By Eli Rosenberg
The chopped cheese is a New York success story — with a somewhat charged twist.
The sandwich, also called a chop cheese — ground beef with onions, topped by melted cheese and served with lettuce, tomatoes and condiments on a hero roll — has long been a staple of bodegas in Harlem and the Bronx. Now, it has started migrating from grill tops to restaurant menus, from the lyrics of rappers onto the pages of food blogs.
But this wider recognition has come with a side of controversy.
In June, a video made by a 20-year-old man from Harlem as a retort to a segment about the sandwich went viral, igniting a discussion about culture and privilege. The news that a new restaurant on the Upper West Side would feature a version costing more than $10 provoked another round of criticism.
Grab a seat, preferably a park bench. This is a story about how in a country in the midst of a roiling debate about race and class, a sandwich is not just a sandwich.
The bodega in East Harlem looks like many others, its awning advertising coffee, candy, and hot and cold sandwiches. But it is the chopped cheese that draws people from far away.
This bodega, Hajji’s, is in the midst of a name change to Harlem Taste, an effort, perhaps, to harness its reputation as the birthplace of the sandwich.
As with many food dishes, the chopped cheese’s origin is obscured by rumor. Perhaps it was an attempt at a Philadelphia cheesesteak without the right ingredients, or the result of a creative flurry in the hands of an inebriated chef. Whatever it was, it seems to have been born at the intersection of taste and necessity.
But talk to some of the workers at Hajji’s and they will tell you about Carlos Soto, a longtime deli man who they said died of cancer in 2014. Carlos created the sandwich at some point during his more than 20 years working at the store, they said.