Our top 5 fast food items of 2021, so far (and none of them are chicken sandwiches)

Our top 5 fast food items of 2021, so far (and none of them are chicken sandwiches)

Logos for Starbucks, Buona Beef, TGI Fridays, Popeyes, and Chipotle
Photo: John Lamparski (Getty Images), Buona, Keith Mayhew/SOPA Images/LightRocket (Getty Images), Popeyes, Bruce Bennett (Getty Images)

It’s easy to look around at the fast food landscape in 2021 and assume that every major chain is currently preoccupied with trying to invent a bigger and better chicken sandwich. But lest you think the whole world is just one big poultry party right now, we wanted to shout out some of the other great fast food items we’ve tasted this year. A person can’t survive on chicken alone, after all, and this array of less celebrated offerings is well worth your time, money, and stomach space. Here are our favorite non-chicken-sandwich fast food items of 2021, so far.

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2 / 7

Popeyes Cajun Flounder Sandwich

Popeyes Cajun Flounder Sandwich

Hand holding Popeyes Cajun Flounder Sandwich against a floral background
The thinness of the patty seemed initially disappointing, but it gained ground with texture and flavor.
Photo: Lillian Stone

The flounder sandwich is basically the Popeyes chicken sandwich, but with fish. That means it’s got the soft, buttery brioche bun and some perfectly crunchy breading, and the whole thing leaves you very full and satisfied. The pickles are even accounted for here, though they don’t add much to the overall sandwich. A more generous smear of tartar sauce would have done more for the final product than the pickles. Still, it’s a great sandwich that proves Popeyes isn’t resting on its chickeny laurels. Read our full review of the Popeyes Cajun Flounder Sandwich here.

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3 / 7

Starbucks Pistachio Latte

Starbucks Pistachio Latte

Slice of Red Velvet Loaf set on pastry bag on tabletop beside Starbucks Venti Pistachio Latte
The accompanying Red Velvet Loaf was not great. But the Pistachio Latte was grand.
Photo: Allison Robicelli

As part of its winter 2021 menu, Starbucks added a Pistachio Latte to the lineup that was specifically “crafted to offer comfort this season,” per the marketing copy. And in that mission, it more than succeeds. Rich, roasty pistachio aromas and toasty brown butter topping greet you as soon as you tilt the cup to your lips, and the creamy flavors might evoke memories of a pistachio-studded Carvel Flying Saucer for anyone lucky enough to have eaten those as a kid. This is a well-timed Starbucks offering that gets people out of their latte routine to indulge in luxurious flavors. Read our full review of the Starbucks Pistachio Latte here.

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4 / 7

Chipotle Quesadilla

Chipotle Quesadilla

Cross-section of Chipotle Steak Quesadilla in a tray beside condiment compartments
Chipotle’s quesadillas come in steak, sofritas, chicken, barbacoa, carnitas, fajita veggies, or plain cheese.
Photo: Dennis Lee

Chipotle certainly took its sweet time coming up with a quesadilla, but once it did, it got it 100% right. In true Chipotle fashion, both the filling and the sides come in generous portions (yes, even the guacamole), and the way the tortilla is cooked results in a crunchy exterior that renders quesadilla floppiness a non-issue. Does this chain understand us or what? Even the tray this thing comes in seems like a well-thought-out piece of the puzzle. Read our full review of the Chipotle Hand-Crafted Quesadilla here.

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5 / 7

TGI Fridays Giant Churro Twists

TGI Fridays Giant Churro Twists

An aerial view of all TGI Fridays circus-themed foods, including donut burgers and whiskey-glazed sliders
You’ll notice the Giant Churro Twists in the top right.
Photo: Allison Robicelli

If this one seems out of left field, well, it took us by surprise too. In an effort to provide “a world of wonder, spectacle and Instagram-worthy moments,” TGI Fridays recently released its “Under The Big Top” menu full of circus-inspired appetizers and entrees. Most of the Big Top–themed offerings are too far over the top, such as a Whiskey-Glazed Donut Burger and a sandwich stuffed with mozzarella sticks, marinara, and extra cheese. But the Giant Churro Twists? Somehow, in a cacophonous menu lineup, the churros stand out as superb. They come with caramel and chocolate sauces for dipping, and they hold up well in transit, which is a major consideration in an era where delivery is on the rise. Read our full review of TGI Fridays’ Giant Churro Twists here.

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6 / 7

Buona’s Italian Beefless Sandwich

Buona’s Italian Beefless Sandwich

Overhead view of Buona's plant-based Italian Beefless, opened to show sandwich contents
Thinly shaved seitan is nearly a dead ringer for sliced beef in Buona’s new sandwich.
Photo: Marnie Shure

Chicago is known for its Italian beef sandwiches, so when Buona (a fast food beef joint with 27 Chicagoland locations) announced a new vegetarian/vegan equivalent made with seitan, a lot of people were skeptical. But this sandwich—aptly named the Italian Beefless—is full of pleasant surprises. The seitan itself is thinly shaved and seasoned to evoke the feeling of eating real beef, and a hearty portion of olive oil is added to the mixture to mimic the animal fats that would be present in the meat. The jus is made from vegetable broth and spices, and giardiniera is vegan already, so you could really think of the Beefless as the natural next step in the fast food industry’s plant-based sandwich journey. Or you could just think of it as delicious. Read our full review of Buona’s Italian Beefless here.

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7 / 7

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