If going for a drive is like a mini vacation, then fast food is really just an excuse for us to eat outside of our normal diet when we're on holiday. Who else secretly thinks to themselves, We're going for a long ride on Saturday? Sweet, In-N-Out for lunch!
I didn't always love fast food and I wouldn't put any of it on my desert island list of foods today. I do, however, love driving, and just as you learn to love your siblings from all that forced time spent together, I've grown rather fond of the comforting smells, flavors, and textures of various fast food establishments over years of road trips.
I've driven across the country a couple of times and have gone out of my way to seek out local fast food spots when I'm traveling, all in the hope that I can one day complete my master compendium of fast food recommendations. The goal: No matter where I am in the country—nay the world—whether it's at a highway interchange, a shopping mall food court, a train kiosk, or an airport, I want to know what my best bets are for getting decent grub at lightning speed and reasonable prices.
This list is my first stab at it. It is totally, completely, 100% biased and based on my personal taste alone. You will no doubt disagree with me on a few or perhaps every point. I'm happy to fight you to the finish and let the crispest french fry and tastiest burger win.
Let's get to it.
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Best Burger: The Original Smashburger With Cheese from Smashburger
The smashed burger started in the Midwest, was codified by Steak & Shake, turned into world-wide phenomenon by Shake Shack, and perfected by Smashburger. They're made by pressing a quarter pound ball of beef onto a screaming hot griddle with a special pressing tool and cooked almost all the way through on the first side, then scraped up, delivering the most insanely well-browned, flavor-packed crust of any chain. They're always well-seasoned and juicy, with a mustard-y special sauce that enhances the beef without distracting from it. Bonus points for coming with onions and pickles by default. All burgers should come with onions and pickles by default.
Runner Up #1: Shack Burger With Cheese From Shake Shack
My obsession with burgers can be traced back to a single experience: The first time I tasted a Shack Burger from the Madison Square Park location of the Shake Shack. Back then, it was the only location of what was poised to become a worldwide chain. On a good day, they still deliver the same brown-crusted, smash-style patties served with perfectly melted American cheese, a sweet and salty special sauce, picture-perfect green leaf lettuce and Roma tomato slices, and a butter-griddled Martin's potato roll, all made with the best beef you're gonna find in the business. What's keeping it from the top slot? Consistency: From time to time you'll find yourself with a under-smashed or under-seasoned patty in your hands, which makes you question whether it was worth that half hour line.
Runner Up #2: Double Double, Animal Style, With Onions Two Ways and Chopped Chilies From In-N-Out
When it comes to deliciousness-per-dollar ratio, nobody holds a candle to In-N-Out. An Animal-Style Double Double, made with two patties of fresh-never-frozen beef griddled in mustard on a flat top, fused with melted American cheese, and served with special sauce, pickles, crisp iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and caramelized onions on an always-toasted-crisp bun and served with a smile can still be yours for under four bucks (and sometimes under three.) The phrase "onions two ways" will get you raw and caramelized onions, while the phrase "whole grilled onion" will trade the chopped ones for fat slice of sweet onion cooked until browned on the flattop. "Chopped chilies" will add hot pickled peppers pressed right into the meat. Is it the most flavor-packed, highest-quality beef around? Not by a long shot. But it's a perfectly balanced sandwich and, and where else can you find perfection for a couple bucks and change? (Just make sure to stay away from those things they call fries).
Best French Fries: Wendy's
When Wendy's changed up their whole menu a few years ago, they got a lot of things right. Their burgers are now consistently the best of the Big Three national chains, but their fries are even better. Crisp and golden crusted, they're thicker than your average fast food fries with skin-on ends, and they're fluffier, with more potato-y flavor.
Runner Up #1: Shoestring Fries From Smashburger
Going the opposite route, Smashburger's shoestring fries are about 30% skinnier than your average McDonald's french fry, giving them extra crispness. I like to pick them up by the crunchy bunch.
