Meg van Huygen's "Sub Missives" column writes love letters to the Seattle area's best sandwiches. Know a hot sub? Write to us about it @ email@example.com.
Following an ill-prepared attempt at living there in the late aughts, I flunked out of New York City real quick, and the only thing I miss about that place is the food. Aside from leaving Seattle in the first place, my main regret is that I never managed to eat a chop cheese–also known as a chopped cheese, but that's not as fun to type. It's been perpetually high on my food list for the next trip. Like, you know, whenever trips exist again.
The need has only intensified since seeing Tony Bourdain's chop cheese spot on Parts Unknown a couple years ago, then even more by a short documentary on the sandwich made by First We Feast, and a flurry of continued internet attention after that. You can spend hours watching just those prurient zoomed-in shots of the sando being sliced and the globs of burger-grease-infused cheese oozing pornographically out of the halves… good lord. It's enough to make you look up a plane ticket.
Then last week, I accidentally found a chop cheese right in my own neighborhood.
This story starts at grotty old Goofy's Tavern in Crown Hill, where Tremaine "Tres" Battle took over the kitchen in May of 2021, transforming their sad menu of boiled hot dogs and jalapeño poppers into something magnificent. Tres had a successful cheesesteak truck for the last few years, parked first at Goldie's in Georgetown and on the Microsoft campuses, and later at various bars and bodegas in Greenwood and Ballard—notably, Saleh's on Northwest 80th and 24th Northwest. This glorious, dog food-lookin’-ass cheesesteak is for eating, not looking at. The rule of cheesesteaks is: The uglier it is, the better it tastes.
What a brilliant addition to a shitass dive, you guys. Hard to express how much this helped the neighborhood out, to suddenly have great food in that gnarly place even for a few months. Tres's cheesesteaks are a delicious massacre—overloaded, unctuous, and totally unphotographable, as a correct cheesesteak should be—and every single person sitting at the bar was always slobbing over one, making a big, saucy, spectacular mess. All of 'em.
Goofy's finally closed in late 2021, after several years of threatening to, and Tres moved right down the street to Goofy's cousin, the Lamplighter Public House, which has the same owners. And on his new refreshed 2022 menu, guess what Tres's got. He's got a chop cheese. That we can have. Here.
Some folks try to say that the chop cheese is the New York cheesesteak but that's bullshit. Even a rube like me, who'd never tasted one before this, can see that it's a totally separate animal. The origin story says the chop(ped) cheese was born at Hajji's Deli in East Harlem, aka Blue Sky Deli, created by longtime cook Carlos Soto, who's now sadly departed. One Hajji's employee, originally from Yemen, likened it to a dish called dagha yamneeya—ground beef fried in butter with herbs, onions, and tomatoes and eaten with pita-like Yemeni bread—but it's not clear if this dish is what inspired Carlos.
What you need to know, though, is that a chop(ped) cheese from Hajji's is two burger patties that have been chopped up on the grill with onions, and so rather than two flat edges of Maillard reaction on each side of the patty, you get infinitely more caramelizey surface area on your burg. Resulting in all these dazzling little crispy bits of meat, which are mixed up with the grilled onions. And it's not loose hamburger that's put on the grill, by the way; it's already-formed patties that've been grilled and then hacked up, so the chunks hold together better later, when in sandwich form. Also, this way, you can eat two cheeseburgers simultaneously without being quite as fully cognizant of what you have done.
Oh, yeah, the most important part: Then it's topped with hella cheese, sometimes American, sometimes shredded cheddar, which melts and binds the meatpile together. A butterflied hero goes on the grill as well, underneath a steak weight, so you get that fatty-toasty golden crunch, and then the whole homogenized meat-cheese payload is slid onto the bread. (At Hajji's, you can get your chop cheese either on a long hero or one of those iconic round NYC rolls that are just called rolls. The roll version, notably, is cheaper.) Condiments can vary, but it's classically dressed with ketchup and mayo, and frequently mustard and/or hot sauce too, then decorated with fresh tomato slices and iceberg lettuce. Barbecue sauce isn't unheard of. People sometimes add banana peppers, and I've heard of adobo and garlic as options. Fold, et voila.
We ran into Tres at the Lamp, and to our surprise, he was back there making cheesesteaks around 9 pm, after most neighborhood bars' kitchens are closed. "Today's actually my birthday," he explained, "and so I wanted to come in just for a little while, just to do something that I like. And this is something that I like. This is what makes me happy." Well, damn.
Originally from Camden, New Jersey, Tres is a chef of over 20 years who spent a while in Philly before moving to the Seattle area in the early 2000s, so slinging cheesesteaks out here seemed like a no-brainer. This also means he knows both his Phillies and his NYC bodega sandwiches. While the chop cheese was our mission that night, a classic Philly cheesesteak still ended up in our order because you have to. This guy knows what he's doing.
Honestly? The Lamp had a pretty decent burger before Tres moved in, but the old menu just doesn't hold a candle. This chop cheese is extra juicy, extra oniony, extra gooey in the style of the cheesesteak, with that same velvety emulsion of the cheese and mayo and meat grease you see in a cheesesteak, plus another sauce-layer of ketchup, mustard, and mayo all alloyed together way down in the hinge of the bread. The outside of the hero is crisp like a potato chip when you bite it, then soft and pillowy beyond. Tres adds diced peppers to the grill, to mingle with the onions and the meat, and he finishes it with light lettuce but doesn't use tomatoes. I was quite sure there was some kind of pickly relishey vinegar-brine element in there too, but Tres said nope. "The mustard, the mayo, and the ketchup, when you blend that perfect amount, becomes its own thing, the perfect combination. If you can get that blend right, you're gonna get those type of effects."
Like the cheesesteak, this sando has a mind of its own, and a big knob of it rolled right back into the basket as soon as I picked it up. A fat cheeseburger meatball, all beautifully saturated in magic cheeseburger sauce. Guess that's why it's served with a fork. The chop cheese is city food, it's comfort food, and it's drunk food for sure. Middle-of-the-night food. As Harlem-born rapper Bodega Bamz put it, "The chopped cheese is probably a drug dealer sandwich." I kinda wanted to order another one to go, so I could eat it at 2 am when I was drunker. But that would be four cheeseburgers total, so I didn't do that.
When I asked Tres if there was a special technique to a chop cheese beyond just chopping up cheeseburgers on a grill, Tres said, "Well, yeah, depending on the type of love you put into it. I think that's the difference between my sandwiches and the lot—I put a lot of love into mine, and it's every single one of them, too. One sandwich at a time."
His love for his work is obvious, not only from eating it but also from the way he speaks about bringing East Coast food to the West. He treats this business thoughtfully and reverently, like an art.
Speaking of biz, he adds that he runs the House of Cheesesteaks with the help of his family, and it's always a pleasure to know one's cash is supporting a Black-owned, family-operated enterprise. Hell yeah, all the better.