Regional fast food restaurants capture the culinary spirit of an entire subsection of the country. For example, Portillo’s in Chicago does a great job of representing hometown classics, like Italian beef, hot dogs, and the Maxwell St. Polish. The chain has gotten so popular, in fact, that it’s even gone public, so maybe someday you’ll see one in your neck of the woods.
But other fast food chains still stay in their primary lanes, like In-N-Out Burger, which hasn’t spread out much past the West coast. We talk about the fast food chains we’ve always wanted to visit, but haven’t been able to yet, and want to know your answers too.
I’m intrigued by all sorts of fast food chains localized in other parts of the country, unavailable in the Midwest. I haven’t been to nearly enough: I’ve never been to a Bojangles, a Skyline Chili, or a Whataburger, even though I’ve driven past plenty on road trips. But the one fast food chain I’m tempted to plan a whole road trip around is Cook Out.
Cook Out is a fast food chain with approximately 300 locations, primarily located in North Carolina, and its menu includes a shitload of stuff like burgers, hot dogs, quesadillas, and more. The name evokes a backyard barbecue, and here in Chicago, that’s something we can only enjoy a few months out of the year. There’s a barbecue plate and hushpuppies on the menu, both of which are a rarity in the Midwest—which is part of what makes it so alluring. The idea of char-grilled meats being made to order sounds so appealing that Cook Out has led me to dream about a place I’ve never visited (yet). —Dennis Lee
The Takeout is based in the lovely city of Chicago, where food options are plentiful, but not infinite. There’s some fast food out there that I’ve just never been able to get my hands on, and the one that has eluded me the longest is Jack in the Box. I’ve heard tell of classic burgers and even more about the tiny tacos on the menu. Curly fries and tacos? Not a combination I’ve ever thought of trying, but if Jack in the Box offers it then I’m open to it. I was further impressed when the chain announced it would be trying to get into the plant-based game as well.
The brand has been around a long time, and though I’m not a fan of the original clown-focused advertising or the current clown-focused advertising, I think it’s about time I try this food. The chain used to have Chicagoland locations, but these days, the nearest Jack in the Box is in Cincinnati, Ohio, or right on the border of Illinois heading into Missouri. Perhaps a road trip is the way to go. —Angela L. Pagán
I’m of the belief that fried chicken can cure any heartache. I’ve turned to my beloved Popeyes after breakups, professional disappointment, and BFF spats. Still, I’ve wanted to broaden my poultry horizons for a while now. Last year, I learned of Pollo Campero, a fast food chicken chain founded in Guatemala in 1971. Since then, the chain has taken the world by storm, popping up in countries including Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador, Mexico, Spain, the British Virgin Islands, and the U.S., just to name a few.
Today, Pollo Campero International is based in Dallas—but lifelong fans say the U.S. chicken formula isn’t quite the same. That’s why expats haul buckets of the Guatemalan formula back to the U.S. after visiting their country of origin. I could drive three miles to one of the chain’s few Chicagoland locations, but I’d rather hop on a plane to Guatemala and get a taste of the real stuff. —Lillian Stone
I love breakfast. I even love cooking breakfast and the ritual of brewing my own pot of coffee, but there’s something about waffles and eggs at home that just isn’t the same. Here in Chicago we have our IHOPs, our smattering of local chains and mom-and-pop breakfast joints, but there’s one place I still yearn for: Waffle House. How I crave a bite of the All-Star Special, dream about one day trying a Peanut Butter Chip Waffle, even thirst for a sip of coffee out of a Waffle House diner mug. The closest location is just about 200 miles away, not out of realm of possibility for a road trip. Maybe one day I’ll make the journey, but until then I’ll just keep dreaming about waffles. —Brianna Wellen