Runner Up #2: French Fries From McDonald's on a Good Day
There's a reason that the plurality of potatoes consumed in the world are consumed in the form of McDonald's french fries: They're addictive as all get out. It's no surprise that the folks at Mickey D's spent piles and piles of money and research figuring out how to make them just so.
At their best—fresh out of the fryer, seasoned liberally—these fries are the best in the business. Unfortunately, it's a crap shoot and you've got about 50/50 odds that your fries are going to be handed over to you limp and soggy or with not a grain of salt on them. Here's a tip: McDonald's will always give you fresh-from-the-fryer fries if you tell them your first batch of fries tasted stale, no questions asked. Or better yet, make better ones at home!
Best Non-French Fry Sides: Giant Onion Rings From Burger Fi
BurgerFi, the Shake Shack clone from Florida, is inferior in every way to the original with one big exception: those big, fat onion rings. An order of onion rings at BurgerFi only comes with about a half dozen rings, but at nearly two inches thick, these are the fattest rings around. They've got more than size going for them. The batter is invariably crisp and well-seasoned and the onions sweet and tender. This is how all onion rings should taste.
Runner Up: Cheese Curds From Culver's
There are only three acceptable things to do with cheese curds: Turn them into cheese, drop 'em on your poutine, or bread and fry them. Culver's, a Wisconsin-based chain, serves above-average smash-griddled burgers topped with more butter than you'd care to think about, but it's the cheese curds that separate this place from its fast-casual competitors. Those fried curds are crisp, hot, and squeaky, just like true Wisconsin cheese curds should be.
Best Vegan/Vegetarian-Friendly Option: Sofritas Burrito From Chipotle
Chipotle is consistently a cut above the fast food competition, from quality of the fresh ingredients they use, to the technology they call on to ensure consistency (their carnitas and barbacoa are cooked sous-vide), to the recipes themselves, delivering high-end flavor at mid-range prices. But the thing I love most about them is that there's no other fast food chain where vegans and vegetarians can stuff their faces right along side their omnivorous companions without feeling like either party is being cheated. The soy-based sofritas are my favorite thing on their menu, even when meat is an option for me.
Runner Up: Seven-Layer Burrito From Taco Bell
Seven layers. Count 'em: Rice, beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, and guacamole. Nobody can accuse Taco Bell's Seven-Layer Burrito of being texturally interesting, but those faux-Latin flavors hit a spot in my heart that's as soft as a warm flour tortilla filled with softer bean, cheese, and dairy mush.
Best Make-Sure-Nobody's-Looking Indulgence: Fiery Doritos Locos Taco Supreme From Taco Bell
Taco Bell has been playing an extended game of chicken with its menu expansions over the last several years. How far into the realm of ridiculousness can they go before diners tap out? Certainly the Doritos Locos Tacos are still well on this side of the line. One of the more genius partnerships, it has all the soft, mushy flavors of their standard taco supreme encased inside a crispy taco shell-shaped Dorito, complete with finger-staining cheez-dust and everything. It's the kind of thing you order and immediately wish you had a handkerchief to drape over your head as you eat it, both to trap in the intoxicating artificial aromas and to hide your face from public scrutiny.
Best Chicken Sandwich: Fried Chicken Biscuit From Chick-Fil-A
The butter-toasted-bun-and-two-pickles version may be the classic, but the breakfast sandwich made with the same juicy fried chicken served on a buttery biscuit is the superior sandwich. In the realm of fast food biscuits, Chick-Fil-A gives Bojangles and Popeye's a run for their money. Add the chicken into the equation and it's a solid victory.
Runner Up: Chicken Po' Boy From Popeye's
A big, fat, crisp, mayo-slathered, pickle-stuffed, honest-to-goodness, nearly-fully-dressed New Orleans-style Po' Boy with some of the crispest white meat fried chicken you'll find. Even the bread is not half bad!
