What We’re Cooking This Week: Chopped Cheese

It’s not easy to find this sandwich in restaurants or bodegas outside of New York, but you can make your own.

Chopped Cheese Photo by Jim Dixon.

Jim Dixon wrote about food for WW for more than 20 years, but these days most of his time is spent at his olive oil-focused specialty food business Wellspent Market. Jim’s always loved to eat, and he encourages his customers to cook by sending them recipes every week through his newsletter. We’re happy to have him back creating some special dishes just for WW readers.

It’s a safe bet that most Portlanders have never eaten a chopped cheese sandwich.

The ground beef, onion and cheese sandwich first appeared in a bodega in Spanish Harlem in the 1990s, an off-the-cuff creation from a cook at the Blue Sky Deli, known locally as Hajji’s. According to one origin story, a customer asked for a cheesesteak, but instead of sliced beef the cook used hamburgers, chopping them on the grill. But others point to the similarities between Hajji’s creation and chopped meat sandwiches from the Middle East as well as the connection to immigrant bodega workers.

Chopped cheese awareness expanded beyond the outer boroughs after Anthony Bourdain ate one on the CNN program Parts Unknown in 2014, and within a couple of years, the bodega specialty was being offered by fancy sandwich places and even Whole Foods, sparking heated debates about culinary gentrification. Yet while a relatively small handful of sandwich nerds have spread the chopped cheese to places like Los Angeles and Detroit, and Piccone’s Corner and Bodega PDX both offer it occasionally here in town, it’s still pretty hard to find outside of New York.

The good news is that you can make one at home easily. A chopped cheese starts with a burger patty on a hot grill, or, at home, a cast-iron skillet. First pressed down with a spatula to encourage the flavorful browning called the Maillard reaction, the patty then gets hacked into pieces with some added chopped onion and peppers before being topped with melty American cheese. The long bun, called a hero in the bodega, is grilled alongside, then topped with the oozing meat pile. Add the usual burger condiments and you’ve got a chopped cheese.

Chopped Cheese

Makes 1 sandwich.

4 ounces ground beef

1/4 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup chopped green pepper or jalapeño

2 slices American cheese

1 banh mi roll or similar 6-inch bun

Extra-virgin olive oil or butter

Salt and black pepper

Shredded iceberg lettuce

Sliced tomato, optional

Mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard

Split the bun in half, lengthwise, then grill it in a skillet with a little olive oil or butter until lightly browned. Spread with mayonnaise and, if desired, mustard. Set aside.

Form a thin patty from the ground beef, but don’t worry about the shape since you’ll be chopping it up. Get your cast-iron skillet quite hot, then add the burger patty and press it down with a metal spatula. Let it cook for about a minute or until the bottom is nicely browned, then chop it coarsely with the edge of the spatula, adding the onion and pepper as you chop. Season with salt and pepper.

Reduce heat to medium and push the meat and vegetables into a pile roughly the shape and size of your roll. Cut the American slices in half to fit, then place them on the meat pile. When the cheese has melted into a gooey mess, carefully slide everything onto the bun. Top with the shredded lettuce and, if using, tomato slices. Add a squirt of ketchup, the rest of the bun and eat immediately.

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