That Food Guy
Monday, September 23, 2013
  Checker's Drive In - Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich

 Checkers Drive In  6730 Central Ave  St Petersburg, FL 33707
(727) 347-4686

If you drive any at all you have probably passed a Checkers Drive in one time or another.  They seem to be in about thirty-two states, scattered coast to coast. In fact, there is a Checkers Drive Thru a five minute walk from where I am sitting while I write this. It is that close a walk but I would seldom venture there on foot. That entails a crossing at a very busy divided highway intersection. A lot of Florida’s old retirees regard the speed limit and red lights as merely suggestions. Driving there entails getting the car to be going the right direction on the proper side of the street which makes for a lot of going around this or that block to get aligned; awkward to get to this store is one of those places you wait until you just happen to go that way.
Over many years I have been to Checkers only a few times.  I suppose that if it were a Red Robin I would have been a more frequent customer.  That got me to thinking about what it was about Checkers that didn’t draw me as perhaps another brand name would It also got me to thinking about the criteria I use when I critique a food establishment.  All of this came about as a result of an advertisement I read in the local paper one morning; Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich, $1.99.

I have never had anything bad at Checkers. I have just never had anything exceptional at either.  If I had to rate them against other fast food restaurants I would have to rank them a bit below the more popular McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s.  In spite of all the advertising hoopla I think a blind taste test of similar items would prove to be very difficult to tell the major players apart. Checkers is not quite to that level but then Checkers menu is less expensive than the others. Checker’s offerings are consistent and okay, just not great. Perhaps that is why I haven’t written about checkers before. It is hard, for me at least, to grasp just what they are and where they fit into the scheme of fast food restaurants.
Many food critics compare food to a fixed arbitrary standard; sometime very picayune standards. I am a bit more liberal and judge on a relative scale, by what I and you would expect to be proper for that establishment.   For example, if I go to a McDonald’s and I am served a perfect a perfect Big Mac I would rate that McDonald’s as excellent. But if I was served that very same Big Mac at a Red Robin I would have to note that Red Robin was not serving food up to the expected standard.  Both the Big Mac and the Red Robin burgers are great and I would love to have one or the other right now at this late night hour. Neither is bad, one is just inherently better than the other and I would judge them on the basis of what I would expect from that establishment.  
The wife likes the Checkers swirl ice cream in the waffle cone. So, one day last year there was a newspaper advertisement offering a two for one sandwich deal. It sounded like a good deal; a cone for the wife and a spicy chicken sandwich and a filet of fish sandwich for a lunch at a reduced price. Arriving home I laid out the goodies and took a picture. That picture has been floating around the computer memory for about a year now. I did find on-line advertising photos of the same product for comparison. As you can see there is a difference. Bur considering that the two sandwiches are of the dollar menu type the comparison is about what you would expect to find if you ordered a McDonald’s or Burger King basic entry level hamburger. The sandwiches are a bit rumpled from being paper wrapped (not ridged container wrapper like premium sandwiches) and tossed into a bag for the trip home. All the ingredients, the lettuce and the like are all there and appear to be fresh, just not photogenic. In this respect Checkers is on par with the other fast food emporiums. As I remember, it was last year as I mentioned, the fish was crispy outside and flaky inside with a nice mild white fish taste. The tartar sauce had a nice piquant taste. The chicken was also nicely crisp outside with moist tender meat inside. At first it was just chicken but after a few chews the spiciness arose rather quickly; not too hot but zesty. For a buck I could not in all honesty complain about the sandwiches. Ahh, the French fries. They are coated and spiced. Since I prefer the plain potato fries, bigger ones at that, all I can say is that the fries were not bad and I did eat all of them. But if I had a choice I would choose plain fries. I can dip the fries in catsup, mayo, mustard, and guacamole (and on and on) should I want to change their flavor. The coated spiced fries are all the same and I tire of them quickly but at the same time I can appreciate that others prefer them; to that end, no judgment call made on the fries.

That brings us to the inspiration for this blog, the Checkers Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich. It is too new an offering to be listed on their on-line menu as of yet. I learned about it from a newspaper insert offering the new Philly Cheesesteak Sub for $1.99. Ask anyone from “Philly” and they will tell you an authentic cheesesteak sandwich is made thin sliced rib eye steak and onions grilled and chopped to perfection, loaded on an Italian roll and most often served with cheese, Cheese Whiz or provolone. Anything else is just a poor copy.

Copies that they may be, local restaurants Feola’s and Kissin’ Cuzzins offer their versions made with steak, onions, peppers and mushrooms all covered in mozzarella cheese.  They are scrumptious. But what about Checkers? Checkers offering is steak and onions grilled with Swiss cheese on a sub roll. Pretty close to the “Philly” standard. You can when ordering, augment you sandwich with the burger topping at hand, lettuce, tomato and bacon. When I ordered at the drive-thru they asked if I wanted to add bacon to it. Bacon? What’s to lose? I said put it all on. That got me the lettuce and tomato. In retrospect that was a mistake although not a bad one. There were enough flavors in the meat and onions that the lettuce and tomato were almost lost. It would have been better if they were not there but it was no great distraction either. I had to look but there was bacon, also almost lost in the main ingredients. I haven’t had an authentic Philly Cheesesteak sandwich since 1958 and have no basis for comparison. Therefore I will compare Checkers to Feola’s and Kissin’ Cuzzins and I love both of their sandwiches. Checker’s is a bit smaller, has Swiss rather than the mozzarella and it doesn’t have the grilled peppers and mushrooms. Those things aside, the fillings all taste very much the same; all are very tasty and satisfying. The Checker’s sandwich delivers a lot of good flavor. Given the choice between a Feola’s and  Checker’s sandwich I would of course choose the Feola’s offering. But if Feola’s or Kissin’ Kuzzins is not available, then Checker’s is a most worth substitute.  Considering that I can buy three Checker’s sandwiches for the price of one at the other restaurants makes the Checker’s offering a very good deal indeed. I also did a comparison picture of the advertising picture and the product as delivered; very close indeed, one is recognizable as the other.
Just a footnote:
Most Checker’s are prefabricated clone structures that make setting up a new store almost a weekend affair after the foundation is laid. They feature double drive through lanes, one on each side of the building. There is no inside seating but most offer a small patio area for walk up customers. Some new stores that have been placed in dense urban areas are using the store front scheme as well. It may be a fluke of geography but the three closest Checker’s to my location are on busy divided highway intersection corners. Plan your visit ahead of time.

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