East/Spanish Harlem (El Barrio) — New York City is inarguably the food capital of the world, and will continue to be so because cultures from all over the world bring the best of their culture here, and introduce their delicious indigenous cuisines to a grateful dining audience, who then can't wait to share this tasty discoveries with their peers.
The somewhat common downside of this enthusiastic appreciation is that more creative types are then wont to change and upgrade and deconstruct and re-appropriate a particular food beyond what was responsible for its original appeal.
(We westerners "discovered" sriracha as bánh mì sandwiches fist started making their mark here in NYC ten years ago — yet soon after he had sriracha ice cream and lobster with caviar bánh mìs, a far cry from what they're meant to represent culinarily.)
About to make its introduction is the chopped cheese sandwich — in essence, a ground beef version of a Philly cheesesteak — that has been a staple in Harlem (then the outer boroughs) for nearly 20 years.
Blue Sky Deli (affectionally known in the neighborhood as Hajji's) has long perfected the chopped cheese that frequent visitors have shown their loyalty to.
It's exact origin story might be a bit muddled, but you can glean a near thorough history of it in this First We Feast website piece from January.
But those who have been long time fans of the sandwich pretty much agree — the more humble and low-key the establishment that makes the sandwich, the better make of the sandwich you'll get. ("If a place has a Yelp review, you already know their chopped cheese is going to be trash," says one East Harlem local.)
The specialty of the handful is in its "low-fidelity". Topped with just lettuce, tomato, hot sauce, and mayo, the chopped cheese epitomizes the food version of "simple pleasures", either as a quick stand-alone, or as a meal with sides and drinks available in the other aisles of the deli, such as chips and a soda.
Yet, as in any reputable establishment that serves food, that New York City love needs to be in the people offering and putting together the sandwich.
And although April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig) is offering her version — an "homage", she assuages, not a reinvention — of a chopped cheese on the menu of her new restaurant offering White Gold, no amount of pedigree will, for me, match the passion and dedication that grill chef Frankie and the folks running Blue Sky Deli put into keeping their avid chopped cheese fans happily coming back.
(Nor could they possibly match the low, East Harlem bodega price...)
Blue Sky Deli (Hajji's) | 2135 1st Avenue, New York, NY 10029 | (646) 682-748