Meat Hook spicy relish (recipe follows)
- 1 tomato, sliced
- 1 cup shredded iceberg lettuce
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Mayo, optional
- Heat a large cast-iron skillet for 5 minutes until very hot.
- Meanwhile, mold ground beef into an oblong shape, slightly larger than your hoagie roll.
- Brush the skillet with 1 tablespoon of canola oil and add the burger patty. Sear for 2 minutes over high heat while pressing down gently with a spatula or, alternatively, weighing down the patty with a smaller cast-iron pan.
- Flip the patty and let it continue searing until just cooked through (approximately 2 minutes).
- Top the meat with spicy relish and cheeses, and get to chopping! Chop the relish and cheeses into the meat in a cross-hatch pattern. Allow the cheese to start melting into the grooves.
- Using your spatula, start scraping and kneading the cheese and relish into the chopped meat. Do this until the cheese is melted thoroughly.
- Turn off the heat and allow the bottom to crisp slightly using the residual heat from the pan. Split the meat and cheese mixture between two toasted and buttered hoagie rolls. Finish by topping with sliced tomato, shredded lettuce, and mayo.
The Meat Hook Spicy Relish
- 3 deli-style pickles
- 1/2 cup hot cherry peppers, drained
- 1/4 cup whole-grain mustard
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
Pulse all ingredients in a food processor for 20 seconds.