Based on first appearances, the HiHo Cheeseburger at the corner of Coldwater Canyon and Ventura in the Studio City section of Los Angeles isn’t much to get excited about. Apart from the location, inside an appealing new complex of shops and restaurants centered around a tree-filled courtyard, the latest location of one of LA’s favorite fast food brands is just another burger joint out of millions, complete with slightly rushed service and an overflowing soda machine.
But then you place your order, sit down outside, and wait for your meal to be dropped off. What you’re having: grass-fed, sustainably sourced Wagyu beef burgers inside freshly-baked buns, at prices similar to what you’ll pay at other more proven, far less ambitious chains, complemented by hand-cut, twice-fried French fries that even a Belgian could love.
Founded in Santa Monica just a few years ago and slowly expanding across the city, HiHo is just one of a dizzying number of options for spectacular fast food in Los Angeles right now. From exemplary tacos guisados on thick corn tortillas at the appropriately named Guisados, once a Boyle Heights pilgrimage site and now opening all over, to the cult-favorite Zankou Chicken, an East Hollywood Armenian classic that’s quickly expanding, not only is there more choice than ever before, but the array of offerings is as diverse as the region itself.
How about tacos al pastor (in the Tijuana style) at Tacos 1986 in places like Pasadena and Beverly Grove, or perfect kosher shawarma platters laden down with sparkling-fresh salads and dips at the fast-growing Tel Aviv Grill, stretching out along the Ventura Freeway from Valley Village to Calabasas? What about award-winning chefs like Mei Lin tinkering with fried chicken sandwiches in a Rampart Village strip mall, and Josiah Citrin doing the same thing at Augie’s, right off the beach in Santa Monica? And of course, because this is 2022, you can have it all delivered to you, right in your own backyard.
Los Angeles might be one of the more exciting proving grounds right now, but the future of fast food is happening everywhere, right in front of you, and Americans appear to be hungry for change. The master class in takeout and delivery that was the pandemic, when everyone stopped going out but never lost their appetite, seems to have invigorated the industry.
Lately, the word is faster, better, and growth, growth, and more growth, as restaurants scramble to accommodate the need for speed, not to mention access — out with regionalism, in with the redrawn turf lines, or no more turf lines at all, as chains try to outdo each other in expanding their market share.
This year, we’re redrawing our list, as well — gone are nearly all of the names you expect. At a time when so many former regional favorites have gone well and truly national, in many cases with no signs of slowing anytime soon, it only made sense. This time around, our goal was to figure out, what are the next big things you might not have heard of yet? And so, farewell to the likes of Culver’s and Whataburger and Raising Cane’s and a certain Georgia chicken sandwich place that nobody ever talks about at all. Hello, instead, to the closely-held secrets, and to so many ambitious newcomers, not to mention those little gems that might not be dreaming of global domination, but probably ought to.
Here’s what we looked for in a fast food restaurant, as we ate our way across the country: at least a handful of locations and counting, mostly in their home state, though we didn’t always discriminate against states that have birthed bonafide regional favorites, or those that remain content with spectacular one-offs. All had to have both counter service and a robust takeout program, optimally a drive-through. Fully sit-down restaurants didn’t qualify. Most important of all — did we like the food?
With so many new concepts out there right now, all angling to be the next big deal, we had to resist the temptation to get swept away by the shiny new fast-movers, plenty of which you’ll see on this list. Much more interesting to us were the places considered iconic on their home turf, the ones closely linked to a city or state’s identity, but not yet known to the rest of the country. Fortunately, we found more than a few places like that. Take a ride with us — we’ll hit the drive-through on the way.
Barbecue fans are fortunate to live in a time when Alabama’s once-obscure white sauce — made with mayonnaise, vinegar, and spices and slathered all over smoked chicken — is now offered all across the country, but there’s another local cult favorite that has yet to spill beyond state lines: the original sauce at this closely-held burger joint, founded by ex-Army mess cook Milo Carlton as a lunch counter in Birmingham in 1946. The dark red condiment is sometimes mistaken for a standard barbecue sauce due to its tomato leanings, while also giving steak sauce vibes, along with the faint umami of a good gravy. This other, one-of-a-kind, don’t-ask-for-the-recipe accompaniment makes its way onto pretty much everything on the menu except the fried pies, though thanks to the generous addition of DIY dispensers in the dozens of Milo’s locations now located around the state, you could probably get away with that. Chicken nuggets put those at most other fast-food chains to shame, crinkle cut fries are dusted with seasoned salt, and the sweet tea is a household staple around the state — look for it in supermarkets across the South, and sometimes beyond.
Alaska: Lucky Wishbone
Would it surprise you to know that some of the most delicious fried chicken on this list can be found in a state where they have to fly the stuff in from thousands of miles away? For generations, the lengths this otherwise modest-seeming Anchorage fave has gone to for the sake of doing things correctly is astounding.
Fresh, never-frozen, top-shelf birds are prepared according to an old family recipe (buttermilk, flour, spices, pan-fried), so simple you might almost be fooled into thinking you could do it yourself. But why would you, when you can just head for the drive-through at this classic gem, lining up with everyone else for one of the city’s finer fast meals? Park in a snowbank somewhere and tear into one of the five-piece dinners, served with shoestring fries and a homemade corn muffin.
