“It’s a hamburger. You chop it, you know, with seasonings and cheese, and they call it ‘chopped cheese.’”
Adal Azal, 39, is the bodega man who every Saturday furnishes me with a sausage, egg, and cheese with a side of weak coffee. But today he is looking at me like I have three heads, given my intensifying queries about the chopped cheese.
It is, after all, a sandwich, despite the growing mythology and controversy. Azal says Harlem has gotten quieter in the 11 years since he opened his shop on 133rd and Frederick Douglass, but the chopped cheese remains one of his most popular items.
It goes like this: Ground beef is seasoned, browned, and chopped up on a grill with onions and peppers. It’s then coated in melted cheese and tucked into a toasted hero, where it’s dressed with lettuce, tomato, more onion, and a generous slathering of mayonnaise and ketchup. It’s warm, wet, messy, and delicious, activating a pleasure center in the brain that I’m confident no fine dining can reach.
I’m told it was teenagers in Harlem and the Bronx who first caught onto the chopped cheese and began to spread its gospel. Always under $5, it was a filling and affordable option.
“Word gets around, especially in Harlem. Everyone’s close-knit, and it’s ‘Here, try this, try this, you gotta come here,’” says Kai Carillo, 19, who grew up eating the sandwiches.
But in the last few years, since a brief appearance on an episode of “Parts Unknown” in late 2014, the chopped cheese has ricocheted across the Internet and the wider culinary fabric of New York. With the widening exposure has come heated accusations of cultural theft and appropriation.
The tug-of-war garnered coverage everywhere from the New York Times to the National Review. Videos extolling its virtues continue to appear on Buzzfeed and Bon Appétit. The origins and meaning of the sandwich became the subject of an excellent, in-depth documentary on Complex Media’s First We Feast.
Now iterations of the chopped cheese have begun cropping up further afield. There was briefly an offering from Meat Hook, a Williamsburg sandwich spot, which helped earn the restaurant a coveted star from New York Times critic Pete Wells. Late last year Whole Foods began selling an $8 version from its Columbus Circle location. And British chef April Bloomfield is still serving her own take on the lunch menu at White Gold. It features grass-fed beef and pickled jalapeños on a poppy seed roll.
I tell Azal that there’s an $11 version of the chopped cheese being sold at a butcher shop–cum–specialty sandwich store on the Upper West Side.
“That’s a lot,” he says. “Maybe I’m gonna move over there and sell it for that much.”
The sandwich, of course, predates all the hype—a fact that mainstream media coverage can fail to fully appreciate or acknowledge.
“It’s the disregard for the people who have already lived here and established a very vibrant historical community,” says Angela Bronner-Helm, a writer and editor who’s lived in Harlem for almost 20 years. “You can’t discover something that was already there.”
Moreover, the debate over who can rightfully lay claim to the chopped cheese plays out against a backdrop of rapid gentrification in Harlem and, increasingly, the South Bronx. Historic businesses and landmarks have come down as upscale restaurants, trendy bars, and legions of yuppies (like me) have moved in, leading the rents to skyrocket and the black population of Harlem to decline. At the center of both the despair over these developments and the protectiveness over chopped cheese seems to be an acute sense of unfairness at losing what communities of color have painstakingly built.
“This has a long history in this country—of something that has existed and started in black or Hispanic communities that has been Columbus-ed, appropriated, taken and put a little spin on it, and then it’s cool,” Bronner-Helm said. “We do the ‘cool’ things first, but we don’t get any of the benefits.”
Still, in a city where one of the deepest pleasures is never being farther than a train ride away from tacos and arepas, rotis and soup dumplings, pho and biryani, bibimbap and empanadas, I have to believe that there is a way to celebrate the culinary traditions of other communities and cultures while respecting their original contexts.
What’s for certain is that chopped cheese has traveled far from its purported birthplace, in the cramped space behind the counter at Blue Sky Deli, also known as Hajji’s, in East Harlem on 110th and First Avenue.
Salah Alhubaishi, the store manager who greets each of his customers with a gruff “talk to me,” is too busy ringing up chopped cheese after chopped cheese at the register to really shoot the shit with me about the exploding fame of the bodega’s signature sandwich. But he does confirm that it was the concoction of longtime cook Carlos Soto, who came up with it during his 20 years of working at Hajji’s.
Soto, who died in 2014, was Dominican, but Alhubaishi says that the chopped cheese, with its foundation of minced meat and sauteed onions, has Middle Eastern roots.
“A chopped cheese is an Arabic food. We eat it probably every day. But we do it in a dish. We don’t make it inside a sandwich,” he says. “But because here it’s a rushed life—everybody got no time to wait and sit here and eat—they want something on the go.”
Hajji’s is where I meet Carillo, who tells me that this is the place that still makes it best, using fresh bread and meat. As for the more upscale versions of chopped cheese, he has a suggestion: Spend your $11 on cab money to Harlem instead.
“Whoever gets it from those other places,” he says, “it’s not going to be as good as here.”