Harlem Chopped Cheese
The first time I ever walked into a bodega was also the first time I snuck into an NYC bar underage. I finally succumbed to my friends’ peer pressure. Not really, I drank Pepsi while I watched them pound tequila and lemon drops at a dive on West 14th Street. My self-imposed alcohol abstinence would end a few months later, just shy of my twenty-first birthday. As we were getting ready to leave, I walked over to the neighboring bodega for water and what I later presumed to be the last two pieces of a California roll left over from lunch 🤢. As I exited the store, I mouthed the word “suave”, a cringe worthy homage to one of my all-time favorite rap songs. But not once did I see a chopped cheese.
I Was Today Years Old When I First Heard About Chopped Cheese
To be honest, at that time I never heard of a chopped cheese or chop cheese as it’s sometimes referred to. But by 1994, as a young foodie with an interest in local eats, I should have. It was already a popular sandwich mostly sold in small deli stores throughout Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Nowadays it can be found in the other boroughs too, not so much Staten Island though. You can't have everything Pete Davidson!
The chopped cheese was invented in East Harlem, sometime in the 1980’s at Hajji’s Deli (aka Blue Sky Deli) on 1st Ave and 110th Street. The original is simply two hamburger patties aggressively chopped on the griddle with onion and a heap of cheese, preferably on a toasted hero for added texture. It's finished with shredded lettuce, tomato, hot sauce or ketchup and mayo.
Hajji's had the market cornered for nearly a decade before copycats started adding it to their menu, keeping the original recipe pretty much intact; maybe changing up the cheese, adding peppers or mushrooms. Some now serve them on round rolls or wraps but almost all small delis have kept their prices for these down. The pre pandemic average price was $8 or less making it desirable to the masses.
That's Some Serious Gourmet Shit
I just discovered this sandwich. I have to assume I subliminally read famed New York City food critic Robert Sietsema’s recent post in Eater (read it) about various restaurants being inspired by Hajii’s invention. He writes about chopped cheese burritos and halal empanadas and sliders being turned out in the East Village, all of which make my mouth water. In addition, food trucks like bodega.truck specialize in gourmet variations like their Hot Chick, a chopped Buffalo chicken, blue cheese, mozzarella, lettuce, ranch and celery bits or specials like the Asian fused Chop Chimi with fried cheese, salami and cabbage mixed with their special bodega sauce. Follow them for pop up locations.
Chopped cheese has been around for decades and while it might not be as iconic as a dirty water dog or a bagel and a schmear, it’s undeniably New York and worthy of a trip uptown. So, if you want an authentic taste of the Big Apple, get your ass to Harlem. Be prepared to do a lil shake, eat a lil chop cheese and "get lite" next time you are in the city.