When the weather heats up in Tucson, which is quite often, locals reach for the frozen fruit drinks sold at this iconic regional chain, started in the 1970s when two entrepreneurial youngsters started selling icy lemonades to overheated college students. Then came sandwiches, and then came lots of locations around town; a 2019 sale appears to have lit a fire under the classic brand, which has now expanded to Phoenix, bringing the eclectic menu to a whole new audience. When UNESCO designated Tucson as the first North American City of Gastronomy a few years ago, it’s likely they weren’t talking about the crinkle-cut fries here, served with a side of the house ranch dip, but as much as there is to eat here, as deep as the region’s food heritage goes, what seems like most of Tucson continues to leave a lot of room in their hearts for Eegee’s.
Arkansas: Eat My Catfish!
Drop your bait into pretty much any body of local water, and you’re likely to land yourself a catfish. While there are definitely other states where the bottom feeders enjoy top billing on the menu, it’s no surprise that Arkansas came up with the idea for this sleek fast-casual joint, serving up fresh, never-frozen, all-American, farm-raised mudcats.
Starting out as a food truck in 2008, the nascent chain now boasts seven sparkling locations, all right here in the state, serving up everything from grilled and fried dinners with hush puppies, okra, and green tomato pickles to po’ boy sandwiches on crusty, New Orleans-style French bread.
California: Zankou Chicken
The current status of Los Angeles as lively laboratory for the promising future of American fast food didn’t happen by accident — the country’s second largest city has stayed innovating practically since the car was invented. From taco drive-ins to hot dog windows to purveyors of sloppy chili burgers wrapped tidily in wax paper, LA has always eaten well, really well, on the go. One of the most iconic quick meals in certain parts of the city, however, comes from this particular Armenian fast-food joint, founded in Beirut in the 1960s and brought to East Hollywood in the 1980s.
The secret to their success is simple — juicy, beautifully-seasoned roasted chicken, served with little vats of creamy white paste, made from garlic emulsified with oil and lemon. For years, we were forced to watch helplessly as other, vastly inferior, Mediterranean/Middle Eastern fast-casuals cropped up in Southern California and elsewhere, wondering when Zankou was going to start getting serious about real expansion. And while there certainly had to have been members of the founding family keen on just that, a level of intrigue befitting a soap opera during sweeps week seemed to hold everything back.
Wherever things are at now — they seem calm? — Zankou has lately been growing like mad, looking a whole lot less like the humble original and more like its competitors, except for one thing: it’s almost impossible to match this old-timer on flavor. The colorful plates and bowls brimming with meats and dips and pickled veg for a buck or two more than your average, pallid salad or grain or burrito bowl may not have become California’s most iconic fast food just yet, but give it time. From the Sunset and Normandie original (owned by one faction of the family) to the spacious new branches scattered through the city and suburbs, you’ll always be well fed.
Born and raised in the Denver suburb of Brighton, Carmen Morales opened the first Santiago’s back in 1991 with fingers crossed and a fistful of her mother’s recipes. These days, this is a Front Range favorite with nearly 30 locations, drawing reliable lines for their well-stuffed breakfast burritos, very typically ordered smothered in green chile sauce popular enough to be sold in grocery stores across Colorado.
The rest of the menu is textbook Den-Mex, from hard shell tacos right on down to the Mexican hamburger, an only-in-Colorado favorite consisting of a burger patty stuffed into a flour tortilla with beans, practically floating in — you guessed it — green chile and topped with lettuce, tomato, and shredded orange cheese.
Connecticut: Nardelli’s Grinder Shoppe
Everybody knows that the best place for an Italian sub (sorry to Connecticut, Italian grinder) is a proper Italian deli, but what if someone figured out how to scale up the East Coast neighborhood staple without sacrificing the soul of the real deal? After a century on the job, this Nutmeg State mini-chain offers proof that it actually can be done. In stark contrast to that certain other Connecticut-based (and much younger) sandwich chain that grew up, moved away, and forgot its roots, Nardelli’s, which started out in Waterbury in 1922, never sold out. The treasured brand still has fewer than twenty locations, and only now is braving the state line to order its first Massachusetts shop. There are so many options, but you’ll begin with the Italian Combo, stuffed with prosciuttini — pruzitini, if you’re speaking the local dialect — and ham cappy, salami, provolone, and a marinated mix of vegetables tossed in olive oil, vinegar, and spices.
Delaware: Grotto Pizza
Traveling from New York City to a place where they put white cheddar cheese and sweet, ruby red tomato sauce on their pizzas — applied in an unmistakable swirl — takes less than two hours by car. Leave Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel, hit the New Jersey Turnpike, and in no time at all, you’re at the Delaware Memorial Bridge, crossing over into Grottos territory, where generations of pizza lovers have come together to worship of a type of pizza that wouldn’t have a whole lot of takers just a few exits up. That is, at least until Delaware’s purist neighbors to the north grab themselves a crispy slice, preferably from one of the walkup windows down at Rehoboth Beach, which turn out some of Delaware’s favorite fast food, summer after summer. So maybe it’s not the pizza you grew up with, but it’s probably going to haunt you until you eat it again. This is one of the rare entries on this list with sit-down locations, but speedy online pickup and delivery options keep things just quick enough to qualify.
Florida: 4 Rivers Smokehouse
The American landscape is littered with barbecue chains aspiring to be the next runaway success. Few, if any, have managed to come quite so close to nailing quality as this Central Florida favorite, founded by a former healthcare executive who skipped past the tinkering in the garage part of retirement in order to build and quickly expand this feisty fast casual spot, where lines can start forming right around opening time, even years after becoming a regional staple. Austin it’s not, but things often end up much closer to the ideal than you might expect.
