Deep down, New Yorkers and Angelenos know that the Shake Shack vs. In-N-Out rivalry could never be determined by an end-all, be-all anatomical breakdown, no matter how
unbiased thorough the investigation. Supremacy is always relative when regional identity is at stake.
Unlike mega chains such as McDonald’s, whose golden arches extend to all corners of the globe, operations with limited geographical reach summon a deep sense of pride and nostalgia in customers. In that way, regional chains are more like underdogs of the quick-service food world, the folk heroes who refuse to abandon their home base despite showing so much promise.
Underdogs, of course, are easy to root for. When Kanye West and Chrissy Teigen make a cameo at Waffle House, or when Anthony Bourdain proclaims his love for the breakfast chain, they become moments that confirm a suspicion we’ve held all along—that we’ve been in on a secret.
Despite corporate trappings, regional chains reflect a sense of place that national brands choose to drown out. An ATL visit is somehow incomplete without a trip to Waffle House. The unfiltered regional charm is perhaps why New York was on the edge of its seat for a year as Chick-fil-A teased its opening. Regional chains, after all, are less willing to compromise their core brand. That may explain why under-the-radar chains consistently score higher on customer satisfaction surveys than OG powerhouses. Or why even chefs are once in a while inspired to create concepts based off their memories of eating fast-food chicken sandwiches.
Here we’ve taken it upon to shed light on some of these institutions and expose their regional glory to all hungry travelers. Our panel of fast-food hounds include:
- Hugh Acheson, chef, Top Chef judge (@hughacheson)
- Edmund Tijerina, food and drinks editor at San Antonio Express-News (@etij)
- Regan Hofmann, food writer, contributor at Punch (@regan_hofmann)
- Gabriella Gershenson, features editor at Rachel Ray Magazine (@gabiwrites)
- Naomi Tomky, food writer, founder of GastroGnome (@gastrognome)
- Nick Schonberger, co-founder of First We Feast (@nschon)
- Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director at Serious Eats, creator of The Food Lab (@thefoodlab)
- Scarlett Lindeman, food writer and recipe editor (@itsmecar)
- Chris Jaeckle, chef/proprietor at All’onda (@cjaeckle)
- Ross Scarano, deputy editor at Complex Life (@rossscarano)
- Ryan Joseph, social-media manager at First We Feast (@ryan_m_joseph)
- Dave Cathey, food editor of The Oklahoman (@thefooddood)
- Jed Portman, editor at Garden & Gun (@jedportman)
- Jean-Paul Bourgeois, chef at Blue Smoke (@chef_jeanpaul)
- Adrian Miller, author of the James Beard Award-winning book, Soul Food (@soulfoodscholar)
- Sam Hiersteiner, food writer based in Boston (@samsgoodfeed)
- Corey Cova, chef at Lord Hamm’s and New Leaf (@coreycova)
- DJ Dieselboy, drum and bass DJ (@djdieselboy)
- Brendan Dunne, editor at Sole Collector
Acheson says: “There are constants in life, and reliances are built on constants. In the South, you know that Waffle House is always open. The hours and the food are going to be solid, never changing. Everything else about the experience really depends on when you go. There may be a brawl at 4am on a Friday; a line of churchgoers at 9am on a Sunday; a bus load of retirees at 3pm on a Tuesday. Suffice it to say, there is a weary cadence to the madness that is a restaurant that never turns off their lights.
The food constant is the scattered, smothered, and peppered hash browns, which I guiltily eat with Heinz 57 sauce, flanked by a BLT sandwich on toasted white bread, the plate marked strategically with a packet of mayo and a slice of pickle—a language that only the line cook knows. It is food that is by no means good for me, but golly, it tastes divine. The soundtrack of the jukebox, accompanied by the staccato patter of the audibles to the cooks, in itself a system to behold, lulls me into a pleasant state of satiation.” (Photo: Flickr/rpavich)
Tijerina says: “A fresh all-beef patty and a toasted five-inch bun anchor the taste of Texas. Whataburger is a chain with a heritage that goes back to 1950, when a businessman in Corpus Christi wanted customers of his burger stand to proclaim, “What a burger!” But these flavors have special meaning for me, because when I needed it most, Whataburger welcomed me back to my home state and fed my soul. It was at the end of 1999, when I closed my restaurant and walked away from a dream. At the time, I had been living in the Midwest for nearly a decade. By the time I left, I was broke, exhausted, and completely spent. I didn’t have a job—only an interview in San Antonio.
