Saturday, November 26, 2022

Eating in New York: Chopped Cheese at Blue Sky Deli/Hajji's in Harlem

A lot of food trends start in New York City and spread out across the continent. Many spring out of the many ethnic communities that call the city home. But one that hasn’t made it out of the city yet and seems more firmly rooted in American culture is a sandwich called the chopped cheese, and during my trip to the city I went to East Harlem to get it at the bodega where it’s said to have originated.

I heard about the sandwich from a food doc on YouTube from First we Feast, and it’s said to have become part of hip hop culture. According to Wikipedia the origins of the sammy are up for debate, but it may originate from an Arabic speciality called dagha yamneeya.

Whatever its inspiration, the ingredients are pure Americana – a cross between a cheeseburger and a cheesesteak.

While delis and bodegas (corner stores) across the city serve them now, the Blue Sky Deli, aka Hajji’s, is said to be the originator., on 1St Avenue at East 110th. So that’s where I went to have my first.

I ordered at the cash and they write my order on a slip and hand it to the two cooks working the grill during the slow lunch rush on a holiday Friday. In about ten minutes, my sandwich is ready.

Basically, it’s a burger patty chopped up on the grill with cheese and onions, topped with lettuce, tomato and mayo and served on a crusty roll.

There’s no dine-in, this is a bodega, so I take my sammy and head back outside, venturing down the street to a bench where I sit in the rain (it rained all day and I was already perma-damp anyway) and begin to eat my sandwich, which was cut in half.

The bread was fresh, the cheese processed and melted, the beef somewhat unevenly distributed. It was tasty though, the cheapest meal I had in the city, and filled me up. And it was very American.

I have heard it tastes better after the temp has come down a bit, so I packed up the last half and set off for the subway, opening it up again as I rode a downtown train back in to Manhattan.

This half was beefier, and having gone form hot to warm the flavours indeed had coalesced more in a pleasing way.

Between the potato pancakes in the morning and the chopped cheese for late lunch, I don’t think I ate again that day.

So, my verdict? It was tasty but not necessarily something special. It’s a good, affordable working person’s lunch. I’m glad I tried the OG, but I don’t think I’d trek that far out of my way again – I suspect there are plenty of suitable alternatives closer at hand.

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