Start by sampling the 30-day aged Angus beef brisket, as well as the house-smoked links, beef and pork, made to spec in Texas. (The ribs and smoked chicken generally do not slouch, either.) No need to hang around in line — all locations offer curbside pickup, and one location in Orlando even boasts a double drive-through.
The thing most people know about the Masters, held at Augusta National Golf Club, even if they’ve never played golf a day in their life, is pimento cheese sandwiches, famously consumed by the truckload during the annual tournament. What they don’t know is that for years, the pimento cheese came from this under-the-radar, local fast-food chain, known mostly only to Augustans.
In a state known well for scaling up and shipping out more than one wildly successful chain restaurant concept, this little gem keeps it hyperlocal with six locations for admirable fried chicken dinners, right down to the gizzards and the livers, along with great homestyle sides like broccoli casserole, turnip greens, and crispy hushpuppy balls. Or maybe you’re just in the market for some of that cheese and a bag full of fresh biscuits — golf attire not required.
Headed for the beach? On O’ahu, no need to pack a picnic — instead, drop by Hawai’i’s favorite chain for a Zip Pac, an overstuffed plate of fried chicken, fish, teriyaki beef, a slice of griddled Spam, and rice, maybe with a side of chili, because everyone in the fiftieth state, at least if they grew up there, loves Zippy’s chili, served up in dizzying quantities, year after year. Same goes for all the island favorites. If you’re thinking of it, chances are it’s on the menu, from breakfasts of loco moco (beef patties with egg and gravy over rice) to lau lau and kalua pig plates on Friday, with fat slices of chiffon cake for dessert whenever the mood strikes. One of the most exciting pieces of news to come out of 2022 so far? The mainland — more specifically Vegas, otherwise known as the Ninth Island for its status as the adoptive home of so many Hawai’ians over the years — will soon welcome its first Zippy’s location, with more promised to come.
Idaho: Big Jud’s
Suppose you are one of those people who finds it amusing when restaurants brag about their quarter-pound, or even half-pound burger. To some, that might sound like a great deal of beef, but it’s not like any of that’s going to knock your socks off, right? Just for you, here is this Idaho mini-chain, where the signature item is a whole, entire one-pound burger. Not particularly cheap, mind you, but absolutely monster-sized, and if you’re really feeling the need to live on the edge, go ahead and make it a double for just $5 more.
Not that you have to be some kind of endurance eater to enjoy a meal at this four-location find, founded back in the early 1990s in the tiny town of Archer. Burgers are sold in all sizes, and topped classically with the usual lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle — that is, unless you ask for something else. All are accompanied by, and this is very important considering the state we’re in, fine hand-cut French fries.
Illinois: Al’s #1 Italian Beef
There are six Al’s, stretching from Tinley Park in Chicago’s southern suburbs to Niles, way the heck up north. And there are Chicagoans obsessive enough about the city’s favorite sandwich — made with thinly-sliced slow-roasted beef, preferably swimming in jus and topped with spicy pickled veg, which in Al’s case means mostly chopped celery — to have tried all six of them. This requires a considerable amount of driving, not to mention eating, and nearly always, once the feat is completed, these people will tell you that the original Al’s location, the one on Taylor Street, once a thriving Little Italy, is the absolute best, offering up one of the most unique and layered spice combinations in the business.
Today, Al’s still thrives in a changed neighborhood, a well-aged, wood-paneled takeout joint surrounded by a parking lot, which most evenings will be filled with people demonstrating the “Chicago lean,” local parlance for the stance required to eat an Italian beef without getting the whole thing down your front. The purists aren’t wrong about the original being the very best, and, yes, the other locations are franchised, but why split hairs? If you’re eating an Italian beef at Al’s, any Al’s, you’re doing okay in life.
Indiana: Rise’n Roll
Twenty years ago now, an Amish couple in Middlebury, up in Indiana’s Amish country, which is just a few minutes off of I-80, opened a bakery, making the sort of honest, preservative-free donuts and pastries you expect to find in places like Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Holmes County, Ohio. Over time, Rise’n Roll bakeries began popping up in other towns, which was a little puzzling. The original, after all, had no electricity, no refrigeration, everything was done entirely by hand. Turns out, the Amish got smart, and let someone else come in and do the heavy lifting — in 2009, the company sold and began handing out franchises, while keeping the founders on board.
These days, Rise’n Roll feels more like Panera, except make it Amish, or more accurately, Amish-ish, but that doesn’t stop people from streaming in, from downtown Indianapolis up to Fort Wayne, and, of course, in and around the bakery’s home turf. You can get sandwiches and wraps and salads and such, but the donuts remain the star — caramel glazed yeast rings dusted with cinnamon sugar are the unique house specialty.
Long before deconstructing one’s food became fashionable, and subsequently the butt of a whole lot of jokes, Iowa had this idea — what if instead of a burger, or even a sloppy Joe, you just crumbled a whole bunch of ground beef into a pan, cooked it with salt and pepper and some onion, and then served it, completely dry on a bun? Does this sound slightly ridiculous to you? Well, not to Iowans, who love to eat loose meat sandwiches, as they’re known, served on warm rolls at this homegrown, rather prolific restaurant chain that sprang to life in 1926 and is said to have offered one of the first restaurant drive-throughs in the country. For best results, add chopped onions, a bit of mustard, and some pickles; to really go the full Iowa, order a Blue-Rite — loose meat topped with that other local favorite, blue cheese.
