sandwiches

The Chopped Cheese Heads West

And South. And East …

Chopped Cheese in … Los Angeles. Photo: Jakob Layman
Chopped Cheese in … Los Angeles. Photo: Jakob Layman
Chopped Cheese in … Los Angeles. Photo: Jakob Layman

Whoever invented the term “New York–style” was a genius. Outside of the five boroughs, describing any food or drink as being like the food that’s eaten in New York City is the ultimate compliment. The rest of America can feel however it wants to about the city and the people who live here, but there’s always going to be somebody, somewhere toting an “authentic” version of something you can likely buy and eat within minutes of getting off of any subway stop.

Chains are notorious for this kind of marketing — Papa John’s (headquarters: Atlanta, Georgia) just introduced America to its “hand-stretched” NY Style Crust with ads that feature John Leguizamo — but where things get interesting is when individuals commit to recreating something they love in a new location. It’s why even the New York Times, of all outlets, will concede there are now good bagels to be found on the West Coast.

There’s more to New York than pizza and bagels, of course. Anthony Arias, who was born and raised in Harlem and now lives in Los Angeles, thinks the chopped cheese is poised to become New York’s next big export. His food truck, New York’s Chopped Cheese, specializes in a classic version of the sandwich: beef, onions, and spices fried and chopped together on the griddle, with American cheese, lettuce, and tomato, tucked tightly into a hero roll and wrapped in paper.

For Arias, a chopped cheese is the definition of comfort food: “My dad had a full-time job, my mom worked two jobs, so for me and my brother and younger sister, this was our go-to meal,” he says. “It was five bucks, and you got a soda — I have an intimate relationship with this sandwich.”

Anthony Arias, inside his L.A. food truck. Photo: Jakob Layman

He says his only goal is to recreate the chopped cheeses he grew up eating at Mr. Sandwich on 145th Street and Amsterdam. The sandwich is perfect and he has no interest in “elevating” or “improving” it, approaches that have been tried by others — like an $8 version that was once sold at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods —  and are always met with backlash.

One problem is that, over the last few years, people who have possibly never taken the 1 train above 72nd Street act as though the availability of this sandwich is a recent development, discounting and erasing the history of the people who have loved chopped cheeses forever. “I don’t think it needs to be elevated,” says Jayson Buford, a music writer who grew up in upper Manhattan and the Bronx eating chopped cheese after high-school basketball practice. “To change that would be to make a different meal. Some things deserve to stay original.”

This hasn’t stopped people from trying. Today, you can get a vegan version at Screamers Pizza or a Wagyu variant from a pop-up called Shmackwich. But for the most part, the people who want to sell a chopped cheese outside of New York understand the need to respect the original. In Jersey, a shop called Salt Pepper Ketchup recently earned the respect of the Bronx’s own Desus and Mero. My little brother loves a version he gets from a deli in Orlando.

“New York’s Chopped Cheese,” in Los Angeles. Photo: Jakob Layman

The chopped cheese has even shown up in Tokyo, courtesy of a Japanese chef named Yoshikazu Miyamoto, who learned to make the sandwich while living in New York and working at Hajji’s, the deli that’s widely considered the chopped cheese’s birthplace. (“Philly cheesesteaks had a mini boom here and I guess chopped cheese is the next frontier,” says Matt Alt, a Tokyo resident and the author of Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World.)

Does the potential for global chopped-cheese ubiquity threaten to endanger what’s special about it? Arias isn’t worried, but understands the sandwich’s origins must be respected. “As long as the article says it’s a guy born and raised in Harlem making this sandwich authentically,” he says, “moving here to share the culture and to respect the culture and to bring those nostalgic feelings to everyone, then I’m super happy.”

Nevertheless, Arias has a plan to expand. He wants to park multiple trucks and open locations all across the country. In the meantime, he says he’s looking with his partners for a space in Hollywood. The plan is a bodega in the front and a bar in the back. “No line stuff,” Arias explains. “It’s gonna be super on the hush.” Until then, you can find him in his truck, making the sandwich he grew up eating, for the neighbors in his new hometown.

The Chopped Cheese Heads West. And South. And East …