Living in New York in your early 20s involves a constant balance between wanting to do, see and eat everything in sight, and not having the funds required to accomplish such things. That’s how I became so intimately acquainted with my neighborhood pizza joint, which sold $2 slices the size of my head, and the bodegas near my office, which sold simple groceries, beer and quick foods like sandwiches.
Those bodegas are where I experienced my first chopped cheese, a sandwich that sees ground beef cooked and chopped on a flat top, with cheese folded and chopped into the patty until the beef and cheese become one. The typical chopped cheese is served on a roll with onion, lettuce and tomato, and despite being a seemingly messy sandwich, the melted cheese binds with the beef to keep the filling intact.
The chopped cheese is the perfect New York lunch. Like a cheesesteak for Philadelphians, or a Red Sox hat full of clam chowder for New Englanders. But until recently, this regional specialty was nowhere to be found in Dallas, a city that’s flush with burgers — and therefore all the ingredients required to make the chopped cheese.
Picadera, a Dominican street food pop-up run by Michael Tavarez, served its first chopped cheese in November 2020. Tavarez grew up in New York, where his family owns a chain of Fine Fare Supermarkets and serves sandwiches, including the chopped cheese, in its delis. Noticing a lack of the sandwich in town, he wanted to bring a taste of New York to Dallas.
Tavarez usually works two pop-ups each week, split between breweries and bars, with a rotating menu that features the chopped cheese about twice per month. To make it, he sears an Angus beef patty on the griddle and then chops it up with American cheese and onions. It’s served on a hoagie with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes and a ketchup-and-mayo-based sauce that includes Dominican accents. If customers want, they can festoon the sandwich with extras like fried mozzarella sticks or onion rings. He says the Picadera pop-ups draw a lot of Dominican and Puerto Rican customers, some who lived in New York, who know the chopped cheese from their old neighborhood bodegas.
Justin Shugrue grew up eating chopped cheeses in New York. The SMU grad and Shug’s Bagels owner remembers them fondly, saying that the best versions often came from tiny, hole-in-the-wall bodegas armed with just a griddle, a lot of nicotine products, and a cat.
“Shug’s was always meant to be a tip of the hat to New York’s bodega culture,” Shugrue says. “So the chopped cheese is representative of where we came from.”
The Shug’s chopped cheese starts with seasoned ground beef on the flat top, plus the customer’s choice of cheese. It’s all cooked and chopped together, and then placed on a house-baked Kaiser roll with lettuce, tomato and onion, though they’ll also serve it on a bagel for anyone who wants it.
The sandwich flies under the average customer’s radar, especially during morning and lunch hours, but Shugrue says the people who know it are always excited to see it on the menu. And it becomes more popular during the bagel joint’s after-hours operation, which runs from 6 p.m. to 2a .m. Tuesday through Saturday and sells food via a pick-up window and delivery apps.
Desmon Coleman, the chef behind the Hustle Town pop-ups that sling pizzas and burgers at breweries across town, doesn’t have a long personal history with the chopped cheese. He attended culinary school in Southern California and worked in Los Angeles before coming to Dallas. But a fateful chopped beef-and-cheese taco turned him onto the sandwich.
“I looked up the origin story and watched YouTube videos and started making them for myself,” says Coleman. “I was like, oh my god, this is crazy, it’s better than a cheesesteak. The ground beef is juicy and crispy, and the cheese falls into all the little crevices.”
Coleman’s chopped cheese features a blend of fresh ground brisket, short rib and chuck. He sears it on both sides and seasons the meat with Zavala’s fajita seasoning to give it some local panache. American cheese is worked into the beef, and it’s all placed onto a Martin’s potato hoagie with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and a special mayo-based sauce.
He added the chopped cheese to his burger menu and says a couple of New Yorkers immediately recognized the sandwich, while a few others mentioned seeing it on social media. “I feel like the chopped cheese is gonna blow up. It’s like a delicious cheeseburger on a roll.”
Coleman may be onto something, because the chopped cheese — and its scarcity in Dallas — also inspired a cloud kitchen concept that’s hoping to fill the void.
Last year, a company called Acelerate contacted Joe Hinkson, a partner in Brian Street Tavern and Sylvan Avenue Tavern, about bringing the chopped cheese into the market. Hinkson wasn’t familiar with the sandwich, but his wife, who’s from New York, was excited about the idea.
Reps from Acelerate provided recipes and came into Sylvan Avenue Tavern to train the kitchen staff. They even suggested multiple cloud-based storefronts with different names. On Uber Eats, the concept is called Chop Chop Cheese, while on Doordash it’s Beefy’s Chopped Cheese.
Acelerate helps restaurants manage their digital presence, from order management to menus, but it also creates and licenses proprietary restaurant brands, providing recipes, cooking instructions and training guides.
Hinkson says that Sylvan Avenue Tavern operates on a revenue share with the company. Acelerate handles all the marketing and delivery app fees, the restaurant makes the food, and the two parties split the order value.
The menu is simple, with a trio of chopped cheese sandwiches and fries. The classic is joined by a couple not-classics, like a spicy chopped cheese with jalapeños and an Italian version that calls for provolone and marinara. Customers can also build their own with a variety of toppings, from the standard LTO to bacon, banana peppers, olives, mushrooms and pickles.
At first, Sylvan Avenue Tavern also put the chopped cheese on the restaurant menu, but it didn’t sell, so they took it off. Hinkson is curious to see how this all plays out, noting that he’s been happy to experiment with the item, which has seen a steady stream of delivery sales. He says the kitchen will make the sandwich for in-person guests, if they know to request one. “We already have all the ingredients for it. If people start asking, we’ll put it back on the menu.”