The thing about Wichita’s weirdest homegrown burger chain — there are others! — is that you might not like it, at least not the first time you show up to one of the thirty or so restaurants, all located in Kansas and typically decked out like somebody decided to open a 1950s diner but forgot to actually complete their historical research. But nobody shows up to Spangles for the ambience, as best we can tell — honestly, does a fast-food restaurant selling 99 cent screwdriver slushies (yes, with vodka) even need to pay attention to interiors?
Founded back in the 1970s as a coney joint and still mostly unheard of outside of Kansas, this is one of those rare spots that manages to be good at offering a little bit of everything, but at the core of the business are the Black Angus beef burgers, which start simple and affordable and wind up downright insane — who even needs a six-patty steak burger, though for $14.99, it’s certainly worth a try. Breakfasts are an experience, one customer after another packing out in-a-cup combos of scrambled egg, hash browns, sausage gravy and the various meats. Don’t forget your mudslide — soft-serve ice cream layered with chocolate and mix-ins, and sold, if you like, on the value menu that includes a burger, fries, and a drink, all for only $5.95.
Imagine a world where you could sail into the drive-through whenever, for a plate of lasagna, a bowl of carbonara, or just a whole mess of spaghetti and meatballs. IT might not be the most stellar version of any of these things you’ve ever eaten, but you’d be all over it, right? Especially if we said that you could eat really well for less than $10? Kentuckians have been loving the quick and easy Italian meals — yes there’s pizza, and garlicky breadsticks, too — at their own hometown chain since the 1980s, when it was founded as Gratzi’s in Lexington. (Today, there are hundreds of locations, still mostly in Kentucky and adjacent states.) To sweeten the deal, there are Italian ices, and cheesecake slices are sourced from the Cheesecake Factory, because why reinvent the wheel?
Louisiana: Creole Creamery
Imagine if you lived in New Orleans, in which case you’d never root against the Saints, because even if you don’t care about football, everybody here knows that as long as the home team stays in the game, these flavor geniuses continue to produce and sell one of their most popular seasonal ice creams: the Black & Gold Crunch, an homage to the city’s favorite men in tights. Think beautifully golden, double vanilla ice cream with chicory root packed with crushed Oreos and chocolate chips. The best flavor on the roster, however, might be the Mardi Gras-only chicken and biscuits flavor — vanilla ice cream studded with buttery biscuit crumble and candied chicken skin pieces, a tribute to the local love of a certain other local chain that went national years ago. For the rest of the year, you’ll have to make do (we’re joking) with other fine, extremely local options like Creole cream cheese, cafe au lait, and red velvet.
After years of holding down the fort Uptown, this long-time fave has successfully branched out into the rest of the region. You might not be able to eat a full meal here, but when we sit down and think about successful Louisiana chains the rest of the country needs right now, no question — it’s the one with the ice cream that tastes like New Orleans.
Ask a Mainer to name the state’s most iconic sandwich and you might be surprised when, instead of the lobster roll, they tell you it’s an Italian — The Italian — from this fast and affordable shop that’s been a part of local life for well over a century. This possibly explains why the sandwich in question isn’t like the Italian subs you can get pretty much everywhere else in the country these days (and, to be fair, at Amato’s too, which has updated its menu a few times over the years). But doing away with the original article — ham, American cheese, plus onions, pickles, tomatoes, green peppers, olives, salt, pepper, and oil, all on the house Italian bread — would be unthinkable to the people who grew up eating it. So would walking out of here without an order of the pazzo (crazy) bread, which is essentially a personal-sized white pizza topped with parmesan and mozzarella, served with marinara for dipping. (You won’t want to share.)
Maryland: Thrasher’s Fries
Nicely salted, hand-cut French fries splashed with vinegar on a sunny afternoon at the beach — sub “chips” for fries and “by the sea” for at the beach, and you’re right back in Jolly Olde. Or don’t do that, in which case you are most probably somewhere deep within the Mid-Atlantic region, where summers down the ocean mean one too many over-filled cups of boardwalk fries. In Ocean City, which is something like the head office of regional beach culture, Thrasher’s has been a tradition since the Great Depression, when an out-of-town entrepreneur opened up a stall selling just the one thing.
The tradition continues to this day, all over town, each location drawing long lines all summer long, thanks to the never-ending supply of fresh, never frozen potatoes fried in peanut oil. Figure in plenty of salt and a bit of apple cider vinegar, and they’re ready to go; don’t ask for ketchup, because there isn’t any.
Massachusetts: Kelly’s Roast Beef
Since the 1950s, summers at Revere Beach have been synonymous with the carefully-prepared sandwiches from this shore-facing stand, which supposedly sells — along with three other area locations — around a million of the things in a year, sliced paper thin and piled high on buttered and grilled sesame rolls baked locally every day. That’s part of the secret to Kelly’s success, but the real thing here is the meat — aged sirloin tip, or beef knuckle, seasoned only with salt and pepper, slow-roasted and rested just long enough to come out perfectly juicy, every single time. To truly appreciate the oft-imitated North Shore staple, you might leave the condiments out on your first go-round, or you could jump into the deep end and get the three-way, like a lot of other people do — James River barbecue sauce trucked up from Virginia, mayonnaise, and a slice of white American cheese. Look for more locations coming soon, both in and out of state.
Michigan: Halo Burger
Burgers generously topped with green olives, Boston coolers made with Vernor’s ginger ale and vanilla ice cream, bumpy chocolate cake from Sanders — this century-old Flint institution is essentially an exhibit of foods Michiganders like, except it’s not a museum, it’s one of the country’s oldest surviving burger chains, albeit one serving a very small part of the world that loves to keep it local. (Flint boasts a handful of secret(-ish) chainlets like the equally worthy Big John’s for steak sandwiches and YaYa’s for flame-broiled chicken dinners.) Sometimes, people in places like Lansing and other less-fortunate places tend to get a little confused as to the origin of Halo’s signature item, but Flint is happy to set them straight. Preferably over lunch. At one of eight Halo Burger locations.
