How Well Does Checkers Hold Up via Delivery? We Ordered & Found Out.
We revisit some of America’s most iconic fast food items in the age of social distancing.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Checkers. I can picture its relaxed font and signature checker-pattern design elements (whether they’re of the board game or racing variety I am not sure) because we’ve passed the one on Third Avenue in Brooklyn on many trips to see family in South Philly. We never stopped for food because the drive was short enough and anyway, we were headed to refrigerators full of chicken cutlets, meatballs, parm this and that, and “macaron and gravy,” which sounded truly unholy before I learned that it was just any kind of pasta (not necessarily macaroni, often spaghetti) with tomato sauce (which is now, forever in my vocabulary, gravy).
Unsurprisingly, Checkers has a presence in South Philly, too, as chains are wont to do. “It’s on Oregon Avenue. We’ve driven by a hundred times,” my husband told me. “It was my grandma's favorite [fast food] place.” This was encouraging, since the aforementioned fried chicken cutlets Tom and I ate while standing in front of her refrigerator late one night were some of the best things I’ve ever had.
Tom didn’t know what grandma’s favorite order was, so I was left to sort out its vast and varied menu for myself. Checkers has all the expected items: eight burger varieties, a couple chicken sandwiches, fries. But it also has a few things I associate less with fast food restaurants than fast casual restaurants: mozzarella sticks, seven kinds of chicken wings, and grilled, chili, or chili cheese dogs. I love a chili cheese dog, but they’re already too messy in a static state to survive transport. Instead, I would stick with some standards.
Here’s how the Cheese Champ burger, spicy chicken sandwich, fries, and Oreo fudge Stacker held up from Checkers’ sonnet to racing (or... board games?) to my homesick abode.
Fast cars or slow moves: Ordering, wait time, and delivery experience
Checkers’ website was one of the easiest to navigate so far. Its delivery partners -- DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Postmates -- are prominently displayed. I was directed to DoorDash seemingly due to my address, which happens most of the time. This was also my fastest ordering experience to date. It took six minutes to click the Cheese Champ burger ($6.05), spicy chicken sandwich ($4.95), medium fries ($3.60), and Oreo fudge Stacker ($3.95) into the cart and to click order. ETA: 12:34pm.
The delivery wouldn’t be coming from the Third Avenue location, but a closer one half a mile away. If I’ve driven by the other two locations at the edge of my orbit a hundred times, I’ve walked by this one a thousand times. It’s in a narrow slip of a storefront not too far from the Italian (go figure) restaurant where we had dinner with my in-laws, all 11 of ‘em, the last time -- in a switcharoo -- they visited us. It was right around this time last year, the same day I judged a bacon and beer contest at a 6,000-person capacity event space and a friend in town from California came as my plus-one and it was a great, happy end to spring.
My phone rang at 12:15. As if having flown in on angels’ wings, the order was delivered in 22 minutes.
Chomp champ: Taste, presentation, and how it holds up
A paper bag contained the foil-wrapped Cheese Champ burger, spicy chicken sandwich, and the medium fries. A separate plastic bag held the Stacker, which had been layered into a plastic cup and covered in foil to protective effect. It didn’t seem like a molecule had melted on its 22-minute journey. I transferred it to a pint glass and had a few bites before I popped it in the freezer so I could get to the other stuff while it was still hot.
I didn’t know what I was missing all these years and all those times I passed by Checkers', barely registering them as anything other than atmosphere. Maybe they’d been an unacknowledged guiding light, quietly playing a part in every important moment in my life so far: first journalism job, marriage, the time I cut my own bangs and they looked OK. Or, more likely, most of us only have so many fast food restaurants in our rotation. In either case, Checkers is a delight.
It’s easy for French fries to just be. Most are lightly salted and remain close enough to their pasty potato form. Checkers’ are “secretly” seasoned (the store-bought counterpart includes salt, spices, and MSG among its ingredients) and fried to a tawny sunset hue. They pack a satisfying crunch that elevates them beyond even fast-casual status. These could be served at a regional bar and grill chain.
The spicy chicken sandwich was reminiscent of a Chick-fil-A, but more flavorful and without the strange lightly floral aroma. Checkers’ take is a thin breaded filet topped with shredded lettuce and mayo all between a toasted sesame seed bun. It is spicy in the sense that it has been seasoned. Many mainstream consumers unfairly equate “spicy” with peppery, while using the word “hot,” which this was not. But it was fine approaching good.
The Cheese Champ burger, however, was solidly good. Although I have just done it in the above paragraph and I am about to do so again, I am loath to draw comparisons. (Seriously whenever anyone starts in with “You know who you look like?” I am sure what they really mean is “You know who you’re like 70% uglier than?”) But this is high praise: the Cheese Champ was the closest taste I’ve had to the West Coast's In-N-Out Burger since the last time I was in LA in October. The thickness and flavor of the beef patties are similar and the Cheese Champ’s ketchup, mustard, and mayo vaguely approximate In-N-Out’s spread if you swapped the latter sauce’s relish with the former condiment combo’s mustard. Being that I am in New York and In-N-Out is repelled by the East Coast, further investigation is impossible at this time. The Champ’s two slices of American cheese had a nice melt going and a couple of its copious toppings made me rethink my prior assertion that most fast food sandwich vegetables are ornamental at best. Here, the lettuce and tomato were nice enough, but the slice of vibrant red onion and briny pickle slices announced themselves as Real Food by boldly tasting like what red onion and pickles are supposed to taste like.
My work day was over by the time I finally got back to the Stacker -- a precisely monickered 16 ounces of soft serve and three options for your top and bottom layers. I chose Oreo fudge, a rich mix of, well, you know. The vanilla soft serve lacked the nuanced depth of real vanilla and could more suitably be referred to as whole milk flavored. Intentionally or not, this neutrality was perfectly suited to the super sweet fudge and Oreos. The three components worked splendidly together, the crumbled Oreo chunks in particular given a spotlight. Its wafer somewhat softened from its submergence in soft serve and its filling cold and firm, the cookie took on a lively new dynamic. Grandma knew what she was talking about.
If you’d have asked me last year at this time, when the beautiful spring of 2019 was approaching summer and life seemed to be good approaching great, whether I’d ever have Checkers, I’d have said probably not. There were just too many marvelous restaurants in NYC, plus I could barely locate a Checkers on a map. But I didn’t know a lot of stuff back then. If you have the opportunity to try a new thing, this might be a good time to do so. And if another person facilitates by, say, delivering the new thing to your door, show your appreciation by tipping extra.
Join us again next time when rank the nine restaurants reviewed for How You Holding up?
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Amber Sutherland-Namako is an editor at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @AsaSutherland.