This staple sandwich of Brooklyn delis has become a symbol of gentrification.
Few sandwich debates are as socioeconomically charged as the one over chopped cheese, a classic of New York City’s corner delis and bodegas.
Unlike the bagel and shmear—a familiar, on-the-go favorite among New Yorkers—the chopped cheese remains largely unknown outside the five boroughs. A simple combination of ground beef, melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion on a hero roll, it goes for $4 or $5.
Chopped cheese doesn’t have the same acclaim as, say, Katz’s pastrami. Yet in recent years, foodies and wealthier New Yorkers took note of chopped cheese—much like they did with once-affordable, increasingly pricey neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Harlem. Food blogs wrote about the sandwich, American food icon Anthony Bourdain ate one in the Bronx, and the travel brand Insider released a video in which a host declared chopped cheese “a steal” and something “most New Yorkers don’t even know” about.
Longtime chopped cheese fans haven’t always appreciated this rhetoric. A young YouTube star and New Yorker named Jeffrey Almonte responded with a viral video that expressed his frustration with gentrifiers. “It almost seemed like some sort of satire on hipsters ‘discovering’ food in estranged places and saying that ‘no one knew about it.’ Right. No one important,” he explains. “It’s not $4 because it’s some shopping sale. It’s $4 because that’s our standard of living.”
But as some New Yorkers have pointed out, when rent prices increase, chopped cheese prices see an uptick too. White Gold, an upscale Upper West Side butcher shop, drew ire for selling chopped cheeses for $15. For decades, The Economist’s Big Mac Index has compared purchasing power across countries by tracking the cost of Big Macs around the world. Within New York, the cost of chopped cheese similarly indicates relative levels of gentrification, making the sandwich a symbol of New York’s rapidly changing boroughs.
Where to Try It
Locally known as Hajji's, this deli claims to have invented the chopped cheese.