Minnesota: Punch Pizza
Back in the mid-1990s, you didn’t take Neapolitan-style pizza for granted the way Americans do now, and certainly not in St. Paul, Minnesota, but John Sorrano just wanted a place to eat the pizza he grew with in Italy, eventually attracting the eye of big spender John Puckett, known to Minnesotans as the guy who founded and then sold Caribou Coffee for a great deal of money. Firing real-deal pies affordably and quickly — cooked for just 60 seconds at 900 degrees, a decent-sized (for one hungry person) Margherita pie sells for $9 — made Punch a massive hit, with some locations feeling like the hottest boîte in the neighborhood, except this is absolutely a fast-casual chain, and you are in Eden Prairie, or Wayzata, or any other of a dozen locations, each with their own, rather magnificent wood-fired Italian oven.
The story of this prolific, Magnolia State-only burger palace starts down in New Orleans, where there used to be a thriving string of drive-ins known as the Frostop, famous for chili dogs and root beer. Two brothers, last name Ward, had the Frostop franchise up in Hattiesburg, just over an hour or so from the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and they liked to get creative with the menu, eventually figuring out that the only thing better than a chili dog was actually a chili burger. They went out on their own, which worked out great — today, there are roughly 40 stores, mostly between Jackson and the Gulf Coast. This is all to say, there’s no need to throw away your money on the nationals when you could just head to Ward’s for a Big One (a burger smothered in chili and cheese) and a frosty mug of root beer.
Missouri: Lion’s Choice
If there’s another chain with a dispenser marked “au jus” next to the napkins and straws, we’d like to know about it. In the meantime, we’ll continue assuming that this St. Louis legend is one of the classiest fast-food chains in existence, serving the city that has loved it in great measure since the 1960s with really good roast beef sandwiches served on buttered and toasted buns and topped with creamy horseradish sauce, along with really good fries (brined, blanched and flash-fried) and some mighty tasty frozen custard, which you can get in a (small) cone for less than fifty cents. That’s right, two shiny quarters, in the year 2022. A contemporary of the better-known Arby’s, this closely-held mainstay has thirty five locations today, most of them — the lion’s share, one might say — within easy reach of the Gateway Arch. We’d drive past a lot of Arby’s to get here.
Montana: The Pickle Barrel
At home in the same little concrete block hut near the MSU campus in Bozeman since the mid-’70s, it can be hard to get people to believe that this crunchy little sub shop is actually Montana’s favorite fast-food chain — okay, make that pretty much the only one, with branches here in Bozeman, Billings, and Livingston, as well as in neighboring South Dakota. Steak sandwiches are the thing to come here for. Get chopped beef any way you like it, from Philly-style cheesesteaks to a South of the Border extravaganza topped with salsa and oozing jack cheese. Warning — a full order comes 17.5 inches long, which makes most competing large-size sandwiches seem awfully puny. You’ll need to be extraordinarily hungry to finish.
Nebraska: Don & Millie’s
This suburban Omaha staple is not the only Great Plains chain (see: Kansas) selling cheap, over-the-counter cocktails alongside the usual fast-food fare. But the real charm of this old-fashioned find doesn’t come from cheap booze (margaritas for $1.29) or burgers, and certainly not the dated surroundings. What keeps the fluorescent lights on around here, or, at the very least, what keeps us coming back, are the deep-fried grilled cheese sandwiches, known locally as a Cheese Frenchee, allegedly due to its faint resemblance to the croque monsieur. Egg-dipped, crumb-crusted and dropped in the fryer, these humble beauties used to be sold all over this part of the country, but have become increasingly difficult to find. Thank goodness somebody still respects tradition.
Nevada: Roberto’s Taco Shop
Post-pandemic, there are few cities (if any) offering as much 24-hour dining as late-night loving Las Vegas, where restaurants aren’t just catering to the gambling and good times crowds, but also to the not-so-small army of locals keeping ungodly hours to serve them, and who definitely need to eat, too. That’s part of the reason why you have nearly sixty franchised Nevada locations of this Las Vegas-based, SoCalMex-style, late-night (and sometimes all-night) drive-thru staple, serving up banging carne asada fries, extremely serviceable carnitas and al pastor, crispy tacos, and the valley’s most iconic breakfast burrito, a gargantuan affair that feeds two, unless you’re really hungry for eggs and potatoes and cheese and bacon.
New Hampshire: Moe’s Italian Sandwiches
You can walk across the Piscataqua River, reaching Maine in a matter of minutes on foot from downtown Portsmouth, home to the original Moe’s, but on this side of the state line, an Italian sandwich — a favorite at Maine institution Amato’s — means something else entirely. In the Granite State, it’s all about Phil “Moe” Pagano’s mother’s recipe, or so we’re assured. Think gently-spiced cooked salami, slices of provolone cheese, plus onions and peppers, dill pickles, tomatoes, and olives with a splash of the house oil on a soft roll, made popular in Portsmouth when Pagano bought out his favorite local sandwich shop in the late 1950s. Sixty years on, there’s no need to ask the locals which state makes the better Italian, because they’ve already made themselves quite clear. There are just two Amato’s locations in the entire state, far away from the nearest Moe’s, which are mostly still found within a reasonable drive of downtown Portsmouth.
