In this interconnected world separated by only wires and electrical impulses, it’s hard to imagine that any great invention could still fly under the radar, largely undetected by the masses. Yet, the chopped cheese sandwich exists exactly in this grey space. Wildly popular in its native New York bodegas, the rest of the world remains ignorant of such simple pleasures. I’m certainly not the first, nor last, to tout such an ingenious combination of bread, meat, and cheese, which is another point of controversy in itself. Also known as the shortened title of “chop cheese,” this fully loaded hoagie is just as heavy in cultural significance.
No one can pinpoint the exact origin of the chopped cheese sandwich, though it’s indisputably born and raised in the outer boroughs of NYC. Records date it back to about the 70s, but it’s quite possible such a creation existed before anyone thought to write such an experience down for historic preservation. Only after Anthony Bourdain made a fateful visit in late 2014 with his camera crew did the rest of the nation start taking notice.
Overnight, “upscale” versions appeared on New American menus, commanding steep price tags, well above actual market value. It was a slap in the face to all who cherished the concept, twisting it into a symbol of gentrification without any credit going to its true origins. To this end, I will never claim to make the best, most authentic, or most original rendering- But I can promise a darned tasty meal.
Born of scrappy persistence, the point of a chopped cheese sandwich is to take the bits and bobs, odds and ends, and maximize their flavor potential. That’s exactly why I save Sugimoto shiitake stems. A bit tougher than their supple caps, they need more finessing to enhance their textural impact, but still possess volumes of bold, rich flavor. Who could dream of throwing away such savory diamonds in the rough? They just need a bit more polishing to reach perfection.
In fact, I would never start with whole, fresh shiitake for such a dish. Did you know that these incredible mushrooms have two kinds of aroma? The first comes before eating, as the smell wafts from the cooked dish before you dig in. The second arrives with every subsequent bite, bumping up the flavor from start to finish. Only a long, slow soak can unlock the full potential for both of these stages, combining to create a fusion of umami intensity, far beyond range of your average meatless protein. Sugimoto is the only brand I’ve tried that truly captures this complete experience.
Back to the meat of the matter. Give me your rough, your affordable, your leftover proteins! Traditionally made from chopped hamburgers, this is where the sandwich gets its name. Anything goes here, whether you prefer something veggie-heavy, bean-based, or super beefy. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be fully formed patties. Finely minced homemade seitan, as seen here, was my favorite version yet, and I can’t wait to try it with everything in my arsenal, from rehydrated soy curls to tempeh. The magic is in the combination of juicy protein, melted yellow cheese, and crisp fresh vegetables piled high on a soft hoagie roll.
It would be easy enough to use prepared vegan queso or sliced cheese here, but I went the DIY route to make sure you’ll get that perfect, gloriously gooey bite every single time. Just whisk, heat, and pour. No nuts, no nonsense, and you can make it in minutes with basic pantry staples.
Speaking of awesome sauces, let’s not glance over the second layer of shiitake wallop. Hidden like a landmine right beneath the sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce, a pinch of dried Sugimoto shiitake powder explodes with another round of bold flavor in the mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise. Such an unassuming spread is usually an afterthought, but leveraged properly, completes the flavor profile with a final round of richness.
It’s not fussy, definitely not fancy, and absolutely guaranteed to be messy, specifically designed to hit all the pleasure sensors in the brain with one giant wallop of umami. That’s the essence of what makes a chopped cheese sandwich so great.