The Origin Of New York's Chopped Cheese Sandwich

Once a well-kept secret of New York bodegas, the chopped cheese sandwich has achieved national recognition thanks to its growing pop culture presence. From local hip-hop icons like Cam'ron to talk show stars Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, famous New Yorkers have spread their love for chopped cheeses across the internet, bringing the humble sandwich an unprecedented level of publicity, per First We Feast. For the uninitiated, the chopped cheese sandwich begins by throwing ground beef, onions, and peppers on a flat-top grill and chopping them together with a metal spatula before adding American cheese. The whole affair is served up on a hero roll with lettuce, tomato, and condiments of choice. First We Feast calls it, "the marriage of cheesesteak and burger."

The origins of most dishes are shrouded in mystery, obfuscated by centuries of history. Chopped cheese is an exception. According to First We Feast, New York's signature sandwich didn't arrive on the scene until the '90s, and any true New Yorker should be able to tell you exactly where it all started. You can still go there today, in Harlem at the corner of 110th Street and First Avenue. The sign out front says 'Blue Sky Deli,' but those who have been in the neighborhood for a while know it as Hajji's.

The chopped cheese draws inspiration from many cultures

There is a general consensus among New Yorkers that bodega Blue Sky Deli (formerly Hajji's) is the birthplace of the chopped cheese, but exactly who invented it and why is less clear. According to the New York Times, each employee at the bodega tells a slightly different version of the story, but most fingers ultimately point to the late Carlos Soto, who spent more than two decades helminggrill. One version of the tale claims that Soto wanted to make a cheeseburger but didn't have any round buns, so he chopped the meat up to fit a hero, while others claim that he simply wanted to make a burger easier to chew since he had dental issues. But the most intriguing theory behind the chopped cheese says that Soto was inspired by his Yemeni coworkers, pointing to the sandwich's surprisingly diverse background.

It's this last theory that is endorsed by Salah Alhubaishi, the longtime manager of the store. First We Feast notes that Alhubaishi is just one of many Yemeni immigrants who has made his living managing a bodega, and he cites one particular dish from his native cuisine as a direct influence on the chopped cheese: an Arabic sandwich called 'dagha yamneeya,' a dish made by chopping meats like beef or lamb with a mix of vegetables. Coming from the Dominican Republic, Carlos Soto may have been responsible for adding another international flair in the form of adobo seasoning, essential to a true chopped cheese, per Greater Long Island.

Gentrification threatens the chopped cheese tradition

In recent years, concerns have grown that the chopped cheese could be growing apart from its origins. The New York Times highlights the price of a chopped cheese sandwich, typically less than five dollars, as an essential part of its invention and role as a staple in disenfranchised and lower-income neighborhoods. Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, which helped to bring national attention to the chopped cheese, points out the important connection between the sandwich and Harlem's historically Black and Latino communities. Now, the aggressive advance of gentrification in Harlem has led to serious concerns about the cultural appropriation of chopped cheese sandwiches.

The Times notes that the chopped cheese has now migrated beyond bodegas to eateries, where it draws a much higher price. In 2016, when the White Gold restaurant opened on the Upper East Side, it debuted a chopped cheese for $15. The restaurant's owners, who are White and Japanese-American, were criticized online for taking a dish born from the needs of disenfranchised groups and putting an elitist spin on it. They defended their decision as a tribute to the city's culture and ultimately dropped the price to $11, but that's still more than any bodega. Thankfully, spots like Blue Sky Deli keep the classic chopped cheese and its price alive. If you want to try the authentic version, Desus Nice has a word of advice, telling First We Feast, "If a place has a Yelp review, you already know their chopped cheese is going to be trash."