Slideshow: The 25 Best (and Worst) Fast Food Items We Ate in 2013

Waffle Taco at Taco Bell
Waffle Taco at Taco Bell

While a waffle shaped like a taco, filled with egg and sausage, and drizzled with maple syrup has the potential to be great, you'll never get there with highly processed ingredients, and that's exactly what Taco Bell is serving up. Erin's was prepared, wrapped in foil, and served in the same amount of time it took to fill a small cup with water. This may be the only fast food product in history that would be vastly improved by substituting the protein component—a rubbery, greasy, and questionably of animal origin sausage patty—with Taco Bell's seasoned ground beef.

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[Photograph: Erin Jackson]

Real Eggs on Breakfast Sandwiches at McDonald's
Real Eggs on Breakfast Sandwiches at McDonald's

For those of us who love McDonald's breakfast sandwiches, the bread on the biscuit sandwiches and McGriddles far surpasses their nasty "bagels" or the English muffins used for the Egg McMuffin. Unfortunately, while the Egg McMuffin gets a real egg, the biscuits and McGriddles get some weird yellow foam patty. Ever wonder why that is? Now you don't have to! As Kenji divulged this year, if you ask the cashier for a "round egg" on your sandwich, you'll get the proper Egg McMuffin egg, fried in a ring-shaped mold, complete with soft yolk. It makes a world of difference, and it even shows up on your receipt.

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Egg White Delight McMuffin at McDonald's
Egg White Delight McMuffin at McDonald's

If you're eating breakfast at McDonald's, chances are you're either hungover, late for work, or possibly both. Regardless, dieting is not part of the equation. But let's say you could cut some of the fat and cholesterol out of breakfast with something that was just as tasty. No reason not to do it, right? That's the promise McDonald's is making with its new egg white-based breakfast sandwiches. With all that calorie and cholesterol cutting, we were prepared to be underwhelmed, so we were surprised when the sandwich was actually quite tasty. It was hot and moist, with a good mix of flavors and plenty of salt (key when you're in hangover-recovery mode), and famously un-messy to consume.

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich at Dunkin' Donuts
Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich at Dunkin' Donuts

The new Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich from Dunkin' Donuts is, to be blunt, broken. Among the more gimmicky sandwiches in recent memory, it's the sort of item one can only imagine was born in the marketing department and fleshed out against the will and better judgment of Dunkin' Donuts' food engineers corporate chefs. Eating it is unpleasant and leaves your hands covered in warm, half-liquefied glaze. The two puny bacon strips offer little texture contrast to the sandwich's otherwise soft components. The egg looks real, but something called "Natural Sautéed Flavor" is listed in its ingredients.

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[Photograph: Lee Movic]

McLobster at McDonald's Canada
McLobster at McDonald's Canada

Until very recently, the McLobster ($6.50) was served only in the Maritime provinces, and was one of those regional curiosities, like McSpicy Paneer in India, or the Bulgogi Burger in South Korea. But the price of lobster has been declining fairly steadily in the last couple of years, so McDonald's Canada probably decided it was as good a time as any to expand the McLobster to Ontario. McDonald's describes the McLobster as containing "succulent lobster meat combined with celery, green onions, and light mayonnaise-style sauce with a hint of lemon, on top of a bed of shredded lettuce." The lettuce makes up about half of the sandwich, which makes it feel disconcertingly like a salad on a bun, but the lobster is surprisingly okay! It's a bit stringy, and its taste is overwhelmed by the bread and the celery and the mysterious "mayonnaise-style sauce," but it's not bad. There are no off flavors. It's legitimate lobster, not some kind of lobster-shaped mystery meat. Periodically available in Québec as the McHomard, or simply as the Lobster Roll in coastal New England.