As I drove my U-Haul truck with my belongings south on US Highway 75, I crossed the Red River into Texas and within moments, a Stevie Ray Vaughan song came on the radio. Then I saw the orange and white “W” on the side of the freeway. With tears streaming down my face, I knew I was finally home. I ordered my usual: one Whataburger all the way, with jalapeños. It tasted even better than I had remembered. Now, my wife and I take our seven-year-old son there after his tennis lessons. His usual is a combo of Whataburger Jr. with cheese and no onions, with fries and a root beer. We love watching him smile with his mouth full.” (Photo: Flickr/Megumi)
Hofmann says: “North Carolina, man. The state breaks your heart time and again, its achievements ping-ponging relentlessly between greatness and pure evil. Welcome to the South, I guess. It’s a testament to Bojangles’ fundamental glory that I can tout this NC-founded chain right now, even when the state’s most recent hate legislation has me spitting and casting gypsy curses.
Like all the best fast-food chains, Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n’ Biscuits knows its strengths, and it sticks to them—no 300-item menu here with absurd paninis, superfood salads, or tacos. There’s chicken—perfectly fried chicken, with “Cajun” flavoring that underlines a massive crunch with the mildest, most inoffensive zing. And there are biscuits. KFC doesn’t even have a dog in this race with its soap-flavored hockey pucks; Popeyes, much beloved by some, stings of artificial butter flavor and either too much salt or not enough (consistency, guys). Bojangles’ biscuits are so flaky they shouldn’t hold together when split open, let alone support an unreasonably crispy fried chicken breast—but they always do. Bojangles’ biscuits elevate character-less egg patties and American cheese, sage-y sausage patties, and too-salty country ham. Bojangles’ biscuits thrum with a hint of baking powder tingle, and a lot of butter. They are the height of North Carolina’s achievement. Go to Bojangles. But maybe one in Tennessee for now.” (Photo: Flickr/Larry Miller)
Gershenson says: “Friendly’s is my favorite regional chain really for sentimental reasons. The food isn’t that good. But I’m a Masshole, and if you’re a Masshole, you love Friendly’s. For the uninitiated, Friendly’s is a chain of diners with an ice-cream focus (it probably started as a dairy—Massachusetts is an ice-cream mecca, after all). It’s the kind of place where, at least into the mid-’90s, you could park yourself in a formica booth to smoke cigarettes, drink black coffee, and dunk cold fries in ketchup into the late (by suburban standards) hours. They also had takeout windows for ordering ice cream.
Back in high school, my favorite was the off-the-menu Wattamelon Smash, which jammed the butt-ends of the Friendly’s Wattamelon Roll, a sherbet cake made to look and taste like a wedge of watermelon, into a sugar or wafer cone (your choice). I’d gild that lily with a crust of “jimmies” (a.k.a., brown sprinkles), a topping that’s its own regional slang. But I was a member of the Friendly’s cult long before my teenage years. I can’t remember when I first got a taste (age five? six?) but it was the huge sundaes that lured me in. The ultimate was the Reese’s Pieces sundae, made with hot fudge sauce, peanut butter sauce, marshmallow sauce, and lots of ET’s favorite candy, served in a goblet that could double as a roomy fish bowl.
My mom was pretty strict about healthy eating, so I think I only ate this twice or three times over the course of my childhood. But the indulgence of it, the everything-you-could-possibly-wantness of it, branded a cursive Friendly’s logo onto my soul. Now that I am old enough to choose what I want to eat, I still look longingly at every Friendly’s that I pass by, and consider, for a moment, stopping and ordering a Reese’s sundae.”
