I’ve been eager to try a chopped cheese ever since the classic New York City bodega sandwich rose to controversial fame a couple of years ago on a wave of culinary Columbussing. I was going to hit a spot near Queensbridge and then I thought about White Gold Butchers for April Bloomfield’s $11 artisanal version and then I remembered my pal Giuseppe González was serving one at his Lower East Side watering hole, Suffolk Arms.
Actually that’s not what happened at all. I was in the neighborhood and I wanted to try the food at Giuseppe’s bar. I almost ordered the $13 Thanksgiving burger, which combines turkey, stuffing, and cranberry and then I saw “Joey’s Classic Chopped Cheese.” At $5 it’s the cheapest item on the menu, and that’s intentional the veteran barman says. “I went to two bodegas around my way one charges $5.50 and one charges $6, so I’m cheaper than both.”
“The beauty of a bodega sandwich is that you can get it any time and it’s cheap,” González says adding that purveyors of so-called artisanal chopped cheese are missing the point. “It’s accessible. It’s so simple it’s easy to fuck up.” And as served at Suffolk Arms it is indeed simple: consisting of little more than chopped up hamburger, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, ketchup and pickle relish on pan sabao, a sweet Puerto Rican bread that González gets from a Dominican bakery down the block.
It was a lovely snack, truly more than the some of its parts, with the crusty bits of hamburger merging with the cheese, sharp pickle relish, and sweet bread quite nicely. I could easily see ordering one late night with a beer as many bartenders who stop in do.
Many New Yorkers tell Bronx born and bred González that his sandwich isn’t a chopped cheese, but he’s quick to point out that, that’s the way he likes to order it. More research is needed so this Joey can find his chopped cheese. I have a feeling it will involve onions and hot sauce.
“A lot of people think it’s a cheese plate,” González says of non New Yorkers who see the words “chopped cheese.” “I keep it vague, all they see is that it is $5.”
Suffolk Arms, 269 East Houston St., 212-475-0400