First of all, you might ask yourself, what is a chopped cheese? Or “chop cheese” as it is sometimes known.
According to Wikipedia, chopped cheese is a type of sandwich originating from New York City. Found in bodegas throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, made on a grill with ground beef, onions, topped with melted cheese, served with lettuce, tomatoes, and condiments on a hero (hoagie) roll.
It’s not very well known outside of NYC. In fact, it’s not even that popular in North Jersey, from what I heard on Facebook and from what NJ.com has reported.
This weekend, I discovered a new spot in South Jersey serving this Big Apple sandwich that originated at Hajii’s in East Harlem.
Let’s get one thing straight. It’s NOT a cheesesteak. Maybe a distant cousin. Rather than use thinly sliced ribeye steak, the chopped cheese features ground or finely chopped beef.
Why introduce this sandwich here and now?
When new owners Matt and Pam moved to the East Coast last year during the pandemic, they were presented with the opportunity to take over the former Sol Grocery at 5051 Westfield Avenue in Pennsauken. They jumped at the chance.
Matt Rivera, 27, grew up in Pennsauken but spent seven years in the Long Beach area of California. When he moved back with his girlfriend Pam, he wanted to bring the West Coast bodega vibe to the East Coast.
Pam Canepa, 27, was born in North Jersey, grew up in Florida, and then moved to the West Coast.
They both dreamed of running their own business. Pam has over a decade of experience working at restaurants. Matt also has a background in the service industry.
They decided they wanted to run more than a bodega, though. They also wanted to serve food.
Before starting, they talked to the locals in the community; everybody spoke of wanting more food options, so it was meant to be.
It took almost 10 months to build a brand new commercial kitchen in the back of the store, they call The Bodega 856.
Coming from Latino backgrounds, Latino food was comfortable to them, but they also wanted to offer a variety of take-out food to accommodate the neighborhood. Affordable comfort food and meals with everything under $10. They’ll introduce daily specials, but it’ll primarily be focused on cheesesteaks, hoagies, burgers, wings, breakfast and dinner platters, empanadas/pastelitos, and, of course, the chopped cheese.
The chopped cheese was something they remembered from visiting NYC and wanted to see how it would fly here in South Jersey. Well, thank goodness, let this delicious chopped cheese sandwich in South Jersey take off! This is a welcome addition to the pantheon of sandwiches revered locally.
Although folks here might be put off by the addition of ketchup-mayo, I liked it. Then again, I like most condiments and I’m not a mayo hater. It’s a really good sandwich. The beef is well seasoned with creamy cheese on a soft hoagie roll. What’s not to love? Even better, it is only $6 and won’t break the bank!
I also tried the Fried Shrimp Po’boy. Pam suggested tossing it in Thai sweet chili sauce. So glad she did as it added more flavor with a sweet heat kick. Yummy and cheap at $7. I failed to get a photo of it. Whoops.
I also tried the cheesesteak empanada (not listed on the menu above) which is featured along with several different flavors in the empanada case on the counter. The pastry was buttery and flaky and the meat was well-seasoned inside. Pretty sizeable, too. Definitely 5-6 bites (depending on the size of your bites!) Super affordable. All, but one, under $2/piece. A cheeseburger one is $3.50.
I’m looking forward to trying the whole menu and I wish these kids well. Now I can say I had a “chopped cheese” and I am absolutely going to order it again. Great bang for the buck at this new take-out restaurant in Pennsauken.
Check them out and tell them South Jersey Food Scene sent you.
FYI – a version of the chopped cheese can also be found at the recently opened Burgertime in Audubon. Glad to see this sandwich is starting to catch on.
If you know somewhere else to get a chopped cheese in South Jersey, let us know in the comments!
Marilyn is a freelance writer covering the food and drink scene of South Jersey. You can find more of her writing on Philly Grub and NewsBreak.