New Jersey: Surf Taco
Nobody’s ever going to mistake Point Pleasant Beach for Ensenada, not even on one of those perfect, middle-of-the-summer beach days, but that didn’t stop Rob Nagel from believing that the Jersey Shore deserved a great fish taco place to call its own. Twenty years later, there are a ton of locations, from Red Bank all the way down to Long Beach Island, serving up battered cod and grilled mahi tacos that almost transport you to Baja, or at least somewhere close by, plus the usual fresh-mex selection of bowls and burritos and sides of guac for everyone. Classically Jersey it’s not, and that’s completely fine.
New Mexico: Blake’s
Every few years, an out-of-state food or travel writer will go to New Mexico to chase after the greatest green chili cheeseburger of all time. It’s a slippery thing, hard to keep up with, and the location of the very best seems to change far too frequently. For most people living in the Land of Enchantment, the answer to the question is the Lotaburger, or Blake’s, or Blake’s Lotaburger, New Mexico’s favorite homegrown fast-food chain, where quality Angus beef and Hatch green chiles are always on the menu. The holy grail? Perhaps not, but never not here when you want one. Go for a double, with plenty of chopped green chile and cheese, and don’t forget one of the great Frito pies, or the banging breakfast burritos. During the holidays, be sure to grab the milkshake made with crumbled biscochitos, the official state cookie, buttery and spiced with cinnamon and anise.
New York: Xi’an Famous Foods
In a city where money nearly always has the last word, the story of the tiny hand-pulled noodle stall in a Flushing basement and how it came to dominate the quick lunch trade in Manhattan is rather a miraculous one, especially considering that founder Jason Wang and his family carried the whole project on their own shoulders, eschewing the usual infusions of capital. The family’s delicious, Xi’an-style cooking — fresh, chewy noodles with spicy cumin lamb and cumin lamb burgers being the best-known menu items — and the accessible, quick-service model Wang brought to the table, or rather the counter, made the first Manhattan location a smash hit, and now, here we are today, not that things have been easy — like most restaurants in New York, Xi’an Famous really took it on the chin lately, but many of the locations are back to their old selves, serving up some of the finest affordable food in New York, and there are even new shops coming online, too. Perhaps, rumor has it, finally in other cities as well.
North Carolina: Biscuitville
Baking biscuits all day long from a classic, very simple recipe handed down over the years, this long-running, breakfast-centric treasure with over 65 stores still tends to operate in the shadow of certain other Southern chains, possibly because the family-owned operation tends to obsess over process more than most, which is a great thing for the people living in Raleigh or Charlotte or pretty much anywhere in between. But Biscuitville’s relatively limited reach is, in fact, part of the charm, and probably why, year after year, the food is still just that good, starting with one of the best fast-food spicy chicken breakfast biscuits in the South, made from all-natural, local meat drizzled with North Carolina honey, though the basic country ham (North Carolina-cured) biscuit is always a winner, too. Don’t forget the sides — cheese grits, sausage gravy you’ll just want to eat with a spoon, and that all-important local specialty, pimento cheese, here zipped up with chopped jalapeños.
North Dakota: Burger Time
Funnel cake fries — yes, you heard that right — corn dogs and and deep-fried cheese curds bring the state fair vibes year-round at this fun Fargo favorite, which dates back to the 1980s, over time branching out to Bismarck and Grand Forks and far-flung Minot, as well as across neighboring state lines. The blue ribbon winner here is the 1/3 lb. Bigger Burger, which you can get for $5.99 on Mondays with fries and a drink. No frills, just good meat, plus LTO and the other usual toppers, though you can double or triple for a few bucks more, the latter costing roughly $10 for a pound of meat. It’s one of the best values on this year’s list.
Ohio: Swenson’s Drive-In
Even just a few years ago, this carhop-only Akron classic, a favorite of hometown hero LeBron James, felt like a relic from the past. During the pandemic, Swenson’s was something like a gift from the getting-out-of-the-house gods. Serving this corner of Ohio since 1934 — flash your lights, and they’ll come running — and a friend to all in the Rust Belt city through good times and bad, Swenson’s offers delicious, extremely retro food at attractively retro prices. While you can get anything from a cup of chili to a fried fish dinner here, most people come for (and most of the Swenson’s lore surrounds) the curious Galley Boy, one of the more unusual fast-food burgers in the country. Clearly created a few generations ago, when tastes were just a little bit different, this rather miniature-sized double cheeseburger is topped with two of the house sauces: one of them barbecue-like, the other a tangy, almost tartar sauce-esque creation. Besides the green pimento olive on a toothpick holding the whole thing together, that’s it — a slightly odd, delicious mess, spilling out the sides of a pretty darn good bun, the kind that’s actually something like bread, rather than what you’re mostly offered at fast-food joints nowadays. Order a mint whip — creamy, minty ginger ale, another fine fossil on the menu — and crank up your ’50s playlist.
Oklahoma: Tucker’s Onion Burgers
Oklahoma’s magnificent contribution to American burger culture was born out of necessity. At a time when even in a state with more cattle than people (at least we assume), beef was hard to come by. Fry cooks in the town of El Reno had an idea to stretch supply, and keep things affordable — take a small amount of burger meat, toss it onto the grill, then bury it in onion shavings, allowing the whole thing to cook together, marrying the flavors so that when you slide it onto a bun, you’ll hardly know where the beef ends and the onions begin.
