New York City tourists be advised: Nathan’s has hot dogs, Katz’s has pastrami and as for the best slice in town? Well that’s just asking for a fight. But there’s one thing we know for sure. If you’re looking to try the real New Yorker’s sandwich—an unfathomably delicious, perfectly seasoned wonder of meaty goodness—you’ll need to head uptown to Hajji’s Deli (also known as Harlem Taste). Sure, you can find chopped cheese at other bodegas, but Hajji’s is widely credited as its birthplace. Salah Alhubaishi, who’s managed Hajji’s for 15 years, says the bodega serves about 200 chopped cheeses a day. But, whatever you do, dear reader, do not call the latter a “sub.” This is New York City.
So how does the magic happen? Your grillman takes a hamburger or two, chops it up good, seasons and browns it to perfection, slaps on some cheese, then delivers the whole mess onto iron-pressed bread with whatever fixings you please. Salah theorizes that the chopped cheese’s ancestor is a dish called دقة يمنية (“dagha yamneeya”)—minced meat and vegetables accompanied by Yemeni bread. But, in beautiful New York fashion, the original chopped cheese man at Hajji’s was Dominican. Salah says longtime cook Carlos Soto, who passed away in 2014, is to thank for this culinary gift. Soto made a sandwich so good, it spread to bodegas in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. It’s gotten love from the likes of Jay-Z, Desus Nice and his associate, the Kid Mero. In 2014, the chopped cheese even hit national TV when a group of Bronx students evangelized it to the late Anthony Bourdain on “Parts Unknown.”
After that appearance, chopped cheese found its way beyond the bodega and into some controversial situations. In 2016, British chef April Bloomfield included a “guilt-free,” $15 chopped cheese at her Upper West Side restaurant, White Gold. Not long after, the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle starting selling them for $8. It wasn’t lost on dismayed Twitter users that the store was selling this bodega classic above a sign that read “Cart 1492,” a nod to the year Christopher Columbus headed to “the New World.” This move from $3.50 bodega sandwich to “artisanal” fare at five times the price begs the question: what is appropriation and what is celebration? For now, here’s what we suggest: whether you live in New York City or are visiting for the first time, go to straight to the source. Jump on the 6 train, get off at 110th Street and go order a chopped cheese at Hajji's (on roll or a hero... that’s up to you).