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The 12 Best Fast Food Joints in America

These are the 12 best fast food chains in America ranked for your next cross-country road trip.

Visions of golden-fried cheese curds, succulent smash burgers, and cheese-topped fries distracted me from the rolling scenery of America’s backroads. Of course, I could always stop for a “real meal” (sit-down) in a local restaurant, but what’s more American than the convenience of fast food?

I spent 1-year driving around the U.S. on a quest to eat (and experience) the true culture of America. This inevitably meant indulging in A LOT of fast food in between. So here I am to offer my ranking of America’s cult favorites. Not the McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s mega-corporations that you see worldwide, but the slightly smaller, breathlessly awaited chains that create lines snaking around city blocks each time a new location opens its doors.

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Culver’s is the most delicious fast food pit stop in America. There, I said it. If you don’t live in the Midwest, it’s likely you’ve never even heard of it. However, thankfully, the chain now serves mid-western-style beef and dairy products in 26 US states. Freshly churned custard milkshakes, the bun-busting butter burger, crispy fried cheddar cheese curds, and an array of homestyle battered chicken and cod fish fillets, it gives the outer appearance of fast-food but outperforms all others in taste. I had many milkshakes and cheese curds in restaurants all across Wisconsin, but honesty, the Culver’s items gave them all a run for their money.

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Shake Shack

Maybe I’m just a fan of frozen custard Milkshakes, but Shake Shack, created by celebrity restauranteur Danny Meyer, sets itself apart in the American fast food industry. This business started as a hot dog stand in New York’s Madison Square Park. Today, the “shack” can be had in more than half of the United States. The perfect meal? A coffee custard shake, a simple all-American Angus Beef hot dog with cheese dipping sauce, and a smash burger. Simple, delicious, and, dare I say, seems like actual food with “real” ingredients. The only downside to this beloved joint is the price tag, but good food is worth paying a little extra for.

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I may be a Seattle native, but I’m a Californian at heart. I’m also a devoted follower of the In-N-Out cult. Fast, affordable, fresh, and with a very limited menu (if you don’t know the secret menu off the top of your head, that is), In-N-Out is perhaps the most hotly-debated fast food chain on this list. If you want a *cheap* fast-food burger with fresh toppings, a classic Americana malted milkshake, and cheesy fries with just a dash of salt, this is the place for you. I can eat a Double-Double Burger animal-style with a heaping pile of fresh onions, cheese fries, and a chocolate malt shake and walk out of In-N-Out without feeling like my gut is totally busted. The food here just feels fresher than in other fast-food chains. Plan on eating while you drive? In-N-Out has a neat car-plating set-up for that. Honestly, the only reason I didn’t rank In-N-Out above Five Guys is the LONG lines and the inconsistency at some of its newer opened shops.

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There are a handful of things that set the Texas chain apart from the pack. Spicy ketchup, taquitos, honey-butter chicken biscuit, well-battered onion rings, The Green Chile Burger, and the oozing patty melt. These are the items that Whataburger enthusiasts stand behind. I, too, stand behind them. But honestly, this chain sits in the middle because while everything is good…it’s not a mind-blowing eating event. Another iconic aspect of Whataburger is the much larger 5-inch wide patty invented by the restaurant owner. By design, the burger is meant to wow with its sheer size and not necessarily in taste.

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Raising Canes

Where are my “Caniacs” at? Yes, that’s a real name that followers of the Raising Cane’s-cult affectionately call themselves. This Southern chicken chain is taking the U.S. by storm, as its new pop-ups sling out the best-battered chicken strips in America’s fast food industry. In most fast-food joints, the chicken strips are a menu staple (or what you order for your kids), but nothing to write home about. Raising Cane’s perfected the recipe to fresh-never-frozen chicken fingers and paired them alongside Texas Toast, Crinkle Cut Fries, and most importantly, their signature dipping sauces. Raising Cane’s is worth a stop to stock up on their tangy Cane’s Sauce alone.

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Five Guys

Minimalism. It’s what’s for dinner. For over 50 years, Five Guys has been churning out burgers and fries to the masses. While the burgers are tasty and completely customizable, which appeals to the general US customer base, it’s really the fries that shine. Hefty bags of Idaho potatoes are literally stacked for all to see in the hallways of their restaurants. Freshly cut daily into “boardwalk-style” slivers and fried up in peanut oil (nut-allergists beware) Five Guys also offers them “Cajun-style” for travelers who want a little spice in their life.

