10 Regional Fast Food Spots to Try on Your Next Road Trip (and One to Avoid)

Road trips and fast food are an obligatory coupling

This year, as you travel across America, the need to stop for a quick bite is inevitable–prepacked sandwiches and granola bars can only take you so far. So, when the time comes that you find yourself ready to give into your craving of greasy fries, cold soda, and 1,000-calorie entrées, be prepared by knowing what’s good around you. We can’t prevent the fast-food hungries from hitting mid-road trip, but what we can prevent is a repetition of the same, boring ol’ Quarter Pounder. As you explore new parks, sites, and local fare, take the opportunity to expand your culinary palate—and experience a new “secret sauce”–by diving into these regional fast-food favorites.

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WHERE: The Southeast

This Southern favorite serves up chicken tenders, sandwiches, wings, and everyone’s favorite Texas toast. The fries are crinkled and the Zax sauce is to die for (think Raising Cane’s–another regional joint with locations in 28 states–but better). With locations throughout the Southeast, the highest concentration being in Georgia, this casual chicken stop is a must-add for your trip down South.

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PHOTO: Painting with Light Photography
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Penn Station

WHERE: The Midwest

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a Subway footlong, there are arguably better options when the sub-craving hits. Penn Station, a fast-casual sandwich shop that started in Ohio, prides itself on its East Coast subs. From Philly cheesesteaks to the chicken teriyaki sub, there’s really no going wrong here. And while the hot sandwiches are sure to satisfy just about any eater, it might be the fresh-cut french fries that make this sub shop a necessary pit-stop.

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WHERE: Southern United States (From Arizona to Florida)

When in Texas, a stop to the regional favorite Whataburger is a must. This fast-food chain doesn’t just serve up perfectly greasy burgers, but the honey butter chicken biscuit, a Texas breakfast favorite. No matter what time of day you find yourself in the Lone Star state craving a little more than your bag of snacks can offer, Whataburger has you covered.

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Del Taco

WHERE: West Coast

While Del Taco might have locations in ten states, this Taco Bell alternative is incredibly popular on the West Coast. A wallet-friendly pit-stop, this taco chain serves everything from your traditional chain tacos to fried chicken tacos to Beyond Meat tacos. For the vegans and vegetarians looking to get away from eating only Impossible Whoppers, this West Coast staple might just become your new favorite (or at least for the duration of your road trip).

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PHOTO: Davidny/WikimediaCommons
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Tudor's Biscuit World

WHERE: West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Florida

If you’re craving southern comfort while on the road, look no further than this biscuit chain, which can be found throughout West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Florida. Let’s be honest, we’re all a little tired of fast food pancakes that are near impossible to eat on the road—a driving meal should not include a knife and fork. Luckily, this comfort food staple serves up hot biscuit sandwiches for those wanting a little bit of home on the road.

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WHERE: California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and Oregon

We’d be remiss to not include this iconic California burger joint. Though it’s likely you’ve heard of this chain–either because of their L.A.-cool reputation or because of their not-so-secret secret menu—if you haven’t tried one of their famous cheeseburgers, you’re missing out. This is a place where the stardom is well deserved. Maybe it’s the secret sauce, maybe it’s the prices, or perhaps it’s the sheer excitement of finally getting your hands on this classic. Either way, you’re sure to enjoy.

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White Castle

WHERE: The Midwest

We all know Harold and Kumar went to White Castle, but have you been? If you find yourself in the Midwest, it might just be worth trying. The burgers are far from what we’re used to from other fast food establishments: they’re small, they’re square, and they’re simple, with just grilled onions and pickles. While it might not be the best place you’ll ever grab a burger, their patties are unique and, believe it or not, a part of fast-food history, being the first known fast-food chain, opened in 1921 in Witchita, Kansas.

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Skyline Chili

WHERE: Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Florida

When it comes to the great debate of whether or not chili should have noodles, this Ohio staple falls hard on the side of spaghetti. And while many of us might not be familiar with the concept of fast-food chili, those in the Buckeye state swear by it. At Skyline you can get spaghetti with chili (or as they simply call it, chili), hot dogs with chili, fries with chili, and just about anything else you can imagine smothering with the fall-favorite. Leave your preconceived notions of chili behind as you travel, and eat your way through Ohio.

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WHERE: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, and Washington, D.C.

This isn’t what you might typically think of when someone says fast food, but it’s an East Coast classic. Part convenience store, part gas station, part shockingly good restaurant, Wawa serves up coffees and hoagies, and East Coasters go crazy for it. It’s a quick in and out that’s sure to leave you full and ready to take on the rest of your drive.

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WHERE: The Southeast and East Coast

Bojangles started as a small, Southern, chicken and biscuits restaurant in North Carolina and slowly began to spread, with locations now throughout the East Coast, as well as Tennessee and Kentucky (so there’s a good chance you might stumble upon one on your trip). This Cajun-seasoned chicken is popular for a reason: it’s good! Serving breakfast all day as well as classics, like their Cajun chicken biscuit sandwiches, and a few oddballs, like the inclusion of pimento cheese (a Southern favorite), this stop will add a little Southern comfort to your trip.

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PHOTO: Runza Restaurants/Shutterstock
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And One Regional Chain You Should Avoid: Runzas

WHERE: Nebraska

I fell into the Runza trap. Being at every exit in Nebraska you start to think, “OK, I mean, the people here must love it. Maybe I should try it?” For starters, I’m not convinced the people do love it. This bread-pocket (closely resembling a Hot Pocket), filled with beef, cabbage or sauerkraut, onions, and seasonings is the primary dish at this chain. The Runzas I visited was empty at prime hours (but the Wendy’s across the street wasn’t) and was horrible. I hate to be the one to bring it to your attention (and to shame the good people of Nebraska), but this one has stayed regional for a reason.

Update: An earlier version of this article inadvertently stated that Wawa was located in New England. 

kaburlew September 1, 2020

As a Nebraskan, I'm angered by this article. What type of travel writer dogs a weird local food like this?! Runza is DELICIOUS. It is also WEIRD. It was brought over by German immigrants long ago, and we like it so much, we turned it into a fast-food chain! Runzas are actually a combination of Russian and German cuisine. The filling is ground beef, onion, and cabbage. It's a type of hand-pie, not a stinking hot-pocket. What an insult! Runza are the sandwich of Nebraska Husker games, and most Nebraskans get it to go vs dine in. It's crinkle cut fries are awesome, and in winter, they serve another local oddity - chili and cinnamon rolls.

Runza should be treated as adventure food, not as a typical fast food joint. You don't have to like it!

artsybrea September 1, 2020

I stopped at a Runza when I was driving through Nebraska and mine was very good. Maybe you just stopped at a bad location.

ccole1 September 1, 2020

Fun article for these road trip times we are in! However, no regional fast food list is complete without mention of either Raising Cane's or PDQ....both are FRESH chicken tender-focused chains and both blow Zaxby's out of the water

callingoutbs August 31, 2020

Perhaps Fodors should get a writer who actually has been to the places she writes about. Nice try Ms Dodge but Wawa is most certainly NOT a New England staple. 

Viking_Tacos August 31, 2020

Wawa is not a New England fixture... it is based in Delaware County, Pennsylvania and is largely a eastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey chain