A mainstay of the New York City bodega, the chopped cheese sandwich, aka chop cheese, is the delicious love child of a cheeseburger and a cheesesteak: seasoned ground beef and melty American cheese cooked on a flat-top grill, joined by lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup and mayo (i.e., “everything”) on a roll. The default is a toasted hero, but many request a kaiser roll, and that’s perfectly acceptable too.
The NYC chopped cheese was born in 1990s East Harlem, at a corner bodega on First Ave and 110th St. called Hajji’s (today it also goes by Blue Sky Deli). There are a couple of stories surrounding the how and why of the first chopped cheeses in NYC, but according to Great Big Story, in a segment that plays on a loop inside the deli, despite the obvious comparisons to a cheeseburger, a longtime Yemeni manager claims the sandwich has Arabic origins. First We Feast (and many other sites) notes that the chopped cheese antecedent is called دقة يمنية (“dagha yamneeya”), a chopped meat and vegetable dish served with thick pita. Whereas that dish might have been made with lamb, chopped cheese is strictly made with beef.
It’s a likely story, as many bodega owners are Yemeni. It’s also possible the first chopped cheese came about because a grillman at Hajji’s ran out of burger buns and hacked up a cheeseburger so it would better fit a hero roll. We may never know, but the chopped cheese remains a cultural touchpoint for many, most especially the Black and Latinx communities of Harlem and the Bronx, and it’s definitely a “NYC thing.”
Good to know: Unlike the pastrami sandwich or hot dog, chopped cheese has roots as a micro-regional NYC dish; it belongs to the Black and Latinx communities of Harlem and the Bronx. It’s therefore not unusual to meet a born-and-bred New Yorker from Brooklyn or Queens who’s never had a chopped cheese in their life. But this has been changing, as chefs, social media influencers, and traditional press have “discovered” chopped cheese, leading to controversy about the cultural appropriation or gentrification of this dish as it’s been co-opted in more upscale settings.
Traditionally this is a low-cost sandwich, priced for the working-class communities in which it’s from (like everything else, it’s gone up quite a bit in recent years). But April Bloomfield famously sold a $15 chopped cheese “homage” at her now-closed restaurant White Gold Butchers on the UWS. Very recently we spotted a $16 chopped cheese at the Monster Energy “Bodega” inside Madison Square Garden. This is not really in the spirit of this classic NYC food. Will chopped cheese go the way of Nashville’s hot chicken?
Where: We went to the chopped cheese source and were not disappointed: Hajji’s, which goes more often by Blue Sky Deli on maps (but they still answer the phone, “Hajji’s”), 2135 First Ave., at 110th St. (map). You can’t miss the “Chopped Cheese Delicious” sign that stretches across the awning of this corner shop. Inside it’s a regular bodega, with all manner of chips and soft drinks, and no menu at all. According to staff, they still sell around 300 chopped cheeses a day!
When: Hajji’s is open 24 hours.
Order: A chopped cheese with everything ($8), which means a seasoned chopped beef patty, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup, and mayo. Ask them to hold anything you don’t like in that combo, and they’re happy to oblige. It will be served on a pressed sesame hero unless you specify otherwise. If you’re lucky, you’ll find Frankie working the grill.
This is one delicious chopped cheese—it’s big but not overfilled or messy at all. The pressing of the sandwich makes it easy to handle and adds a terrific crunch. The meat and cheese is deeply savory; the lettuce and tomato adds freshness. It tastes quite like a cheeseburger, but in a different format.
Note: Though some like to say this is NYC’s version of cheesesteak, it’s really not—this is chopped ground beef, not chopped steak. The shape of the bread may be similar, but chopped cheese hits a bit different.
Alternatively: You can probably find a chopped cheese at your nearest corner bodega, but beware of price tags hitching past the $8-$10 mark—you may be straying too far from the source. For a vegan spin, consider Plantega, a plant-based deli in-store franchise you’ll find in 60-plus locations across NYC. We stopped by the Plantega inside 1 Up Bistro (1404 Madison Ave., map) a few blocks south of Hajji’s to try a vegan chopped cheese ($12), made with Karana burgers (which is jackfruit), Vertage American cheese, sautéed peppers and onions, lettuce, tomato, and vegan mayo. It’s different—a messier, looser sandwich; deeper orange-hued from the vegan cheese—but does approximate this sandwich for someone who doesn’t eat meat.