Best Fish Sandwich: Fish Po' Boy From Popeye's
Popeye's just knows how to work that fryer. Their fish Po' Boy was the decisive winner of our Fast Food Fish Sandwich Taste-Off, and the only thing on their menu that could possibly tempt me away from their chicken. It helps that the tartar sauce they use is the one sauce in the entire realm of fast food sauces that Max claimed he would eat. Max is crazy, but the point still stands.
Best Fried Chicken: Popeye's
I'm going to say it: Popeye's makes the best fried chicken in New York. It also makes the best fried chicken in San Francisco. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Popeye's makes the best fried chicken of any city that is home to one of its franchises north of the Mason-Dixon line, and in quite a few cities south of it as well. Popeye's has the crispest, most well-seasoned coating, crazy juicy chicken thanks to their pressure fryers, and a darn good selection of ultra-salty sides, too.
Runner Up: Chicken McNuggets From McDonald's
Chicken McNuggets are a marvel in engineering. Ask yourself this: Have you ever in your life had a Chicken McNugget that wasn't crisp and juicy? Even after sitting in their box on the countertop overnight, the only difference you'll find in them from the moment they were purchased is their temperature. Whether it's the bell, the boot, the ball, or the bone, you won't find a more miraculous nugget of chopped-and-formed chicken anywhere.
Best Breakfast Sandwich: Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit With Whole Egg and Hash Brown Added From McDonald's
I know I'll get flak for naming the biscuit-like-thing from McDonald's as my favorite fast food breakfast sandwich, but hear me out. They may not be particularly tender or flaky, but damned if they aren't ridiculously salty and (fake) buttery, with just enough structure to hold together the contents of the greatest hangover cure known to man. If you want to up your breakfast game even more, order yourself a hash brown on the side and slide that sucker right into the sandwich.
Not a fan of that folded pre-fab egg patty? No problem: Just ask for a "round egg" and you'll get yourself an actual cracked-to-order fried egg. (I secretly enjoy the folded egg patty.)
Runner Up: Egg Sandwich From White Castle
Believe it or not, White Castle serves up the freshest standard fast food breakfast we've found. Even without asking you'll get yourself a fresh egg cracked and fried to order, slipped into their signature soft steamed buns with American cheese and sausage or bacon. I suggest the highly seasoned, juicy sausage over their anemic bacon.
Best Ice Cream Drink: Milkshake From Shake Shack
If I had my way, milkshakes at fast food restaurants would be true milkshakes: ice cold milk and flavored syrup. (I am a part-time New Englander, after all.) But if we're going to be serving ice cream-based frappes and calling them milkshakes, then they may as well be thick, creamy, and flavor-packed. The milkshakes from Shake Shack, with their ever-changing lineup of flavors, are the gold standard.
Best Non-Ice Cream Drink: Cherry Limeade From Sonic
What makes Sonic's cherry limeade the best? Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up: It's made with real limes for fresh lime flavor, it's got tiny pellet ice that ensures ultra-rapid chilling, it comes in a styrofoam cup that trades in Mother Nature's good will for ICE COLD FOREVER perfection, it comes at happy hour half-price between 2 and 4 p.m., and best of all, you can get tater tots on the side.
Best Real Drink: Margarita From Chipotle
Good margaritas made with fresh-squeezed juice, shaken, and strained as you wait at a fast food restaurant? Thank you, Chipotle! It's just the ticket in case you need a bit of liquid courage before facing that mega burrito.
Best Straw: McDonald's
McDonald's straws are wider, heftier, and more yellow and red than any of their competition. When I was a kid my mother used to collect straws from McDonald's so that we could bring them with us to other restaurants who used flimsy, skinny, all around inferior straws. Have you ever felt the need to increase the rate at which you can suck up liquid calories? A McDonald's straw might just be the answer. It's more of a sluice than a straw, really, letting that Orange Lavaburst Hi-C flow like a river.
Best Way to Spend 99¢: Two Tacos From Jack-in-the-Box
Jack-In-The-Box tacos leave you with many questions you probably don't want answered. How can they can sell two entire fried tacos for under a buck? How to they achieve that particular texture where they seem to be simultaneously crisp and soggy? Is that meat, cheese, beans, or "other" inside those golden clamshell lips? These are the kind of cases that the authorities have said are "best left unsolved, really."