The result was so delicious, that even years later, when beef once again became cheap and plentiful, onion burgers hung around. Tucker’s isn’t in El Reno, but rather in Oklahoma City, where you’ll find a handful of stylish locations, serving up a quality product, probably with a lot more beef per burger than you might have been served back in the old days, but still for not too much money. Don’t skip the hand-cut fries — they’re some of the best on this list.
Oregon: Laughing Planet Café
You’ll eat healthy, well, and fast as lightning at this sassy, Portland-area sleeper, which recently clocked twenty years with nearly fifteen locations, nearly all of them right here in Oregon. The menu is firmly ecumenical, making room in the tent for everyone from the most unapologetic carnivore to the most radical vegan. It’s focused intently on finding the best of everything, from the no-till, Washington-grown beans to 100% pasture-raised beef. (Even the salt, sourced from the nearby coast, is local.) From kale caesars and veggie chili to a seasonal Thanksgiving dinner bowl, all healthy (or healthy-ish) appetites will be satisfied, and swiftly.
Like so many little town squares scattered mostly across Philadelphia and environs, Wawa is one of the region’s great communal spaces — you wake up here in the morning, you eat dinner here at night, you run into everyone you know, you make videos in the parking lot, you fight, you fall in love, sometimes you even get married here, or even die here, circle of life and all that. For so many in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and increasingly in other fortunate places both in and out of the state, your life sort of accidentally-on-purpose ends up revolving around Wawa.
As absurd as that might sound to people who aren’t in on the secret, who aren’t in on the hoagies — so good! — and soft pretzels and breakfast sandwiches, or the great coffee and the house brand iced teas and the most extensive selection of Tastykakes this side of the factory floor in Philly, all we can say is, nice try, person from Sheetz territory or out of state. Everyone else — see you at the touchscreen.
Rhode Island: Olneyville New York System
The labyrinthine thicket that is ancient hot dog law comes riddled with dead ends and missing links. How, for example, did Michigan end up eating Coney Islands, while Upstate New York got the Michigan? How did America’s tiniest state get the New York System hot weiner, and how does almost nobody in New York City know what the hell any of these places are talking about? What we do know, at least in the case of Rhode Island, is that starting a century or so ago, New York System restaurants started to appear in the Providence area, among them the one started by a family of Greek immigrants from Brooklyn. Today, Olneyville, with locations in Providence and Cranston, remains the most iconic out of the bunch, serving up the locally favored hot weiners (don’t say dogs, ever) made from veal and pork, short little things stuffed into steamed buns and topped with celery salt, yellow mustard, and a distinctive seasoned meat sauce, plus a blizzard of chopped onions for the finish, if you so choose. The only thing that’s missing? A glass of chilled coffee milk, that other Rhode Island favorite, which you should absolutely order.
South Carolina: Rush’s
You’d think that after eighty years, a hyperlocal concern as beloved as this straightforward burger and chicken chain — sourcing meat from an equally popular local butcher shop — would have expanded far beyond its hometown, which in this case is the state capital of Columbia. But that hesitation to overextend is precisely makes Rush’s such a treat. Coming here for cheeseburgers and fried chicken dinners and pork barbecue sandwiches remains a distinctly Midlands experience. In fact, there are parts of South Carolina, not exactly a large state, where people have never even heard of Rush’s. Which is fine, because some of the tiny chain’s nine locations are notably rivaling national competitors on volume.
South Dakota: B&G Milkyway
In a part of the country where winter likes to take its time, you don’t hang around waiting for those traditional signs of spring; if you’re done with winter, you just have to make it happen. In and around Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s big city, spring unofficially begins when this prolific chain of seasonal dairy bars, which started out back in the 1950s, fires up its soft serve machines for the year, serving up malts, shakes, and cones. (Start with the specialty, the housemade, sweet-tart strawberry.) For years, you pretty much came here for ice cream and hot dogs, shipped in from Nathan’s in New York, but these days, old-times faves like sloppy Joes and barbecue beef sandwiches have become popular menu items.
Tennessee: Hattie B’s Hot Chicken
There are two things to know about this quintessentially modern Nashville chainlet, which first appeared on the scene just a decade ago. The first is that, after an explosion of hot chicken concepts around the country, nobody has come very close to unseating the hometown fast-casual favorite. The second thing to know is that despite arriving so incredibly late to the local hot chicken scene, many Nashvillians will tell you, if sometimes in hushed tones, that the best, most reliably dependable hot chicken in town comes from Hattie B’s, where you can tap your phone a few times and have a plate waiting for you, spiced from mild to wild.
Crinkle-cut fries and cooling coleslaw are simple but delicious accompaniments. Round out your meal with an order of banana pudding. There are now ten locations — with any luck, there will be a lot more, and soon.
Texas: Taco Palenque
Three dozen locations — stretching all the way from Monterrey, Mexico up to Austin and Houston — might sound like a lot in a normal state, but this is Texas, with its thousands of miles of freeway, very often lined with a dizzying array of fast and casual dining options that will be almost entirely unfamiliar to out of staters. So it’s completely okay if you’ve never heard of this border region favorite, headquartered in Laredo and famous for their piratas: flour tortillas cradling beans, cheddar cheese, and a generous amount of fajita-style steak that absolutely mop the floor with pretty much every other fast food, big chain taco you will ever eat, particularly after a trip to the outstanding salsa and condiment bar. Enchiladas suizas on the fly, delicious little potato and egg breakfast tacos, tres leches cake for dessert — you can have it all here, and you should. Well, everything except burgers. But it’s cool, because we hear Texas has a favorite place for those already.
