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Bodega Salmon, Three Ways

TikTok food critic Keith Lee inspired me to explore seafood prepared at a corner store.

(Hell Gate)

When the internet's favorite food critic, MMA fighter turned TikTok star Keith Lee, arrived in New York City earlier this month, he asked people for recommendations, as he often does when visiting a new town. Based off of a fan's DM, one of the first places he visited was Taste Budz, a deli in Jamaica, Queens. His order included the classic bacon, egg, and cheese; the famed bodega staple chopped cheese; and a "2 Smoove," Taste Budz's specialty, a chopped cheese made with…salmon. 

Lee's New York fans panicked. "No no no no!!!" lamented the top commenter on Lee's TikTok post reviewing the sandwiches. "WHO TOLD HIM TO GET A SALMON CHOPPED CHEESE !!!! We are not starting like this!!!" "Who eats that in New York, bro?" streamer Kai Cenat fumed. Salmon from the bodega, numerous commenters echoed, is beyond the pale. The writer and Grub Street contributor Jason Diamond said to Hell Gate in an Instagram DM that, "I don’t normally care about how food looks, but that thing looks hideous."

"A salmon chopped cheese sounds disgusting."

"It tastes exactly like what it is," was Lee's review. "Seasoned salmon with some sauce, lettuce and tomatoes. I'm not mad at this but I'm also not crazy about it." He gave it a 7.5/10, saying he preferred the classic chopped cheese.

Lee later explained that the unorthodox nature of the order was the point. "To have the balls to do that in New York, you can't do anything but take your hat off to it," Lee said in a subsequent interview with Complex. "My intentions were to go to a smaller spot and try something new. But I get in retrospect how it looked."

But—is it really that crazy? Look, I get it: Food in New York delis stays exposed to the elements for an unknowable amount of time. But why are deli sandwiches held up as such an important part of New York culinary culture anyway? They are arguably just sandwiches with your average grocery store ingredients that another guy makes for you. 

It seemed to me that people were being overly dramatic. A chopped cheese sandwich is not exactly something that's impossible to make at home, like pizza made in a coal-burning oven or a perfectly crisp McDonald's french fry. A video posted to Taste Budz's Instagram weeks before Lee's review showed cooks at Taste Budz making the "2 Smoove" salmon chopped cheese, in which they take two frozen, already-cooked salmon burger patties; reheat and season them on the grill; chop them up with onions and melted pepper jack cheese; and then put it all on a hero dressed with lettuce, tomato, and some sort of sauce. Sounds pretty much fine! I decided I actually wanted to try it for myself. I wasn't going all the way to Queens, though.

On Tuesday, I stopped by a nearby bodega that makes salmon burgers, New York Deli Express, to see if they would go one step further and make me a salmon chopped cheese of my own. The guy working the deli affirmed that they use frozen salmon patties, and insisted, of course, that they take every measure to ensure food safety. But then, when I asked if he would make a chopped cheese with the salmon patty, he took a weirdly hardline stance. He hadn't heard of the Keith Lee video, but stiffly insisted that "we don't do that." All the other bodegas in a three-block radius that served salmon also outright REFUSED to chop them up and make them chopped cheese-style. Why? "We just don't do that," one of the employees told me. So much for the Ocky way

A deluxe salmon burger from Top Gourmet Grill. (Hell Gate)

I accepted defeat and got a deluxe salmon burger for lunch from Top Gourmet Grill. To my shock, there was a whole salmon filet between the buns. It was overcooked, and plain. I slathered mayo and hot sauce on a rather boring lunch. Deep down, I was relieved that the salmon had been cooked well-done, which made me realize I was harboring my own latent prejudices against bodega-prepared seafood.

That night for dinner, I decided I would try one more time to trust my meal to the fish preparation of New York's fine deli workers. Getting off the subway at Atlantic Avenue after a lengthy delay, I looked up and saw the gleaming doors of Gourmet Organic Market. More than twice the size of your classic corner bodega, this was clearly an operation on a different level. Multiple cooks buzzed behind the counter, young professionals picked up organic snackfoods and lightly sweetened canned beverages. If any bodega was going to have salmon, it was this one. Sure enough, I saw salmon over rice on the halal portion of their menu. I ordered it.

"Is the salmon already cooked?" I asked. "No, we cook it," the bodega worker replied. I couldn't verify it by looking into the bucket, but that made me think the salmon was raw and pre-seasoned. In for a penny, in for a pound. 

Fuck it, I figured. I asked, "Could you make a chopped cheese with the salmon?" 

"A chopped cheese?" the cook asked, confused.

"Yeah, with salmon instead of beef."

He looked amused, but then replied, "No problem."

Holy fuck, it was happening. I ordered it dressed with the classic chopped cheese toppings, regular degular ass lettuce and tomato, along with my chopped cheese sauces of choice: halal cart white sauce and hot sauce. Ten minutes passed, during which he and his fellow cooks seemed to be looking at my salmon cooking on the grill and chuckling to each other. He deposited a foil-wrapped bundle, as well as my salmon over rice, on the counter. "Here you go, boss man," he said. 

With my treasured salmon chopped cheese and salmon over rice in hand, I hustled over to the best bar in New York City, Shaka Shaka Tiki behind the Barclays Center. The owner, my friend Garrett, poured me a glass of rosé. I opened the foil and watched the steam pour out. We both took bites. 

It was fine. As Lee himself said, it just tasted like what it was. "I would maybe do some pickled jalapeño," Garrett offered. I definitely would dress it with some form of chili instead of tomato, if I ordered it again, which I won't. But it wasn't bad. My biggest fear was textural, that it would be absolute mush, but because they cooked the salmon so hard, it actually had a chew, something I would hate if I were eating a delicately seared wild-caught Sockeye filet, but again, works when you're getting salmon from the deli. The kaiser roll was perfectly toasted. Later that night, I picked at the cold salmon over rice, which was low-key actually good, but basically tasted exactly like chicken over rice.

Salmon over rice from Gourmet Organic Market (Hell Gate)


None of it defiled the bodega classics. Perhaps it's time to stop over-romanticizing hastily prepared deli sandwiches anyway. The joy of a bacon, egg, and cheese isn't that it's so special, it's that you don't have to make it yourself when you're hungover. It's not that big of a deal to put salmon in a chopped cheese, if you ask me. My Hell Gate colleague Max thinks the chopped cheese is an astroturfed sandwich anyway. He said something powerful and true: New York City doesn't need an official sandwich, because New York has all the sandwiches. (Bring us your gabagool, your calzones, your patties and coco bread, your frankfurters yearning to be free!) And now, salmon chopped cheese is one of them.

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