What You Need To Know Before Ordering Chopped Cheese For The First Time

The chopped cheese sandwich is something of a delicacy in New York City and you can buy one in almost any bodega — a convenience store which also cooks up food. The NYC staple started to gain nationwide notoriety after Anthony Bourdain sampled one in "Parts Unknown" Season 4.

Although the origins of the first chopped cheese are contested, many believe it was created at Hajji's in Harlem. The messy deli sandwich may be synonymous with New York, but workers at Hajji's say that the chopped cheese has Middle Eastern roots. Some claim that the first chopped cheese was one cook's version of an Arabic meat and vegetable dish known as dagha yamneeya. Another chopped cheese vendor, Taw, echoed that sentiment, and told First We Feast that any meat could be used in a chopped sandwich. "They chop up everything in Yemen," Taw said.

Salah Alhubaishi, a manager at Hajji's, told Parts Unknown that eating the chopped cheese in sandwich form is vital to the typically frantic pace of life in New York. The hectic go-go lifestyle is emblematic of the item, which can be difficult to eat. But knowing how to order it is a source of pride for many of the city's inhabitants. "The cook at the bodega at the end of my block knows me not by name, but by my specific chopped cheese order," one eater tweeted.

Order with American cheese

While the chopped cheese bears similarities to the Philadelphia cheesesteak, it is important to note the difference. Where a cheesesteak is cooked with finely sliced steak, a chopped cheese is a hamburger that has been chopped up. Ground beef is thrown on the grill, with onions and peppers added. The cook uses a spatula to chop the burger meat and then covers it with slices of American cheese. That meat is served on a toasted bun, which traditionally has lettuce, tomato, mayo and ketchup added.

When ordering a chopped cheese sandwich, it may be enticing to try a different cheese, but stick with tried and true American cheese. The processed cheese melts perfectly on the chopped-up ground beef and melds the meal together. Keep in mind that all the meat, cheese, onions and toppings can make the chopped cheese a messy endeavor. "One bite. Pause. And everything is just falling out," Speedy Morman said in the 2016 documentary "Hometown Hero: The Legend of New York's Chopped Cheese.

Not all chopped cheeses are created equal, however, and Morman was specifically speaking about the sandwich from Hollis Deli in Queens. Since the documentary was released, chopped cheese sandwiches have become more widespread, but at the time, Morman said ordering one was for true New Yorkers. "You don't need to look at the menu cause that means you're from here," he noted.

Upscale chopped cheese faces backlash

Over the years, chopped cheese has been the subject of some controversy. One of the reasons chopped cheese sandwiches became so popular in New York is the affordable price. But Whole Foods faced a backlash in 2016 by releasing its own version of chopped cheese that cost $8, significantly higher than the typical bodega-made sandwiches, which usually cost $4 to $5. There were also allegations of cultural appropriation and colonialism, particularly as the sandwich was sold on a cart in the store labeled "1492," after the year Christopher Columbus came to North America.

This happened around the same time that a video from the Insider website went viral, in which a reporter called the uptown sandwich "a steal." Celebrity chef April Bloomfield also came under fire in 2016 when she created an upscale chopped cheese offering at her White Gold restaurant on the city's Upper West Side that retailed for $15. Objectors believed it undercut the true essence of what made chopped cheese a special New York treat.

As knowledge of the chopped cheese has become widespread, more restaurants outside of NYC have begun offering the sandwich. Cook Anthony Arias, who is originally from Harlem, opened the New York Chopped Cheese food truck in Los Angeles. Unlike Bloomfield's gourmet iteration, Arias stuck to the fundamentals. "There's no spin on the classic. We strive to bring a true New York experience when it comes to this sandwich," he told the Huffington Post.