Drive around the heavily-populated region stretching out from Salt Lake City down to Provo, and two things become immediately clear: Utahns love their fast food, but they also love to eat it local. From the classic Crown Burger chain — pastrami burgers with fry sauce! — to newer efforts like R&R Barbecue, or Mo Bettah’s, one of the best fast Hawaiian concepts in a very crowded field out West right now, or J. Dawgs, the coolest hot dog chain you’ve yet to hear about, you could eat on the fly out here for days on end and not have to resort to any of the national chains. It’s no surprise then, on this fertile ground, to find someone attempting to do Korean BBQ out of a drive-through window. While Jung Song and Dok Kwon’s food-truck-turned-local-sensation comes closer to a Korean Panda Express than a spectacular KBBQ joint in Los Angeles or New York, try one of the Shark Tank grad’s Korean-style fried chicken cups — served with rice, glass noodles, vegetables and doused in the sauce of your choice, from mild to extremely hot — and see if you’re still splitting hairs (ask for a side of kimchi, of course). With going-on-forty locations and Mark Cuban as an investor, Cupbop is thinking big, and we’re pretty pleased about that.
Vermont: Al’s French Frys
Since the 1940s, this South Burlington staple has been working harder and smarter than every other fast food outlet along busy Williston Road, serving the best fast order of French fries in the area, hand-cut and high-quality, so good that all you need is a sprinkling of vinegar, though their gravy is pretty spectacular as well, being just an hour or so from world poutine headquarters. Al’s excels at pretty much everything it does, from the New England classic flat-top dogs on griddled buns to a mighty decent hamburger for a couple of bucks.
From early spring until Halloween, the maple creemees (creemee being local speak for soft serve) are some of the finest, and as any Vermonter can tell you, there’s a ton of competition. You can’t miss the classic sign, sprouting forth from a lush, northern-climate garden in front of the neon-streaked diner.
Virginia: Bodo’s Bagels
Bob Dylan on heavy rotation, sprouts and tofu on the menu, college students staring at their phones — to a visitor from the New York region, inarguably the bagel capital of America and perhaps the world, Charlottesville’s favorite spot for a fast and cheap meal might not seem familiar at all, and that’s completely okay. Hang around awhile, and you might find yourself falling in love, like so many of the 50,000 local residents have, enough to support a number of locations in quite a small city. And even though this might be more of an essential gathering spot for the local community than just another place to buy sandwiches, Bodo’s wouldn’t be around decades after launch if they couldn’t turn out a decent bagel, and they do — fresh and hot, baked all day long. (Don’t even think of asking for yours toasted, because it’s not going to happen.)
Washington: Dick’s Drive-In
Dunking French fries into a frosty chocolate milkshake is a fast food rite of passage, and if you missed that chapter in the teenagers-in-the-mall-food-court handbook, the good news is, it’s never too late to try. Few places get you quite so close to the sensation of eating an indulgent, hot, and fresh chocolate glazed donut like the hand-cut, locally-grown, flavor-packed potato fries cooked in sunflower oil and served in paper pouches for $2.65 a pop at this affordable Puget Sound institution, which, thank goodness, has expanded its reach rather significantly, at a time when inflation has sent the cost of going out in an already expensive region sky high. Eight neon-lit locations now serve the Seattle area, from Edmonds down to Kent, and soon Federal Way gets their own Dick’s as well. As essential to late nights out in the region as In ‘N Out is in Southern California, the first Dick’s opened up in the mid-1950s. Their little burgers remain something of a steal, selling for as little as $2.20 each, depending on what you want on top, and you don’t need much — the beef itself actually tastes pretty great.
West Virginia: Tudor’s Biscuit World
To find some of the biggest, fluffiest fast-food biscuits, you don’t have to go too far south — mornings in the Mountain State, just follow the breakfast bunch to the closest drive-through of West Virginia’s favorite homegrown chain, dating back to the 1980s and serving up a menu of roughly 20 different breakfast sandwiches, from The Politician — stuffed with bologna!— to The Thundering Herd, a too-big-to-bite beauty stuffed with well-seasoned sausage, eggs, cheese, and hash-browns. (The monstrosity is named after that other regional institution, the Marshall football team.) Later in the day, think of Tudor’s as a faster, more local Cracker Barrel; loyal customers drop by for chicken fried steaks and pork chops with sides like green beans and mashed potatoes and gravy.
Wisconsin: Kopp’s Frozen Custard
Back when Shack Shack was just a seasonal stand in New York City’s Madison Square Park, founder Danny Meyer traded heavily on his childhood in St. Louis, often said to have inspired the project.
But when the wildly-successful concept began rolling out brick-and-mortar locations, anybody familiar with Milwaukee — rather inarguably the most frozen custard-loving big city in the country, sorry to St. Louis — could have sworn they were back at one of the classically sleek, jam-packed Kopp’s locations in Cream City, waiting for some of the realest burgers in town, if not the best frozen custard for miles (that honor goes to Leon’s, sorry). A must since the 1950s.
Wyoming: Taco John’s
From Thermopolis to Lander to Buffalo to Rock Springs, Wyoming knows that when hunger strikes in America’s least-populated state, they can nearly always count on the locally-preferred fast-food alternative that started out in the 1960s as one small stand in Cheyenne. To this day, all throughout the Mountain Time Zone, you’ll find drive-through hounds who’ve never experienced the bigger chains, or if they have, they keep returning to what they know, from breakfast burritos packed with Potato Olés — subtly-spiced hash brown rounds that are pretty much the signature menu item here — to taco salads stuffed into crunchy tortilla bowls, plus churros for dessert.