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[Photograph: Michael Nusair]

Chicken Waffle Tenders at Popeye's
Chicken Waffle Tenders at Popeye's

Popeyes' Chicken Waffle Tenders hit on quite a few levels. Surprisingly, the tenders retained their exterior crunch despite the 20 minutes traveled in-box from restaurant to dining room table. The aroma of maple syrup was present without being overpowering, and the chicken was acceptably succulent. An excellent chicken-to-coating ratio on all three pieces meant not having to ask the most hated question in fried chicken: "Does this count as one of the pieces?" Popeyes' introduction of the Chicken Waffle Tenders also signaled the debut of a signature sauce to accompany them. The Honey Maple Dipping Sauce joins six other sauces, and rises above them all.

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[Photograph: Lee Movic]

Pretzel Pub Chicken Sandwich at Wendy's
Pretzel Pub Chicken Sandwich at Wendy's

As a sequel to their summer 2013 Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger blockbuster, Wendy's has introduced the Pretzel Pub Chicken Sandwich. Because #everythingonapretzelbun. But, as is the case with many sequels, this one fails to reach the same heights as its predecessor. Described as "a lightly breaded chicken breast topped with natural muenster cheese, honey mustard and a warm cheddar sauce all atop a soft pretzel bun," this sandwich, in short, just doesn't work. The bun was dense and rigid, while the yellow sauce was a weird nacho cheese, instead of the honey mustard it should have been. The sauce also served as a sort of lubricant, causing the sandwich to fall apart quite often$mdash;a definite momentum killer.

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[Photograph: Lee Movic]

Fast Food Chicken Dippin' Sauce Showdown
Fast Food Chicken Dippin' Sauce Showdown

In October, we held a taste test to determine the best fast food chicken dipping sauce among three contenders: McDonald's, Popeye's, and Burger King. Popeye's dominated the barbecue and mustard sauce categories, while Burger King's ranch, sweet and sour, and Buffalo sauces reigned supreme. McDonald's only winner was its sweet chili sauce. However, some of Popeye's best options, including the Blackened Ranch and Tartar Sauce, had no McDonald's or BK equivalents, and therefore went untested.

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Triple Steak Stack and Cantina Double Steak Quesadilla at Taco Bell
Triple Steak Stack and Cantina Double Steak Quesadilla at Taco Bell

The Cantina Double Steak Quesadilla dwarfed the Triple Steak Stack at every turn. The packaging and presentation is better (think "room service" compared to "the drive-thru at Taco Bell"), and the the quesadilla even comes with an bonus package of chips, salsa, and sour cream (actually, it wasn't entirely clear why the chips were in the box, but still, it's a nice surprise. Something about a gift horse?). Since the two menu items are both effectively meat, cheese, and bread, it's no surprise that the one featuring textured steak strips is a clear winner. The meat had a slightly smoky flavor, and while it was a little dry, they trounced the alternative (remember: Salisbury steak).

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[Photograph: Lee Movic]

Hot Mess Burger at Jack in the Box
Hot Mess Burger at Jack in the Box

If you watched the Super Bowl in February, you might have noticed ads for the new Hot Mess burger ($4.29) from Jack in the Box. It's made with a seasoned beef patty topped with melted white cheddar, pepper jack cheese sauce, onion rings, and sliced jalapeños on toasted sourdough. Even though the burger doesn't visually measure up to the publicity shot, it's still one of the most promising burgers Jack has released in quite some time, even with some execution issues. The jumbo seasoned patty actually has some depth of flavor, the combo of jalapeño slices with the melted cheddar and gooey pepper jack cheese sauce is delicious, and the sourdough bread is a major improvement over the standard-issue bun, both in terms of flavor and how well it stands up to all the melted cheese. Speaking of which, they should ditch the onion rings. The coating is too scant to take on the gobs of hot cheese, and they quickly turn limp and soggy.

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[Photograph: Erin Jackson]

Jim Beam Bacon Thickburger at Hardee's/Carl's Jr.
Jim Beam Bacon Thickburger at Hardee's/Carl's Jr.

