Thursday, January 11, 2018

Chopped Cheese - The Bronx

We visited our son Andrew in New York City just after the New Year. He lives in Harlem, a neighborhood in the northern section of Manhattan, see the red portion of the map below, also known as Upper Manhattan or Uptown. It has a boundary of the Harlem River on the east side (which separates it from The Bronx); the Hudson River on the west side; 155th Street on the north, where it meets Washington Heights; and an uneven, stepped, boundary along the south which runs from 125th Street along the top of Morningside Heights, south down the east side of Morningside Park, east along 110th Street, which is the north boundary of Central Park, to Fifth Avenue, then south along the east boundary of Central Park to 96th Street where it goes east to the Harlem River.  
He recommended that we stay in an airbnb on Wales Avenue, just below 149th Street, in The Bronx (specifically in the neighborhood of Mott Haven in the South Bronx).  Like Manhattan (green [1] in the map below), The Bronx (red [4] in the map below) is one of the five boroughs of New York City (see also Queens (orange [3]), Brooklyn (yellow [2]) and Staten Island (purple [5]) in the map below). 
Boroughs of New York City
Andrew, knowing my penchant for food, mentioned that we should try a chopped cheese sandwich while in The Bronx. He'd tried them in Harlem, thought they were great, and suggested that they were developed in The Bronx. He said we would find them in most bodegas, the local word for a deli. So I made a goal to try a number of chopped cheese and see how they varied. 

Sunday morning we tried our first chopped cheese. It was at Guaba Deli Grocery near the southeast corner of 149th Street and Wales Ave, about a block from our airbnb. A sign on the door announced "Chopped Cheese" along with "Philly Cheese Steak" and "Gallon of Milk". We asked a man at the counter wearing a Haagen-Daz hat and he opened a door at the end of the store and yelled upstairs to someone who eventually came down and fired up the grill. He put a large hamburger patty on the grill, then shook lots and lots of spice out of a shaker can on to the patty, two kinds. Before long he took an American version of an ulu and started to chop up the hamburger while it continued to grill. He gave us a choice of about four cheeses, and we asked him to use his favorite. He pulled out two slices of white cheese and laid them on the hamburger, allowing them to melt into the meat. Separately he roasted both sides of a large roll, put butter, then mayonnaise on both sides, then added shredded cheese, the chopped hamburger and cheese, then several slices of tomato and a little catsup. It was freezing cold outside, about 10 degrees, so we stayed in the shop and Judy and I each ate half. It was quite good. Although most of the ingredients are the same as in a hamburger, it really is not like a hamburger. It has more cheese, more lettuce and tomato and the chopped up meat fills the bun better. We both agreed that it was the second best of the three chopped cheese we had. It was the only roll, the bun was the least toasted, it had the least catsup, and it had the least number of ingredients.  
149th Street and Wales Avenue.

Monday morning we went the opposite direction of our airbnb a block, to Dervin Deli-Grocery, on the southwest corner of Wales Avenue and 147th Street. Given the choice of a roll and a hero bun, I chose a hero and gave no other instructions, other than "everything on it." We did not have as good a view of the construction of it, but it included some raw onion and green peppers which were chopped into the meat and yellow American cheese. The bun was toasted, too toasted, and it contained a patty and a half of hamburger. This was our least favorite chopped cheese. Partly because the bun was too crisp and perhaps a greater amount of catsup made a difference. 
147th Street and Wales Avenue

Tuesday morning we walked several blocks to 149St Deli, on 149th Street and Prospect Avenue, right next to one of the entrances to the 149th Street Metro Station. We had noticed a sign saying it had chopped cheese. I picked the hero over a roll, which was $1.00 more, with everything on it. This was our favorite chopped cheese. The cook started out with one and a half hamburger patties, heavily seasoned them, then placed a significant amount of raw onion on the top of the patties. Three slices of yellow American cheese were later placed on the chopped hamburger. The hero was buttered and roasted, but not over-roasted like the day before. A nice layer of mayo, then tomato and shredded lettuce was put on the hero. You can see from the cut-open center view that there was a nice soaking of butter, tomato completely covered the bottom of the bun, the lettuce ratio was significant and there was quite a bit of mayo. That must be at least part of the secret to a good chopped cheese, a good portion of ingredients. That was a sandwich I would go back for. 
149th Street and Prospect Avenue

We really enjoyed staying in The Bronx. It was fun to start to get a wider appreciation of New York City outside of Manhattan. And visiting the three bodegas was part of that fun. 

Arriving home I was delighted to see quite a bit on the internet about chopped cheese. According to one entertaining article, it is a "hyper-regional classic" found in Harlem and pockets of the Bronx and Queens. It is NYC's answer to the Philly cheese steak and is best when found in a "bodega that has bulletproof glass, a cat, and a guy behind the counter named Mohammad, Papi or Ahki." It appears that the chopped cheese was developed in Harlem at Blue Sky Deli & Grocery, known informally as Hajji's, on 110th and First Avenue. 

It appears that many other ingredients can be included in the chopped cheese, such as hot sauce, bacon and mustard and I'm thinking we may need to expand our exploration of chopped cheese and visit Hajji's some day. 

Finally, you know it has arrived when it is in an article in the New York Times ("The Chopped Cheese's Sharp Rise to Fame," by Eli Rosenberg, dated November 7, 2016) and mentioned in a Bronx version of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown


  1. Honestly, the differences among the three sandwiches were pretty slight. I'd any one of them again and be thrilled. This was a fun taste-testing experiment.

    1. I disagree. I thought the difference between the best and worst was quite significant. I had no problem letting you throw part of the worst one away. I ate the portion of the best one you were willing to ditch.