Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.
1545 Palm Ave., San Diego CA 92154 (map)
Locations in 31 states, see list at checkers.com
The Schtick: One stop fast food shopping (burgers, wings, hot dogs, chili fries and more, under one roof)
The Burger: One of the sloppiest and least flavorful fast food burgers ever
Want Fries With That? Sure, but eat them before they get cold, or even room temp
Setting: A tiny drive-thru or walk-up joint with no interior seating (not all locations are designed this way)
Price: Rallyburger with cheese, $1.39; Baconzilla, $3.99; large fries, $2.29; banana split shake, $3.50
It's not often that I get to sample the wares from a fast food chain for the first time, and after eyeing the constant line-up at Checkers in Florida, I was happy to discover the chain also exists on the west coast (with a different name: Rally's).
The location in Imperial Beach is more fast food stand than fast food restaurant. The kitchen is contained in a small enclosure, and all of the seating is outside. The majority of locations in California are designed this way, but closer to Serious Eats HQ in New York, you can sit inside.
Despite its small stature, the kitchen at Rally's cranks out an astounding variety of food, including every possible burger configuration, a vast array of chicken items, fish sandwiches, hot dogs, and fries (served straight up, or topped with meat, cheese, and chili). Soft serve ice cream, shakes, sundaes, and apple pie round out the dessert options. To get a fair assessment, I tried a classic cheeseburger, a "Baconator" clone, fries, and a shake.
Things did not get off to a good start. The Checkerburger with cheese was messily prepared and served cold. Unwrapping it released half of the lettuce, which wasn't actually so tragic because it was flavorless and did nothing for the burger. Execution problems didn't stop there: The cheese wasn't completely melted, the bun was top-heavy, and the patty looked and tasted like it was steamed instead of grilled. There was no char, no seasoning, and no flavor whatsoever. Eating this burger was like eating a mustard and pickle sandwich with some synthesized protein matter thrown in for texture. I'd rather eat a Jumbaco any day.
Things got a bit better with the Baconzilla, made with two beef patties, three slices of cheese, and four strips of bacon on Rally's premium bun, which is drier than the standard sesame, with a texture similar to stale pound cake. Just like the cheeseburger, the flavor of the beef was completely absent, but the mounds of melted cheese and salty bacon were good enough to merit a second bite. After that point, with half the cheese stuck to the roof of my mouth and the certainty that a heart attack was imminent, I packed it in. Some burgers may be worth an 800 calorie payload, but this isn't one of them.
Shake options include the standard chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla, plus banana, which was my initial pick. But, after spying the poster for the new(ish) premium shakes, I upgraded to banana split. Details of exactly what is in the drink aren't clear, but my guess is it's a banana shake with flavor syrups and chocolate chips mixed in. Unfortunately, the addition of the too-sweet pineapple and strawberry flavoring overwhelmed the banana and made the shake tooth achingly sweet. Despite my high tolerance for sugar, I didn't make it past three sips.
Rally's famous seasoned fries were the highlight of the meal, an honor earned by the fact that they weren't horrible. The battered, seasoned spuds had a light, crisp exterior and were tasty right up to the moment they reached room temperature. Once they cooled, they tasted oily and gross.
Hating life (and myself), I threw away what I hadn't finished in a parking lot garbage can. The bag felt heavier than when I started. Having no former experience with Rally's/Checkers, I can't say if my near heart-breaking experience was typical, but I can assure you that it was terrible. Did I order the wrong thing? Let me know what you love/hate about this chain.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best cheap and tasty eats in San Diego, including all things sweet and sugary, for her dessert blog San Diego Sugar and great meals under $10 for San Diego Magazine.