I’ll admit it. Until recently, I was a chopped cheese virgin. I asked a buddy where he’d go for the best breakfast sandwich in town and he told me, but added, “Why wouldn’t you just get a chopped cheese?”
Not wanting to sound the provincial fool, I played it off that I just had a bug for a classic BEC — with hash browns, SPK, and a little hot sauce, naturally — but the shame ate at me. I needed to know what this culinary creation was and where I could get one. Did everybody know about this? Was I sampling, perish the thought, unhip?
Well, probably, but that’s beside the point. It turns out the history of the chopped cheese is long and contentious, a true working-class hero of the NYC bodega counter, known by the same name to neighborhoods from Brooklyn to Harlem and everywhere in between. And now, Westchester.
Haji’s in Spanish Harlem might have the best claim to the origins of the hot sandwich, but even the deli’s staff are quick to admit the supposed creation of its former chef is likely based on various dishes across Arabic cuisines, dagha yamneeya chief among them.
These Middle Eastern specialties got recreated by American deli workers with the ingredients on hand, served to nearby residents, predominantly in Black and Latin neighborhoods, and possibly “Columbussed” a bit along the way.
The fact of the matter is, we don’t really know where the chopped cheese came from. It’s an everyman meal that worked its way up on the streets, one which many New Yorkers are still completely unaware of if they aren’t ardent bodega-goers.
The easiest way to explain a chopped cheese is to say that it’s kind of like a Philly cheesesteak made from chopped hamburger. This is also, ironically, the easiest way to get slapped by anyone with a preexisting opinion on the majesty that is the chopped cheese.
Take a couple hamburger patties, chop them up and cook them on the griddle (don’t clean it first — true aficionados know the real flavor is an accumulation of all that came before, something that is more than the sum of its parts). Add sliced cheese — American or provolone are traditional, but feel free to customize any way you like.
Scoop the slightly-less-sloppy joe onto a long wedge (sorry, “hero”) or a roll and top it with “the usual” — a house varying blend of lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo and mustard, and anything else that sounds amazing. You can try this standard method or jump straight to customizing your monstrosity with banana peppers, hot sauce (big mood), tater tots, or any other adventurous toppings you can think of.
Don’t forget to make sure the shop toasts your sandwich, typically on the griddle or in a panini press. Order some fries if it doesn’t already come with it, and chow down. The rich, meaty umami and sweet/salty cheese muddles and melds in your mouth along with the blessedly alcohol absorbing carbs, giving you an idea of just why the chopped cheese has become a late night/morning after favorite.
Luckily, many local bodegas are well aware of the delicacy, and are fully willing to make one for you even if it seems like you’re ordering off-menu. If you don’t feel like going exploring on your own, here are a few of our favorites:
23 S Division St, New Rochelle
Made on an extra-large, house-made burger roll, this 100% New York certified sando might technically be considered part of the “Secret Instagram Menu,” but one call and the specialty can be yours — made with bell pepper and 4 Bros Fancy Sauce for added oomph.
View this post on Instagram
671 North Ave, New Rochelle
Open late to better serve Iona College students, this classic bodega-style deli is obviously home to one of the greatest sandwiches to ever put you on the mend after a weekend of matriculation and/or revelry.
92 Ludlow St, Yonkers
Call Westchester suburban, but our county’s largest city — population 200,000 — is basically a part of NYC when it comes to things like culture and cuisine. Not only does this Riverdale-adjacent spot offer the treasured New York sandwich, it’s on the regular menu. You can grab one for about $4.50, but, man, splurge the extra $2 for the deluxe with fries.
352 Riverdale Ave, Yonkers
Speaking of Riverdale Ave…Just a few blocks south you’ll find another A-rank Yonkers deli that knows where it’s at. The 325chopped cheese is the O.G. recipe: Burger, cheddar, lettuce, and tomatoes with ketchup and mayo. Get it on a roll — like a child — for $4.50 or a full hero for $7.
183 Martine Ave #3304, White Plains
Anthony’s Deli, always a perennial fan favorite, adds sweet peppers to its house special and serves it on a roll, though curiously lists ketchup as an optional topping. Heretical? Or just considerate of local preference? You be the judge. We’ll go hero and hot sauce all the way.
View this post on Instagram
230 Main St, Eastchester
Right on the corner of Highland Ave, across from Eastchester Inn, you’ll find this solid example of a downcounty bodega. You won’t have to go far down the menu to find your chopped cheese, though. Just order the No. 1.
210 Gramatan Ave, Mt Vernon
The deli that brought you The DMX sandwich, The D.A., the Stoner’s Delight, and The Emperor of course also offers the king of the underground sando scene. In fact, the menu offers an entire dedicated section, called the “Chopped Cheese Factory.” Grab a four-ounce “classic” or eight-ounce “hero” if you’re feeling just the basics or try one of the more adventurous creations: The Patron combines eight ounces of meat with crispy bacon, BBQ sauce, green peppers, and all the usual suspects, while the Texas tosses two eggs onto the classic, and the Tony Style substitutes in chipotle mayo for some added zing.