Region: North Carolina/Virginia
Dieselboy says: “A fast-food chain that specializes in Southern breakfast classics? Holy hell, YES! Only operating from the wee hours until 2pm, Biscuitville has everything you would possibly want for delicious morning-food options. A super tasty chicken biscuit? Check. Grits, gravy, country ham, and hash browns? Obviously. Pork chops, pimento cheese, and chicken fried steak? On a biscuit?! Just take my money. You know you’re in for something special when you walk into a Biscuitville and see an enclosed glass station staffed by an employee making hot and fresh biscuits by hand every 20 minutes. The food here is a clear step above almost any other fast-food chain’s breakfast offerings. Biscuitville also offers a limited lunch menu that includes a catfish sandwich and pulled pork with a BBQ sauce made with regional soda sensation, Cheerwine. But the real money is on those biscuits. Too damn good.” (Photo: Foodspotting)
Region: Pacific Northwest
Tomky says: “Growing up, I didn’t understand the appeal of Taco Bell because it runs such a distant second to the local Taco Time. (Note: There are also other, non-Northwest Taco Times that are unaffiliated and not the same thing. Imposters, really.) The biggest problem with Taco Bell is that they don’t have crispy burritos—the greatest fast-food invention of all time. Anyone familiar with actual Mexican food might call them flautas, but Taco Time opened in 1962, and authenticity was not yet in fashion. A rolled flour tortilla forms an open-ended tube of chicken, beef, or bean, and it’s deep-fried whole until shatteringly crisp. It is best when dipped into what they call “ranch,” but which I’m fairly certain is actually just sour cream with a sprinkling of dried herbs. Which is sort of like how their “Mexi-fries” are what the rest of you might call tater tots. It’s a bit of a quirky place, but there’s not another fast-food chain in the country that wields its deep fryer so effectively.”
Schonberger says: “I last ate at Culver’s on September 4, 2010. The meal occurred between a football game in Ann Arbor and a Lady Gaga concert at the Palace of Auburn Hills. I spotted the location, just down the highway from the arena, and exclaimed, “We’ve got to go there.” Nobody was hungry—we’d earlier downed a hearty sampling of burgers and mac n’ cheese at Zingerman’s Roadhouse—but that wasn’t the point. The need, for those who’d not experienced Culver’s, was to cross a great American eatery off their list. The oldest of our crew, my friend’s grandfather, Seymour Weinstein, understood this charge. He ordered a burger, a float, and chicken fingers. After the meal he said to me, “Thank you for taking me to this great place.”
Founded in 1984, Culver’s has grown from its original Sauk City, Wisconsin location to more than 500 outlets across the Midwest and into the northern rockies (with a few outliers elsewhere). The chain’s menu is true to its roots—burgers, fried fish, cheese curds, and frozen custard are the staples—and fills out the offerings with sound crinkle-cut fries, moderately healthy green beans, and its own signature root beer (good, of course, for floats). The burgers, or rather the butter burgers, are the ticket. It’s one of the nation’s best fast-food patties, smashed and seared from never-frozen local ground beef; the bun is toasted and then liberally buttered (hence the name). What does that achieve? Near burger perfection: soft, with a subtle textured crisp, and a gorgeous melding of all the associated fats. Allow the burger to drip over the fries. Enjoy the fries.
Then enjoy a frozen custard. The addition of egg makes custard different than ice cream, and the difference is palpable. Simple offerings—i.e., basic flavors—are available, as are exotic mixtures like a raspberry cordial that includes a diced Hershey’s chocolate bar, fresh berries, and a sauce swirled into vanilla custard.
Finally, order a side of chicken fingers with a serving of the gravy typically reserved for the mashed potatoes; you are not at Culver’s to lose weight.”
Lopez-Alt says: “Sometimes you feel like a griddled burger, sometimes you want the singe of the grill. If In-N-Out is where you find the former on a fast-food budget, then fellow California chain The Habit is where I head for the latter. The Habit is what happens when you take the quality, freshness, and balanced flavors of an In-N-Out burger, replace the griddled patty with a flame-grilled one, and upgrade the fries from worst-in-the-industry to top-five status. The standard burger starts with a single well-seasoned patty, American cheese, crisp lettuce, and fresh tomatoes, along with caramelized onions, pickles, and mayonnaise. I like to pile it up with pickled jalapeños from the toppings bar. The burgers aren’t big, and there are very few crazy flavor combinations to get people into a social-media frenzy (avocado or pineapple is about as nuts as it gets). They’re just fresh, simple, perfectly-executed grilled burgers served with great sides, and frankly, that’s all I want out of a fast-food burger joint.” (Photo: Yelp/Nick C.)