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Chick-Fil-A lands squarely in the middle. Undoubtedly, the food and hype here is out of this world. Lines for newly opened franchises are known to impede traffic. They have juicy deluxe chicken sandwich and tasty breaded nuggets, along with a long history of being in the middle of myriad cultural wars. This is the only fast-food chain in America to be closed on Sundays.

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Dave's Hot Chicken

If you like your chicken spicy, then the Reaper hot chicken at Dave’s is your perfect road trip snack! Dave’s Hot Chicken is an iconic brand that began when some celebs in Hollywood created a street side pop-up that drew a massive following (in person and on social media) and is currently the fastest-growing fast-food chain in America. Whether you choose their Instagram-famous chicken tender slider (topped with smoky cheese and very California kale slaw) or a couple of the extra large-sized chicken tenders, you better be pairing it with a cup of the creamy mac n cheese to cool off that heat.

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Kelly's Roast Beef

The inspiration for the more popular, but far less delicious, Arby’s. But don’t expect any mass-produced garbage here. Instead, you can satisfy your thinly-sliced roast beef craving, with their 25-day aged beef knuckle roast, cooked in-house to the perfect medium rare, sliced to order, and placed delicately on a bun with a rich BBQ sauce and melty white cheese. While not your typical fast-food joint with burgers or fried chicken, Kelly’s is deserving of a mention. Scattered throughout the East Coast but heavily concentrated in Massachusetts, Kelly’s is the go-to for a classic three-way-roast beef. The only reason it’s not ranking higher? Rarely are road-trippers on the hunt for a roast beef sammy.

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White Castle

Ever wondered where the modern American fast food joint was born? Here at White Castle, back in the early 1920s! This makes White Castle even more essential than McDonald’s when it comes to American fast food culture. I can assure you that the best part of White Castle isn’t the nostalgia; it’s the sliders. With 12 different bite-sized concoctions, including fish, chicken & waffles, faux meat options, and the best-selling classic 1921 slider, there’s a little something for every road-tripper.

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Dicks & Zips

Both of these establishments are only available in Washington State, but that doesn’t make them any less delicious and cult-worthy. After all, the West Coast is one of the most road-tripped stretches of highway in the USA.

Dick’s offers greasy, simple, and delicious beef burgers, salty fries, and thick old-school shakes served from walk-up windows. They pay employees well above minimum wage, show support for the LGBTQ+ community, and offer free scholarships to all their workers for college. While it’s typically a late-night craving, quick lunch, or a hangover cure, their positive impact on the community is much appreciated.

On the other hand, Zips has an eclectic menu all its own. Huge tubs of crinkle-cut fries, behemoth burgers with three sizzling meat patties and sliced ham, country-style chicken strips, and freshly fried and battered fish filets pad the monster-sized menu. My must-try menu item is the monthly shake special made with fresh ingredients rather than syrup or the hurricane (their tasty answer to the Dairy Queen Blizzard).

Both are Washington icons that must be added to your road trip refuel list.

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Jollibee lands on this list, admittedly not because it’s delicious, but because there is no other fast food chain quite like it in America. That’s probably because this whimsical bee-mascot establishment is a Philippines transplant. Crispy fried chicken, beef patty steaks with gravy, spicy tuna pies, and their trademark sweet-sauce-topped spaghetti meals satisfy a wide range of palates. Maybe this is why it’s fondly known as the “McDonald’s of the Philippines.” When executed correctly, the Filipino-fried chicken is better than KFC and doesn’t leave you feeling heavy and greasy. While it’s not the perfect meal on the go, it is worth pulling off and experiencing the oddly satisfying concoctions on offer at Jollibee.

pdxyyz7788 April 19, 2024

Not a fan of Five Guys they need to start using buns that. can hold up to their toppings. End up soggy and falling apart just being carried from the pickup counter to your table.

Mark1049 April 17, 2024

I like Shake Shack and In 'N' Out, but for my money, Culver's is the best fast food burger.

Mark1049 April 17, 2024

Dawg Park in Glenview, IL and South Barrington, IL have perhaps the most unique and delicious burgers and hot dogs I've ever tasted! The Ninja Dawg and Hot Garlic Burger are a MUST TRY...

Hollywoodtalks April 13, 2024

Carney's in Studio City and on Sunset Blvd in west LA. Freshly-made to order and a wide menu selection.

ericfox9423 April 12, 2024

Nothing, anywhere, beats an In n Out burger.  I get a double double with extra onion and an animal fry,  (Extra sauce!!) and the tab is still under 12 bucks.  (Nevada)