You know what's been missing from the everything-bigger-and-crazier-and-more-extreme-than-everything-else fast food burger trend? Booze. In what the accompanying press release proudly trumpets (in the lead sentence, no less, so that's clearly what they're hanging their hat on here) as an industry first, Hardee's and Carl's Jr. have unveiled a mass-production burger "with the distinctive taste of a branded, distilled spirit." That's right. Now any underage carnivore can stroll on in and—with no fake ID required—belly up to the Jim Beam Bourbon Thickburger. It's not the prettiest fast food burger, but this one tasted better than expected. The sauce is, of course, the primary component, but it was far less overwhelming than barbecue sauce usually ends up being on a burger. It had a gentle heat and maybe just a slight astringent aftertaste that lingered a while too long. Not unpleasant...and interesting enough to hang with.

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[Photograph: Todd Brock]

New Quarter Pounders at McDonald's
New Quarter Pounders at McDonald's

It looks like the Angus burger selection at McDonald's took a huge dump, because McDonald's recently voted them off the island and changed up their menu. They've been replaced by a new "premium" version of the ol' standby favorite, the Quarter Pounder. There's three types: The Bacon Habanero Ranch, Bacon and Cheese, and Deluxe Quarter Pounder. They'll all hit you in the wallet for $3.99 each, and they all ring in at approximately 600 calories (the Deluxe is less at 540). Honestly, it seems like McDonald's is trying to pull a Cher by constantly changing face these days, but under the hood, it's still, well, McDonald's. Despite the nice makeup job, that sad, tired beef is still showing through.

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[Photograph: Dennis Lee]

French Fry Burger at Burger King
French Fry Burger at Burger King

Hey, Burger King, we need to talk. I think it's time we both admit that this isn't working. I know we had some good—no—great moments together, but if we're both honest, I think we can agree that was many years ago. This fry burger ($1)? I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or just walk away. Is adding four measly fries to a burger (with nothing but ketchup, mayo and lettuce) your idea of a joke? Or, are you trying to send me a message, using an obvious lack of effort as some sort of passive-aggressive attack? Either way, Burger King, we're through. All those fries brought to the burger was another form of starch. I could barely distinguish them from the bun. There's really nothing else to say. It's just another example of your laziness.

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[Photograph: Erin Jackson]

Buffalo Blue Cheese Burger at Hardee's/Carl's Jr.
Buffalo Blue Cheese Burger at Hardee's/Carl's Jr.

The Buffalo Blue Cheese Thickburger, which Hardee's and Carl's Jr. both rolled out at the end of August. Looks decent, and you know what you're getting right up front, based on the name. Planting your flag in someone else's backyard aside, somebody should tell Hardee's and Carl's Jr. to ease up a bit on their execution. On first glance, it seemed like the blue cheese would be overpower, but instead, the overpowering came from what seemed like a gallon of wing sauce. As hot sauces go, Frank's is quite tasty, palatable even to non-hotheads. But this was like doing a shot of straight wing sauce and then chasing it with an otherwise-nondescript-but-still-too-blue-cheesy fast-food burger. There's so much lubrication from the hot sauce and the now-melted blue cheese that one bite in, every slicked-up component of the burger makes a compete jailbreak.

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[Photograph: CKE Restaurants]

Hot Pepper, Garlic, and Nacho Cheese Shooters from Steak 'N Shake
Hot Pepper, Garlic, and Nacho Cheese Shooters from Steak 'N Shake

Steak 'N Shake has some screaming deals on their 4 Dollar Menu, including everything from a triple Steakburger and fries, to footlong hot dogs, to spaghetti topped with chili, but the new Hot Pepper, Garlic, and Nacho Cheese "Shooters" (Steak 'N Shake's term for mini burgers) were especially intriguing. You can get one of each with fries for $4.99. The main upside to the new shooters is they're fun to eat because they're unusual. The downside is because they're loaded with such strong toppings, the flavor of the beef disappears. Maybe the larger, double Steakburger versions are better, but even though we're glad we gave them a whirl, we don't think we'd order them twice. Stick with a double cheese Steakburger. Simple is what Steak 'N Shake does best.

