New York City boasts a number of signature sandwiches, from the Katz’s Deli pastrami to the bacon, egg and cheese offerings across the five boroughs. Another bodega staple that’s in the spotlight right now? The chopped cheese.
For the uninitiated, a chopped cheese or “chop cheese” is a sandwich consisting of ground beef, melted cheese, onions, lettuce, tomato and condiments on a hero roll. It’s often compared (somewhat controversially) to a cheeseburger, sloppy Joe or cheesesteak.
While previously unfamiliar to those outside New York, the sandwich has in recent years spread beyond the Big Apple on menus and social media.
But how exactly did the chopped cheese come to be? And what’s the reason for its rapid rise in the cultural consciousness? HuffPost spoke with some experts to break down the history and allure of the beloved sandwich.
The History Of The Chopped Cheese
So where did the chopped cheese come from? Accounts vary, but the dominant narrative points to a bodega in Harlem called Hajji’s, also known as Blue Sky Deli.
The store credits Carlos Soto, who worked there for more than 20 years before passing away in 2014. Some employees say he invented the sandwich after chopping a cheeseburger so that it would fit a hero roll because he was out of traditional buns.
Others maintain that he developed the idea with Yemeni workers who wanted to adapt dagha yamneeya, an Arabic specialty consisting of chopped meat and vegetables. Another suggestion is that Soto struggled with dental issues and wanted to create a more chewable burger alternative.
The exact year the chopped cheese arrived on the scene is not clear, though most tend to date it back to the early or middle years of the 1990s. And residents of other neighborhoods have also tried to lay claim to its history.
“I’ve spoken to OGs ― ‘older gentlemen’ ― who say they been having chop cheese since the early ’80s in Queens and Mount Vernon, but to be honest I’ve always seen it as a Harlem thing,” said Philip Williams, a co-owner of the chopped cheese-focused sandwich vendor Shmackwich in Chelsea.
Whatever the truth, the uncertainty surrounding the chopped cheese’s origins lends the sandwich a certain mythical status that adds to its cultural significance.
“I remember eating my first chopped cheese at 14 years old. It always hit the spot, and you couldn’t beat the value,” said Harlem native Anthony Arias, who owns the food truck New York’s Chopped Cheese in Los Angeles. He reminisced about his time growing up and ordering the sandwich from a local bodega.
“You can never beat the classic New York chopped cheese ― seasoned beef, seasoned grilled onions, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mayonnaise, and of course, an AriZona ice tea as the bev!” he added.
Chef Harold Villarosa, who attended high school in East Harlem, recalled frequently having a chopped cheese for lunch. Although many bodegas have upped their prices over time, the sandwiches typically cost around $4.
“That was my staple lunch from about 1999 to 2003,” Villarosa said. “Everyone would be running to the chopped cheese spot, come back with four or five of them, and people would put money in.”
How The Chopped Cheese Spread Across The Country
For decades, the chopped cheese was purely a New York offering ― and even then, the sandwich was confined to the culture of certain neighborhoods. But in recent years, more people within the city and beyond have become aware of the deli delicacy.
The sandwich made a brief appearance in a Bronx-themed episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” in 2014. And in 2016, the food culture website First We Feast released a documentary called “Hometown Hero: The Legend of New York’s Chopped Cheese.”
Today, you can find countless videos about the sandwich on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, as well as chopped cheese recipes and reviews.
Social media popularity helped propel Brooklyn native Williams’ chopped cheese business to new heights.
“During the [COVID-19] pandemic, restaurants were closed. So the bodega was the only place to get food,” he told HuffPost. “We would order chop cheese on coco bread,” he added, referring to the Caribbean favorite. “We started to think, ‘What if we made our own elevated version — a wagyu chop cheese on a fancy bread?’”
After perfecting the recipe, Williams and two business partners debuted their creation: the Shmackwich. Just over two years later, they opened their first permanent location at the new Manhattan food hall Olly Olly Market.
“I posted a video on my Instagram, and it basically just blew up,” Williams recalled. “Fifty orders the first week, 100 orders the next week, and [it] just kept growing.”
“We did a tour last summer in the U.K. and served hundreds of people ... who had never heard of a chop cheese,” Williams said. “A true New York story is a hip-hop sandwich that’s now going mainstream, and we love it.”
For Arias, opening a chopped cheese food truck was the solution to a problem. After moving from New York to Los Angeles during the pandemic, he went out with friends one evening and found himself craving a late-night chopped cheese on his way home. Frustrated by the lack of options in his new city, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Thus, New York’s Chopped Cheese was born.
“There’s no spin on the classic. We strive to bring a true New York experience when it comes to this sandwich,” Arias told HuffPost. “Our goal has always been to remind people of home and to spread the chopped cheese gospel far and wide!”
As the business has grown, he’s decided to cater a bit to the “LA palate” by offering additional options ― from spices and flavors like picante to variations like Impossible chopped cheese.
After relocating to San Francisco, Villarosa bought a deli griddle that he has used to make New York favorites like bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches and, of course, the chopped cheese.
“I’m very much a traditionalist,” he said. “I do chopped onions, a lot of American cheese, sliced lettuce and tomato, and lot of mayo and ketchup on a roll. I try to make it big ― the $10 worth of chopped cheese.”
The Cultural Significance Of The Chopped Cheese
Many Harlem and Bronx natives feel incredibly protective of the sandwich. A 2016 chopped cheese-themed video from Insider that said “most New Yorkers don’t even know it exists” sparked particular outrage from locals. YouTuber Jeffrey Almonte responded with his own video railing against the “Columbus syndrome” on display.
The impassioned response underscores the strong cultural significance of the chopped cheese for countless New Yorkers.
“Growing up in New York is such a character builder,” Villarosa said. “And that character comes with pride ― pride for your borough, like saying the chopped cheese is better in Harlem or the Bronx, and also just feeling very prideful of the chopped cheese as part of our culture as New Yorkers.”
For Williams, that sort of pride compelled him to take ownership over the sandwich’s spread beyond local bodegas.
“We are a Black-owned business, and for many years the Black community has made brands and companies rich and haven’t been able to benefit from our own influence financially,” he said. “When you think of Harlem and the chop cheese, it’s the Black and urban culture buying it and making it a New York staple. So it’s time for us to start profiting financially off of our cultures and not just putting money in other people’s pockets.”
Arias is excited to bring a sense of nostalgia and New York flavor to his new community. He believes there’s a simple reason the sandwich has attracted new fans in recent years: It’s delicious!
“What was once a niche product that you could only find in some bodegas in NYC has now made its way to celebrities, YouTube chefs and content creators that are sharing this beloved bodega classic,” Arias said.
“It can stand on its own. It has had such a profound impact on the culture in New York that you can’t separate the two. If you’re talking about New York culture, you’re talking about chopped cheese too.
“If you know, you know. We’re glad to be a part of this sandwich’s legacy. Our goal is to bring this everywhere in the country and the world.”
No matter how far and wide the chopped cheese spreads, however, Villarosa believes nothing compares to the original New York offering.
“Bodega is a vibe,” he said. “Chopped cheese is a vibe. There’s just a cool factor. People want to be part of the culture. But you need that New York feel, the local water, meat and buns, the bodega cat, the person giving that struggle in the seasoning. People can always try to replicate the chopped cheese, but they can never make the real deal.”