A pair of raw burger patties are extracted from the fridge and thrown on the flat-top griddle, where they begin to sizzle. The cook then vigorously chops them with the side of his spatula. Minced onions and slices of American cheese are thrown on top as the hashing continues. The mess is transferred to a hero roll slobbered with mayo and ketchup, then topped with lettuce and tomato, and the whole thing is smashed to half its original thickness.
Enter the chopped cheese.
For over two decades, this miracle of sandwich making has been the mainstay of the East Harlem deli now known officially as Blue Sky — and forever as Haji’s — with a current price of $8. The possible inventor of the sandwich, according to a New York Times article, is the late Carlos Soto, who was asked to improvise on a Philly cheesesteak without the proper ingredients. Others have attributed the point of origin to a chopped-meat-on-a-pita sandwich eaten in Yemen called dagha yamneeya — though a quick web search for that item turns up nothing that isn’t part of a chopped cheese story. (A chopped meat sandwich in Yemen is most often called shawarma.)
In 2016, April Bloomfield faced accusations of cultural appropriation — that a traditionally affordable sandwich with origins in Harlem and the Bronx was co-opted out of context, including its $15 tag — at her Upper West Side butcher and restaurant White Gold. Whatever the route, the fame of chopped cheese (often shortened to “chop cheese”) spread, first across the city and then throughout the nation. But the fundamental filling of ground beef, onions, and American cheese itself has legs, and is finding new forms on the Lower East Side.
Chopped Cheese Burrito
The two branches of Pink’s Cantina offer a chopped cheese burrito ($13), a dish that easily could have popped up at a Mexican restaurant in East Harlem or the Bronx, but hasn’t as far as I know. The implications of a chopped cheese burrito being made at this pair of establishments — a scenester bar on East 10th Street in the East Village and a to-go counter on Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side — is more than our poor brains can analyze, but this riff is good, and the filling doesn’t leak out the sides as it does with the hero sandwich version of chopped cheese (though that may be the reason that the original is squished down).
Chopped Cheese Slider
A newish halal smash burger restaurant, also on the Lower East Side, has also fiddled with the formula further, with good results. Holy Cow, located at 34 Canal Street, between Ludlow and Essex streets, offers the usual chopped cheese filling on a small hamburger bun, in what amounts to a large slider for $7. Its innovation is that the patty is flattened and seared on one side before being chopped, so the beef filling has a crunchy texture and blackened appearance — so maybe we should call it a smash burger chopped cheese. The sauce? This carryout place uses “holy sauce,” which tastes much like the ketchup mixed with mayo used on the original.
Chopped Cheese Empanada
It’s nice to see so much experimentation going on with an admired filling, but some experiments will inevitably go awry. One is the chopped cheese empanada, ensconcing the filling in a small thick pastry. I tried one last September at halal sandwich shop Meat and Bread, located at 201 Allen Street, near Houston Street, but by the new year it was gone from the menu. The reason is obvious enough: In the other vehicles for the chopped cheese filling — the sandwich, the burrito, and the slider — the components of the filling don’t completely mix and get lost, retaining their separate identities to a certain extent even as they ooze, like tributaries meeting in a great river. In the baking process, the cheese and other juices get completely absorbed, and the interior of this empanada turns into dry ground beef. The essence of chopped cheese is a beefy and creamy sloppiness. But maybe it will work with other empanadas or other recipes. We’ll have to wait and see.