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[Photograph: Erin Jackson]

Crazy Cheesy Crust at Pizza Hut
Crazy Cheesy Crust at Pizza Hut

The Crazy Cheesy Crust ($12.99 with 1 topping) features 16 detachable "pockets," resembling bite-size bread bowls, brimming with a gooey five-cheese blend. While the actual delivery pizza bore a strong resemblance to the one featured in the ads, that's where the similarity ends. The cheese pockets turned out to be firmly rooted to the rest of the pie, and didn't tear off easily at all. Once a pocket did come off, the cheese was rock hard and profoundly unappealing. The rest of the pizza tasted totally fine, in a room-temperature-Pizza-Hut sort of way.

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[Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

Deep!Deep! Dish Pizza at Little Caesar's
Deep!Deep! Dish Pizza at Little Caesar's

The Deep!Deep! Dish Pizza ($8.00, one topping; $1.75 for additional toppings) is available Hot-n-Ready from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily. According to the website, this is "Detroit-style" pizza, with a combination of Muenster and mozzarella cheeses, cooked in two separate little squares to give you the optimum number of corner slices. Another selling point is the caramelized edges. When executed properly, caramelized edges on a pan pizza are coveted due to their slightly burnt but rich flavor. In the case of the Deep!Deep! Dish pizza (these exclamation points are killing me, by the way) the caramelized crust does indeed give some extra flavor. But this is a doughy pizza; the majority of it is greasy bread, and the gimmick loses its flair after a few bites. Save the $3 and go for the regular $5 Hot-N-Ready pizza if you absolutely have to have Little Caesar's. Oh, and go to Detroit for a Detroit-style pie.

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[Photograph: Dennis Lee]

Bread Bowl Pasta at Domino's
Bread Bowl Pasta at Domino's

What you are staring at there is the Italian sausage variation of Domino's Bread Bowl Pasta. Introduced back in 2009 with the tagline "pasta so good you'll devour the bowl," it comes in four flavors—Chicken Alfredo, Italian Sausage Marinara, Chicken Carbonara, Pasta Primavera—with the option to build your own by adding ingredients from their pizza toppings lineup. The pasta is available on its own baked in a foil tray ($5.99), or for an extra buck, you can have it baked directly into a thick disk of pizza dough ($6.99). The breadbowl version was, unsurprisingly, far less successful that the foil one. Conceptually, the dish is a mess—the product, no doubt, of a boardroom meeting which consisted of asking "how can we make a new product using only ingredients that are already in the store and that require no new equipment, nor special training?"

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Munchie Meals at Jack in the Box
Munchie Meals at Jack in the Box

Each of the four Munchie Meal options (including a Brunch Burger, Stacked Grilled Cheese Burger, Exploding Cheesy Chicken, and Loaded Chicken Nuggets) comes with an order of "halfsies" (half curly fries, half regular), two hard-shell tacos, and a drink for $6. Munchie Meals are only available between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., and while no one at JITB has officially admitted they're aiming the meals at a specific segment of the population, saying only that the meals are "targeted at folks looking for indulgent treats," it's pretty obvious who the target market is. The fries and tacos were terrible and stale, the Exploding Cheesy Chicken sandwich was rubbery and dry, and the Loaded Chicken Nuggets were unbearably salty. The Stacked Grilled Cheese Burger was lopsided and loaded with something resembling Velveeta, but it was adequate. The only thing that worked was the Brunch Burger. Sure, the croissant was more greasy than flaky, and the hash brown fell apart halfway through eating, but with all of the salt and grease, this sandwich would be a great hangover cure/avoidance method. Here's hoping Jack adds this to the regular menu, and soon.

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[Photograph: Erin Jackson]