In the first 19 months of the pandemic, U.S.-Canada border restrictions kept friends and families apart, leisure travellers homebound, and, in at least one case, a Montrealer 600 kilometres away from her beloved chopped cheese sandwich.
A long-time staple of Harlem and Bronx bodegas, the sandwich features ground beef and onions chopped together on a flat-top griddle, then topped with American cheese (that bright orange, highly processed stuff) and chopped again, before it’s joined by some lettuce, tomato, and a slather of condiments in a hero roll. Local chef Caroline Angers was determined to recreate it.
“I was missing it. I was born and raised in Montreal, but I have a lot of family in New York and it’s always been my second home. And, then suddenly I couldn’t travel,” Angers, who’s worked in Montreal restaurant kitchens for the past 12 years, tells Eater. “I decided to bring New York to Montreal. That’s how it started.”
After getting the flavours and ingredients just right — from the hero roll (a long submarine-like bread) to the copious amounts of “pretty close to plastic” cheese, Angers said the idea to start what she believed would be Montreal’s first business selling the sandwich began to crystallize in her mind.
In summer 2021, Angers began serving the sandwich (along with some others) under the moniker Caro’s Bodega at La Maison Onyx, a Jean-Talon Market food stall from community outreach organization DESTA, which featured a rotating lineup of Black and Indigenous chefs. Though currently on a winter hiatus, Anger says Caro’s Bodega will be back stronger this coming summer: She’s just been announced as a member of the latest cohort of DESTA’s culinary incubator program. And before long, she hopes to open her own standalone sandwich counter in the city, like some of her favourite deli spots in New York.
Chopped cheese’s origins are hazy, though the late Carlos Soto from East Harlem deli Blue Sky (locally known as Hajji’s) has been widely credited as a possible inventor. (Angers, who’s scoured New York City in search of the best chopped cheese, suggests skipping Blue Sky, though; her favourite, so far, is served by a French speaker out of a nondescript bodega in Long Island, Queens).
Wherever the classically inexpensive chopped cheese got its start, it has since made its way around New York and to Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo, sometimes in uncharacteristically “elevated” versions. And now that Montreal has its fill of New York-style slice shops, the city seems to be developing a taste for the iconic sandwich, too.
As Angers readies to revive Caro’s Bodega this summer, another option for the cheesy, meaty deli mash-up has emerged: Casse Ta Croûte. Oussama Ben Tanfous, chef and owner of Outremont fried chicken purveyor Roch le Coq, launched the ghost kitchen last month, operating out of the 2,500-square-foot-kitchen at Roch le Coq’s new Chabanel location.
When Ben Tanfous was brainstorming ideas for a new project serving “fast food but done well,” he thought back to the chopped cheese he tasted in New York three or four years ago. Montrealers have taken a shine to the superficially similar — though, as a native New Yorker will tell you, not at all the same — smash burger, so he thought they might respond similarly to the chopped cheese. “Everything from New York eventually comes here,” he notes.
For Ben Tanfous’s slightly more irreverent version, he’s opted for a papo seco (a powdered Portuguese bun with a light and fluffy interior and crispier outer shell) as its vessel. It’s a nod to Montreal’s multiculturalism, Ben Tanfous says, “and it’s good at containing all the moisture of the meat, the cheese, and all the toppings.”
Casse Ta Croûte’s “Chopped Cheese OG” is two-thirds meat and one-third cheddar. Otherwise, the menu features a spicy version with hot peppers and pikliz, one made Pad Krapow-style (with Thai basil and a fried egg), and another that chops fried chicken, adds blue cheese, and buffalo sauce. Eventually, Ben Tanfous plans to add a tofu option.
The sandwiches, along with a number of other items like poutines, can only be ordered online (via DoorDash), which dovetails with the characteristics of chopped cheese slingers in some ways: They frequently operate under the radar and usually lack traditional restaurant markers like dining rooms and a separate storefront. Beyond that, ghost kitchens — online-only, geographically indistinct — are a major departure from the intimacy of the New York bodega.
Online searches for “chopped cheese Montreal” turn out thin, though one hit reveals that in May 2021, gourmet grocery store Conserva served the sandwich as a weekly special. Meanwhile, Bodega MTL, the owner of a new Griffintown coffee shop that weaves nineties nostalgia with New York signifiers, tells Eater they’re currently working on a recipe for chopped cheese to add to the menu. They say they hope to preserve what’s made the sandwich a classic while bringing their own spin.
Angers of Caro’s Bodega is similarly devoted to guarding the sanctity of the dish — and that includes its distinct lack of frills. “I’m not trying to change it. I’m not trying to do anything different. You’re never going to see a vegan chopped cheese from me. That’s for sure. I’m not putting it in a different roll. You’ll get a hero roll. That’s it, that’s all,” she says. “It’s a classic sandwich, and you can’t change a classic.”