In an era where most restaurateurs are leaving their brick & mortar base of operations and hitting the road in a food truck, Checkerboard Café bucked the trend. The restaurant started out as a food truck that decided to settle down in Unicoi County. We begin with the story of Ms. Rossanna Aldrich, a healthcare professional who had previously owned Granny’s Kitchen in Erwin, Tennessee. Aldrich decided to return to serving Southern-style comfort food, only this time do so from the walk-up window of the Filling Station food truck. In partnership with her son Stephen Wilson, Aldrich made the Filling Station food truck a name to reckon with if you ever wanted “home cooking” that was what it said it was. With specialty items like soup beans & cornbread, fried chicken and macaroni & cheese prepared the right way, there was no doubt that the Aldrich’s Filling Station would have a line outside their takeout window no matter where they parked. Eventually Aldrich and the partnership decided that operating from a building would be a better move, and Unicoi County got another restaurant startup that was different from most; Checkerboard Cafe’s learning curve was more like a speed bump that the big hill most newly-minted restaurants face, and they already had a menu that was tried and true.
The Checkerboard Café is the new tenant in the double-sized storefront formerly occupied by the Corner Grill at 105 Rock Creek Road, just off the north end of Erwin, Tennessee’s North Main Street. Though parking is limited immediately in front of the restaurant, there is plenty of room just across the street. The front façade has two stone-work flower boxes filled with zinnias and marigolds, giving the place a pert and cheerful look. The “vote-for” election signs, also in evidence when the dine-around bunch pulled up, are a seasonal and fleeting occurrence.
Entering the Checkerboard Cafe’s front door, you find yourself in front of an order and take-out counter adorned with three cake-safes each displaying one of the day’s desserts. To the left is a short drinks cooler containing bottled soft drinks and waters. Notably, in front of the counter is a small table and single chair, beautifully decorated with china, crystal, adorned with the American flag and a single red rose in a bud vase. The chair’s back is covered in a t-shirt bearing the emblem of the National League of POW-MIA Families. The message here is clear: there is always a table set at Checkerboard Café for all service people, veterans and their families. To the right of the take-out counter area is the main dining area with two dining rooms. The rear-most can be enclosed for private parties, a nice touch, indeed.
Hamburger steak dinner
Though Checkerboard Café has an outstanding breakfast menu, the dine-around bunch and I decided to have a go at the dinner portion of said menu. Upon arrival, the five of us were greeted by Ms. Aldrich herself, who seated us at a long table in the back dining room. With drinks orders taken we settled down to our discussion of Checkerboard Café’s dinner menu, with particular scrutiny of the daily specials. One of my readers had informed me that the best dinner plate to be had was Checkerboard Café’s hamburger steak dinner, ($10.49). Aldrich and her kitchen staff start with ten ounces of 100% ground beef formed and grilled to perfection. While you can have it topped with gravy and have it with a side order of steak fries and coleslaw, I decided to have mine medium rare with fried onion rings and no gravy at all. The Checkerboard Café’s full-sized dinner roll was a pleasant change from the usual stale door stops found at other diners. Being made to order, my meal took about twenty minutes to reach the table. It was worth the wait; the hamburger steak was grilled medium rare, just the way I liked it, (and it is a pleasant surprise to find a cook who knows the difference between “Rare,” “Medium” and “Medium Rare.”) The onion rings were excellent, just the right amount of batter in the dipping before frying in very hot oil, and then properly drained and rested before plating. The coleslaw, while good, was unremarkable.
Chicken Philly sandwich
The Dieter’s order was for one of Checkerboard Café’s chicken Philly sandwiches ($7.49). This is a freshly-baked and toasted hoagie bun that is filled with thinly-sliced breast of chicken, served up with caramelized onions, grilled mushrooms and melted provolone cheese, and topped with dollop of Checkerboard Café’s proprietary chipotle mayonnaise. Being the Dieter, our friend decided that the chicken Philly was enough, and left off any side orders like French fries or coleslaw. I had a bite of the sandwich and was immediately pleased with how the savor of the caramelized onions blended with the earthiness of the mushrooms, the mild undertone of the provolone and the sharp but not unpleasant smoky tang of the chipotle mayonnaise. Checkerboard Café’s chicken Philly sandwich is definitely a “Now & Later” sandwich: you can eat and get filled up on half of it “now,” and leave the other half for “later.” Maybe you’ll have it for lunch the following day, or maybe you’ll gobble it up as tonight’s midnight snack. Whenever it occurs, you’ll be guaranteed an excellent meal.
Mushroom & Swiss burger with fries
My friend the Carnivore was in a burger mood, but wanted his burger to be, as he said, “something special.” While my meat-eating friend’s usual understanding of that phrase meant that the “something” didn’t struggle too much while being swallowed, here he declined his usual American cheese on his burger in favor of melted aged Swiss cheese with sautéed mushrooms as a topping ($9.49). While the Swiss instead of American change was noteworthy to the rest of the dine-around bunch, the inclusion of the mushrooms was the real surprise. I halfway expected the Carnivore to start chewing on a celery stalk instead of his usual beef bone. His burger was everything he expected it to be, the nutty-smoothness of the Swiss matched well with the mushrooms and the grilled ground beef. Only a little mustard was needed for true burger perfection.
Strawberry chicken salad
The Retiree’s tummy wanted something light and flavorful. That order was filled by Checkerboard Café’s strawberry & chicken salad ($7.95). This proved to be one of the most attractive offerings from the restaurant’s kitchen. A large dinner plate was covered in seasonal greens, then tossed with slices of fresh strawberries, pecan halves, crumbles ad cubes of feta cheese, and topped with a scoop of the Checkerboard Café’s house-made chicken salad, some raspberry vinaigrette dressing near to hand. Thus created, the Retiree’s entrée was a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach, the strawberries’ sweetness countered by the sharp alkali saltiness of the feta, the pecans lending a noticeable bottom flavor to a bouquet that complemented the savor of the chicken salad mixture and the sharp astringent finish of the raspberry vinaigrette. An exceptional entrée in every respect.
Bacon cheeseburger with fries
My dining partner had seen another of the Checkerboard Café’s diners being served their bacon cheeseburger with a side order of French fries ($10.49) and was so impressed that the entrée was in front of her fifteen minutes later. Here, the 100% ground beef patty is grilled and then topped with aged cheddar cheese, crisp green lettuce, sliced onions and tomatoes, then topped with a smear of mayonnaise. And, (of course) two (or was it three?) slices of hickory-smoked bacon are piled on for extra yumminess. The sight of my dining partner chomping down and then extracting an entire bacon slice from her burger, and consuming it in one fluid smoke-flavored motion is an image that lives with me still.
Heading out the door
The dine-around bunch and I had a great time at the Checkerboard Café. Rossanna Aldrich’s restaurant and food truck experience has stood her in good stead. Aldrich & Co. see to it that Checkerboard Café is true to its roots, building on its food truck history of customer service and excellent Southern-style comfort-oriented menu offerings. Rossanna Aldrich, Stephen Wilson and their team have a winner with Checkerboard Cafe, one that is sure to take the “checker”-ed flag every time. Why not stop by and see for yourself?
105 Rock Creek Road
Tue – Sat 6:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Closed Sun & Mon
Available on Facebook & social media
Credit cards accepted