Iceberg Drive Inn
Lindeman says: “Iceberg is a born-and-bred Utah classic that opened its first location in Millcreek in 1960, a shack with a charming, crinkle-cut roof. Today, there are nine locations in Utah, plus a handful in California and Arizona, offering a time-warp back to that tumultuous decade, when even if nothing seemed stable in the world, momentary peace could be found in a burger, fries, and shake combo.
The stiff shakes still tower far above their rims, in a gravity-defying tufts of ice cream, malt, and milk (I like a peanut butter, chocolate, and banana malt). The standard order is a double burger, with paper-thin wisps of beef griddled until crunchy, then layered with American cheese, raw onion, tomato, lettuce, and special sauce. Some like to gild the lily by topping their burger with fried pastrami, which is a big thing here. It’s not the thick-cut pastrami of Jewish delis, but more like lacy, cured ham, fried until the edges crisp. It’s served with little containers of fry sauce, a Utah specialty that mixes equal proportions of ketchup and mayonnaise, plus highly guarded spices. The condiment is pastel orange, tangy, creamy—and the only acceptable sauce in which to dip your fries.” (Photo: Yelp/Tony L.)
Jaeckle says: “The jerk chicken is the stuff dreams are made of. I am a massive fan of chicken, but this one is at the top. I am extremely fortunate to have two of my favorite chicken spots next door to each other and directly in the middle of my commute between restaurants on 14th Street. I stick with my healthy eating patterns pretty consistently, but when I am craving some jerk, Golden Krust it is. I usually skip the sides and go with a ¼ piece dark meat and a chee-zee beef patty, washed down with a Bigga Grapefruit drink. The patties are a little sweet on the outside and filled with gooey, salty beefy.”
Scarano says: “When I texted my brother about late-night (and, keeping it real, not sober) orders at Sheetz, his response arrived in long paragraphs. In Western Pennsylvania, the combination gas station and made-to-order sandwich-and-sides emporium inspires fandom that parallels the Philadelphia area’s obsession with Wawa. You can’t help where you come into the world, and so you’re born into your regional fast-food allegiances. (There’s an alternate dimension in which I watch the Eagles, pronounce the word water crassly, and raise the veins in my neck screaming about the superiority of Wawa hot dogs.)
Per its website, Sheetz offers: hot and cold subz, deli sandwiches, saladz, wrapz, burgerz, hot dogz, grilled chicken sandwiches, pretzel meltz, nachoz, burritos, fryz, chicken stripz, breakfast sandwiches, pizza, shwings, sliderz, shnack wrapz. The Sheetz family, of Altoona, PA, is responsible for the chain and the z and sh that refashion everyday foods into customizable delights. “I’ve run up crazy tabs on Sheetz feasts,” my brother told me, to which I can only add, “Same.” I like the hot meatball sub—saucy and with spongy meatballs, like in a cheap Italian wedding soup. My brother likes the mac-and-cheese bites and the pretzel breakfast sandwich. Here is his hack for making smokehouse fries, which are no longer on the menu: “Fries, BBQ sauce, nacho cheese, and grilled onions. I think the OG smokehouse had bacon bits but they’re unnecessary in my opinion.” At the gas station famous for made-to-order drunk food, your opinion is truly the only one that counts.” (Photo: Flickr/m10229)
Joseph says: “I’ll openly admit that Cincinnati chili resembles shit and pairs oddly with spaghetti. I’ll also concede that when it’s slathered on hot dogs, the resulting form—a coney—is not entirely unique. What I will not let trolls have is an admission that Cincinnati chili, and its ideal chain-restaurant iteration from Skyline, is trash, because it’s actually very good.
