1x Chopped Cheese (on a hero): $4.50
1x Lam’s Plantain Chips: $1.00
1x Arizona Iced Tea: $2.00
In the previous edition of The Under 15 Club, I reviewed Fordham student favorite Rams Deli Plus, a bodega in Belmont. Students and residents alike frequent the location due to its budget-friendly options and consistently good food. Travel about 80 blocks south of Rams into East Harlem and you’ll find another bodega that is beloved in its own right.
Blue Sky Deli, currently amid a name change to Harlem Taste and more commonly known as Hajji’s, is located on the corner of 1st Avenue and 110th Street. Like most bodegas, Hajji’s has dedicated patronsin the community, but what sets it apart is the fact that Hajji’s is widely known as the birthplace of the chopped cheese.
The chopped cheese, for the uninitiated, is a sandwich that has gained widespread recognition in recent years but has been appreciated by residents of Harlem and the Bronx long before it was discussed by Anthony Bourdain in “Parts Unknown.” It is often called New York’s answer to the Philly cheesesteak, but comparisons are unnecessary, each sandwich is iconic for its own reasons. As for the chopped cheese, it generally consists of seasoned beef chopped and grilled with peppers, onions and cheese, then put on a hero and topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup and mayo.
As for Hajji’s, where the sandwich was originally concocted, I’ll say this: oftentimes, the inventor of a thing is not always the one who perfects the invention. In this case, though, the inventor and the perfector are very much one and the same.
Approaching Hajji’s, the unassuming exterior is reminiscent of most bodegas throughout New York — the awning advertising chips, candy, cigarettes and the like is familiar to anyone who has traversed the city. The interior, too, is classic bodega: a counter greeting you when you enter, followed by a grill, both opposite drink fridges and shelves of snacks.
While I’m sure Hajji’s other menu options are delicious, it would’ve been pointless to venture down to Harlem from the Bronx and not get its iconic sandwich. Thus, I ordered the chopped cheese, which can be had on a round roll or a hero for $4.00 or $4.50, respectively. I went with the hero (as everyone should) and added a bag of plantain chips and an Arizona, bringing my total to $7.50.
My friend and I exited Hajji’s, sandwiches in hand and mouths watering, and walked a couple of blocks up to Thomas Jefferson Park, where we found a bench on which to sit and eat. On our way, he turned to me and said, “It’s even wrapped well!”
Finally, we unwrapped our sandwiches and experienced the original chopped cheese. Mouths full of food, my friend and I wouldn’t have been able to say a word, but we didn’t need to — we looked up at each other and nodded our heads. It was the kind of head nod that expressed more than words could.
Indeed, words do not do the Hajji’s chopped cheese justice. All there is to say is thank you to Carlos Soto, the cook credited with creating the sandwich. There is a picture of him behind the counter, and although he is no longer here to see how his creation has spiked in recognition throughout New York and beyond, his legacy lives on with each bite taken out of a Hajji’s chopped cheese every day.
Bodegas are so ubiquitous throughout the city that it is easy to lump them all together in your mind. Doing so, however, would be an injustice to the unique appeal of each one, a deliberate ignorance of what sets each one apart from the next. Without slighting the many other bodegas throughout the city, Hajji’s chopped cheese is truly is in a league of its own.