It doesn’t seem like a simple sandwich should be able to raise issues of gentrification, cultural appropriation, and even racism. But all of these themes are at play in “Hometown Hero: The Legend Of New York’s Chopped Cheese,” a surprisingly heady 18-minute documentary from the editors of First We Feast. The focus here is on a culinary cult favorite from Harlem and the Bronx. Consisting of ground beef, melted cheese, and assorted toppings served on a hero roll, the chopped cheese sandwich has long been a staple of bodegas, prized for its delicious taste and low price. But now, the sandwich is poised to go mainstream, after having been “discovered” by curiosity-seeking outsiders and featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown as well as on Insider’s food section. Is the chopped cheese sandwich finally getting its long-overdue moment in the spotlight, or is this just another example of something pure being ruined by hipsters? Opinions vary.
The sandwich has been beloved in certain sections of New York for decades while being totally unknown to the rest of the city’s population. The documentary begins with testimony from a few passersby who have no idea what it is. (“Is that a grilled cheese?” one asks.) But this delicacy won’t remain obscure or economical for much longer. Just as fans predicted, the once-humble sandwich is currently available in a pretentious upscale version in Williamsburg at double the normal price. You can learn a lot more about it now, before it shows up at forward-thinking bodegas nationwide, by watching the full documentary.