Granted, it’s chili: It’s not exactly the sort of thing that inspires a book. But that hit of cinnamon—the spice that sets Cincinnati chili apart—in every bite of Skyline makes the mountain of cheese, the sprinkling of onion, and the spritz of mustard (if we’re talking about their dogs) work. And the chain’s chili-splattered spaghetti—dubbed 2-, 3-, 4-, or 5-Way, depending on the amount of toppings piled on it—is amazingly edible, which is a high compliment for chili-covered spaghetti. It’s a polarizing mixture that succeeds in spite of itself, so much so that the attitude about it turns negative once you’re north of I-70 (Note: There are three Skyline locations in the Cleveland area, northeast Ohioans.)
Perhaps, then, Skyline—and to a greater extent Cincinnati chili—perfectly represents Ohio because it’s both beloved and hated at the same time—even the natives detest it! It’s a punchline just like the state that birthed it, but personally, I’d have it no other way. Haters can eat shit; mine tastes way better.” (Photo: Flickr/LWYang)
Cathey says: “If not for the Volga Germans (Germans from Russia), the two years I spent in the taco desert that was 1986 York, Nebraska, might’ve lasted a few months. Born and raised in the taco havens of San Diego and Austin, York offered little to titillate my palate. Taco John’s, hailing from Cheyenne, Wyoming, was around but tasted like it was conceived closer to the Canadian border than Mexico’s. I found good-enough burgers at a place called Runza, but it was the pastry it was named for that piqued my interest.
Runzas, also called bierock, come from 18th-century Germans who settled along the banks of the River Volga in the old Russian Empire. Runzas are made from yeast dough that’s packed around seasoned ground beef, onions, and cabbage, then baked golden brown. The Cheese Runza is among other variations on the theme. The franchise started in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1949 and now boasts more than 80 locations in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and Iowa. Runzas are even served at University of Nebraska football games. When I finally had my first pillowy pastry packed with olfactory porn, the taco jones abated and college was saved.” (Photo: Flickr/rayb777)
Pal’s Sudden Service
Portman says: “In lowkey East Tennessee, Pal’s Sudden Service stands out like a tuba player in a bluegrass band. With giant fiberglass hamburgers and hot dogs perched on buildings the same chlorinated blue-green color as the bottom of a community swimming pool, all 28 locations are memorable sights even for drivers who haven’t tried the chipped-ham sandwich or the messy sauceburger. But behind those goofy exteriors are managers required to spend at least ten percent of each shift helping employees master workplace skills that range from deep-frying, to interpersonal communication. In turn, employees deliver cheeseburgers and chili dogs almost three times as fast as their closest big-name counterparts. Leading the pack in everything from order accuracy to employee retention, this 60-year-old company might be the best-run fast-food chain in the country. Didn’t expect that, did you? Even on a busy day, you won’t have to wait more than a minute for a hot country ham biscuit or a creamy chocolate shake.” (Photo: Flickr/pscf11)
Danny & Clyde’s
Bourgeois says: “When going to Danny and Clyde’s, you should only be worried about ordering one thing: Po-boys. Do not be distracted by plates, wraps, and other sides. Simply focus on the trinity of the traditional offerings: shrimp, roast beef, and gravy, and fried oyster placed on a semi-chewy Leidenheimer loaf. They will also make you half-and-half oyster/shrimp, or one of my “special occasion” po-boys, the surf and turf, which features both shrimp and roast beef.
One of the most unique things about this Louisiana chain is that its located in gas stations. This is particularly useful on days when you are preparing to hunt or fish. With one stop you can gas up your truck and boat, get breakfast for the road, and snag a po-boy for later. Couple that with a 12-pack of beer, links boudin, and some gratons, and Danny & Clyde’s provides you with a one-stop-shop for what every Cajun needs to have a good time.” (Photo: dannyandclydes.com)
Harold’s Chicken Shack
Region: Upper Midwest/Great Lakes
Miller says: “Harold’s Chicken Shack has defied the odds since its namesake Harold Pierce opened the original Chicago location in 1950. Most soul-food entrepreneurs are limited to a single-store operation that rarely expands outside of a traditionally black neighborhood, but Harold’s has now spread its fried-chicken wings with multiple locations across Chicago and in several nearby states. Harold’s first specialized in chicken feet and dumplings, but its menu now shines a spotlight on fried chicken, catfish, and chicken gizzards and livers.
