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On the Road

East Harlem’s Chopped Cheese Sandwiches Are a Bodega Classic

Hajji’s is part convenience store, part take-out deli, and claims to be the inventor of this popular sandwich.

By Bryan Roof | August 29, 2019

It's a hot afternoon in East Harlem. The broad streets are free of the usual New York hustle, but the drumbeats of a salsa festival pop from a few blocks away. I arrive at the corner of 110th Street and First Avenue and step into Blue Sky Deli, known locally as Hajji's. The clerk at the counter hollers out, asking if I want to place an order. Hajji's is part convenience store, part take-out deli. He asks, “Chopped with everything?” I nod.

Tourists from as far away as Australia and Japan make their way here just to order this famed sandwich, which Hajji's claims to have invented. I make my way toward the back of the store where cook Jhonny Sanchez methodically works the griddle. His kitchen is sectioned off by a 5-foot wall. As I settle in to watch, he sends another chopped cheese out the door.

Chopped Cheese
Detail of a chopped cheese sandwich from Blue Sky Deli, also known as Hajji's, a convenience store at the corner of 110th Street and 1st Avenue in East Harlem, NY.

The combination of the temperature outside and the heat radiating from the griddle makes the work space nearly unbearable. But Sanchez moves quickly and wears an earnest smile, proud to be the guy who makes the sandwich everyone talks about. “Snoop Dogg was here last week,” he tells me. He estimates he’ll make 500 sandwiches on this particular Saturday and chuckles as the number leaves his lips.

He slaps a few ground beef patties onto the griddle, dusts them with two mystery commercial seasoning blends, and scatters a handful of paper-thin onion over the top. He grabs two metal spatulas and begins chopping the beef and onion together with the intensity of a Tito Puente drum solo. The rhythm echoes through the small shop—the music of bodega cuisine.

He divides the meat into long piles the same length as the toasted sub rolls, which he dresses with mayo and ketchup. American cheese is layered on top of the meat, followed by tomato slices so thin they're nearly transparent. With a scoop of the spatula, he slides the meat onto the bread. Shredded iceberg lettuce finishes it off before it's folded and wrapped in paper. As Sanchez hands me my sandwich, the clerk calls out for three more “chopped with everything.”

Try It At Home

Serves 4 Chopped Cheese Sandwiches

Deeply seasoned beef, melty cheese, ketchup, mayo, lettuce, and tomato. The perfect sandwich. 

What's your favorite food you've tried from a bodega? Let us know in the comments! And check out our Packable Summertime Recipe Ideas for All of Your Outdoor Adventures collection.

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