Best "Not Real Food But I Don't Really Care": Onion Rings From Burger King
You know the scene in the movie where the 2D animated cartoon suddenly jumps out of the screen into full 3D, texture-mapped life? If Funyuns were cartoons, then Burger King's onion rings are the 3D form they morph into. I don't know if they're even made with real onions, and they certainly don't taste like any other ring-shaped onion-flavored product I've had, but every now and then I get a craving. They have a reasonably crisp bread crumb-coated exterior that gives way to an interior that has the soft, squishy texture of Wonderbread. Dried onion-flavored Wonderbread, that is.
Best If You're in Texas: Torchy's Tacos
Torchy's, the Texas-only mini chain that serves all manner of wacked-out tacos, is legitimately good, and not just for the tacos. Yes, the Independent—that a slab of fried portobello slammed raunchily on a pile of fresh corn kernels, piled with pickled carrots, avocado, queso fresco, with a squirt of ancho chili aioli—and the Trailer Park—fried chicken, green chilies, a poblano pepper sauce, pico de gallo, shredded cheese, and a handful of shredded iceberg lettuce in a flour tortilla—are fresh, flavorful, greasy, and wonderful. But it's the esquites you're truly after. Torchy's rendition of the charred corn, cheese, and mayonnaise salad is as good as you'll find anywhere.
Best if You're in Texas and Mildly Delusional: Whataburger
Everybody I know from Texas seems to love Whataburger. This is baffling, because as far as I know, folks from Texas don't like their beef pale gray, bland, mealy, or flavorless. I'm not even sure why I'm including it on this list here, except to rile a few folks up and perhaps get this mystery solved. Whataburger: what up?
Best Pizza: Imo's
Imo's, the St. Louis pizza chain, gets a lot of flak in the pizza world. It's like a cracker, they say. Provel cheese is a step below American, they say. It needs too many toppings, they say. It helps if you stop thinking about it as pizza per se, and instead think of it as a big, crispy, messy, delicious, pizza-flavored nacho. Once you've sufficiently opened your mind, you'll probably find that your mouth and your belly will soon follow suit.
Check out my ramblings in defense of St. Louis-Style Pizza over here.
Best Dipping Sauce: Blackened Ranch From Popeye's
Remember that time when we tasted 19 different dipping sauces? If there's anything I took away from that taste test, it's that not all barbecue sauces are created equal, people love mayonnaise and sugar, and that Popeye's Blackened Ranch Sauce is the only ranch worthy of dippage with its zesty, acidic creaminess, and hints of smoke and paprika.
Best Service: In-N-Out
How does In-N-Out manage to keep its employees so damn chipper, upbeat, and smiley that you swear there must be some kind of cult-like brainwashing going on? I've got a hard time believing it's due to the awesome burgers alone. In any case, I'd like to buy the world the formula for that secret sauce, because I have never had an unpleasant interaction with an In-N-Out employee, from the folks at the register to the ones flipping the burgers, to the dude cleaning the mess in the bathroom. It's magical.
Best Late Night Munchies Fixer-Upper: Jalapeño Poppers From Jack-in-the-Box
Is that real cheese oozing out of those crisp golden nuggets? Are these real jalapeños? Is it really acceptable to dip fried cheese into a small tub of ranch dressing that is essentially mayonnaise? Who knows? Most of the people ordering 'em after midnight are more likely to be asking themselves, Is this real life? And man, do they hit the spot.
Runner Up: Junior Cheeseburger Deluxe From Wendy's
If I've got to eat at one of the Big Three, Wendy's is the one I'll pick every time. The Junior Cheeseburger Deluxe is a big reason for that. It's the only fast food burger you'll find for under a buck that comes with fresh, crisp lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles, and at around four bites start to finish, it's just the right size to fill that beer-induced hole in your gut without weighing you down for those other late night activities.