In the early days, Harold’s distinguished itself from other fast-food joints in that its fried chicken was made-to-order. You’ll love the crispy, nicely-seasoned crust and the juicy meat underneath. This fried chicken is served “Chicago-style,” which means it comes with a nest of French fries and a slice of white bread placed on top. Harold’s regulars will encourage you to ‘drown it’ by mixing the spicy and mild versions of its famous hot sauce together and then pouring it over everything. Harold’s also embraces the latest fried-chicken trends—now customers can pair their chicken with waffles, and some franchisees are upping their spice game by featuring the Nashville hot chicken.” (Photo: Flickr/stu_spivack)
Hiersteiner says: “As soon as children in Kansas City are old enough to eat on their own, they’ll have a rib in one hand and a steakburger in the other. The ribs could be from any one of 100 local barbecue joints, depending on your location and family loyalty, but the steakburger can come from only one place: Winstead’s. The 75-year-old local chain of eight restaurants, with its iconic Streamline Moderne design, is still going strong, even as it bucks all the overblown burger trends in America.
Winstead’s revels in its Midwestern-ness. The signature steakburger saves everyone time by not being broken into two words. Coarse ground, pounded as flat as the surrounding landscape, and smashed crispy on a flat top, the burger can be had as a single, double, or triple on a toasted bun, served in a flimsy paper sleeve. As far as accouterments go, you can get exactly the following: mustard, ketchup, pickle, onion, grilled onion (mandatory), mayonnaise, cheese (+.39¢), lettuce (+.15¢), tomato (+.20¢), and bacon (+$1.15). And while the rest of America orders fries on the side, Winsteaders go for the “Skyscraper Shake,” which serves four and is considered a more efficient (read: Midwestern) approach to massive calorie overdose.” (Photo: Winstead’s)
Xi’an Famous Foods
Cova says: “One of the worst things about living in Manhattan is how poorly nationwide fast-food chains deliver on quality. It could be their inherent mediocrity relative to all of the independent takes on burgers and tacos this city has produced, but the ‘big guys’ of fast food just don’t measure up here. [That’s why you see a] shift from the Panda Expresses of the world to more authentic options like my go-to spot, Xi’an Famous Foods. True, XFF may not fit traditional American fast-food in that it’s not mass-produced, but it does meet the criteria in other regards. The noodles, salads, and “burgers” here are produced in a low-overhead environment and available for take-out, though they will be the first to warn against taking the food to go lest your noodles become a mushy mess. However, with a menu where you order dishes based by their corresponding letters and numbers, how much more “fast food” could this be?
Many of my hungover stupors have been smashed in the dick with the tasty combination of a B1 (stewed pork “burger”), N1 (spicy cumin lamb in hand torn noodles), and about four of the cold, sweet jasmine teas. Not what you’re looking for? Each location’s offerings are a little different, but you can still find about 30 dishes boasting sweet, sour, spicy, and, my personal favorite, tingly flavors. Beef, lamb, chicken, pork, tofu, offal, dumplings, noodles, soups—whatever you want, it’ll mostly be between $3 and $10. Paying tribute to the northern Chinese city of Xi’an, XFF’s ten locations can hook you up faster and tastier food than any billion-dollar fast-food conglomerate ever could.” (Photo: Flickr/Jason Lam)
Region: Pacific Northwest
Dunne says: “If you went to college in Oregon, you’ve had to endure tales of NorCal bros driving for hours through the night in search of the furthest north In-N-Out Burger, then driving back in time for class in the morning. What regional cuisine does the Oregonian have as a rebuttal? Burgerville, a relatively small chain with locations only in Oregon and Washington. The chain actually began (and is still headquartered) in the latter, but Oregon’s got more locations over a wider geographic area.
The biggest draw are the seasonal shakes, a bangin’ array that rotates with flavors like hazelnut, raspberry, and pumpkin. The burgers use Tillamook cheese, which should remind you of childhood field trips to the factory near Oregon’s coast. Plus, the business is propped up on all the progressive ethics you’d expect from the Pacific Northwest: natural ingredients, wind-powered restaurants, bike-friendly drive-thrus, etc. Take notes bros: Lewis and Clark (RIP) didn’t come all the way out here for you to eat your fries like a fucking animal. Head to Burgerville instead.” (Photo: WikiCommons)